Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Camels of the American West

When you think of the American West in the 1800’s, the animals that usually come to mind are horses, bison, and donkeys, right? Well, for a short time in the 19th century, you could add camels to that list as well.

Dromedary camel. Photo: Jron
Known throughout the world for their capabilities in dry and harsh conditions, camels appeared to be an ideal choice for U.S. Army troops stationed in the desert southwest to use as pack animals. The idea gained ground in the 1850s when it was given support by U.S. senators’ Jefferson Davis and George Perkins Marsh, who convinced congress to appropriate $30,000 to purchase a herd of 50, along with native drivers.

The first camel shipment arrived in Texas in 1856, and the animals proved their worth to the Army almost immediately, moving across terrain impossible for horses to traverse while requiring very little water. An additional 41 camels arrived early the next year, and the animals set to work surveying and hauling loads throughout the southwest. Politicians attempted to lobby congress to purchase an additional 1000 camels, but with the Civil War looming the idea was quickly abandoned.

Ex-Army camel in Canada, 1860's
After the “Camel Corps” idea was scrapped, most of the remaining animals were either sold off to private owners, or simply set free by soldiers ordered to return east for the war effort. Some owners attempted to use their camels for freight hauling and packing businesses, but were largely unsuccessful, leading to a small feral camel population in the western U.S. and Canada. The last feral Army camels were spotted in the early 1930’s in California and British Columbia. And although none have been seen since, it is rumored that descendants of those original Army camels still roam the southwest today.

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