Camels in the West

“On March 3, 1855, Congress appropriated $30,000, which was placed at the disposal of the Secretary of War for the purpose of introducing camels into the United States for the use of the army in transportation. Jefferson Davis took the keenest interest in the experiment, directing it personally. He ordered Major Henry C. Wayne of the army to proceed to the Levant and purchase a shipload of camels. On February 11, 1856, Major Wayne wrote from Smyrna that he had purchased the camels, which were then on board the Supply, in command of Lieutenant D. D. Porter of the navy. The camels were landed at Indianola, Texas, and sent inland by way of Victoria and San Antonio to a camp known as Camp Verde, near the Bandera Pass. On February 10, 1857, another shipload arrived, bringing the number of camels to about seventy-five.

When Jefferson Davis left the War Department in 1857 the experiment passed into the hands of men who were less interested in it than he. The camels were used in short expeditions in western Texas, and they made at least one trip to California, where some of them remained. Though they were praised for their ability to travel over the dry, rough country of the Southwest, to go without water, and to carry heavy burdens, the experiment ended in failure and the final disappearance of the animals. Jefferson Davis justified the experiment at national expense by stating that he had introduced the camels for use in the army anywhere and everywhere; but the fact remains that they were used only in the Great Plains region. Had the experiment succeeded, it would have been of most benefit to the South: it would have tied the Far West to the South until the railroads were completed. The bringing of the camels to the United States appears to later generations as a bit of national humor. But when we bear in mind the opinion then held by practically every informed person regarding the conditions in the Great Plains, the experiment becomes intelligible and reasonable, an effort to solve temporarily the problem of transportation across the Great American Desert.”