A caravan of 24 heavily loaded camels left Fort Davis on July 11, 1859 for a make-it-or-break-it field test in the Big Bend.
The U.S. Army noticed as early as the 1830’s that the climates of the camel’s native habitat in northern Africa and western Asia and the deserts of the Great Southwest were nearly identical. The animal seemed ideally suited for long-distance treks across the vast North American no-man’s-land, where temperatures reached 120 degrees and water as well as vegetation were extremely hard to come by.
While still a congressman, Jefferson Davis became a strong advocate of the camel. When the Mississippian was appointed secretary of war by President Franklin Pierce, the future leader of the Confederacy teamed up with Sen. James Shields of Illinois to make his dromedary dream come true. The passage of the Shields Amendment in March 1855 authorized and funded what soon was known as the “Great Camel Experiment.”
The initial shipment of 34 camels landed at the Texas port of Indianola on May 14, 1856. The arrival of the four-legged cargo and their strangely dressed handlers, two Turks and three Arabs, brought the busy harbor to a standstill. As Major Henry C. Wayne, the officer in charge, bragged in his report to Secretary Davis, “The whole town turned out to watch the spectacle of the unloading.”
Eying the parade of awkward animals, skeptical spectators ridiculed the venture as the latest case of bats in the congressional belfry. How could anyone in his right mind believe that such ungainly, thin-legged creatures could possibly replace the reliable horse, oxen or mule?
A born showman, Major Wayne seized the first opportunity to counter the crowd’s loud catcalls. One of the camels was coaxed into the customary kneeling position and saddled with an enormous 1,200-pound load. As observers scoffed at the officer’s crazy stunt, the animal rose effortlessly to its feet and ambled away.
Despite its admittedly superior strength, the camel did not possess the more endearing qualities of that frontier favorite, the horse. With a tiny brain that weighed less than a pound, it was profoundly stupid. Also, the camel was sullen and foul-tempered, caring little for its own kind and even less for those humans who had the misfortune to cross its path.
Throughout western Texas, the unwelcome visitors were considered a menace to life and property. Horses went wild at the sight of the unfamiliar beasts, compelling frightened citizens to sound the alarm.
“The camels are coming!” was the common cry which warned of the imminent danger. Given the alert, people instantly stopped what they were doing and quickly cleared the street.
There was, however, no denying that the camel was well-adapted to the hot, bone-dry wasteland of West Texas. An 1859 expedition into the rugged Big Bend country proved that point.
Toting loads of 300 to 500 pounds, the two dozen camels took in stride the toughest terrain the Lone Star State had to offer. They ate sparingly, far less than horses or mules, covered up to 34 miles a day and went as long as five days without a single drop of water.
At the end of the test drive, the camels showed no ill effects whatsoever.
While traipsing through the Big Bend, a popular myth was dramatically dispelled. So-called experts had assured the army that the camel’s maximum water capacity was 25 pints. At a rare watering hole where the animals were allowed to drink their fill, soldiers watched in amazement as each gulped down at least 20 gallons.
The critical field test was a resounding success, and military planners went to work converting their transportation system in the West to camel power. But less than two years later, the ambitious undertaking was interrupted by the Civil War.
Before the conflict, the camels numbered around a hundred. After hostilities commenced, some were sold, others mysteriously disappeared into private hands and the rest escaped into the wild. Confederate troops occasionally used camels in cross-country pack trains, but at war’s end only a handful remained in Texas.
Following the southern surrender, the age of the railroad resulted in the permanent cancellation of the Great Camel Experiment. Not even the bizarre humped creatures with their extraordinary strength and stamina could compete with the iron horse.
As the years went by, entertaining tales of camel herds roaming the Southwest surfaced with amusing frequency but little basis in fact. Those former army conscripts that high-tailed it for freedom undoubtedly fell victim to predators, especially the two-footed type armed with Winchesters.
By the turn of the century, camel sightings were the product of active imaginations that spun tall tales around the campfire.