"And be it further
enacted, that the sum of $50,000 be, and the same is hereby appropriated
under the direction of the War Department in the purchase and
importation of camels and dromedaries to be employed for military
Passed by the 33rd
Congress and signed by the President, March 3, 1855.
If camels can work in
the deserts of Africa, why can they not do as well in the American
West? That was the question, more or less paraphrased, posed
during the Seminole Indian War of Florida by Army Major George
H. Grossman and presented ultimately to Secretary of War Jefferson
From that thought came about one of the strange tales of the
Western Army, the Camel Experiment that seemed to have everything
in its favor, yet went nowhere. When these humped-back creatures
arrived in Texas. the reaction was akin to the arrival of the
first gas buggy many years later. Horses bolted, Indians disappeared
into the brush, and strong men rushed to the nearest bar for
a liquid bracer.
Tales are told that the camel business failed because the soft
pads on their feet could not take the rough rocks and foliage
of the American West. Not so. They could march cross-country
with the best the Army had to offer, and leave them behind. They
could go days without water and tote
a load that would have foundered a mule. Their swaying gait presented
a smoother platform than a horse's from which to fire a rifle.
And in every impartial test patrol they made, they passed with
flying colors, and usually, a few riders.
Camels served in California,
mostly at Fort Tejon.
But it all came to naught, Jefferson Davis was the man behind
the scheme and in post-Civil War America anything with his tag
was hopeless. The camels were sold (mostly at Drum Barracks or the Benicia
Arsenal) or permitted
to "escape." Some wound up in circuses, some in ill-fated
private transportation schemes.
To find out more about
the U.S. Camel Corps, we suggest the following websites:
This page was
reprinted with permission from Old Forts of the Southwest,
published in 1965
Fort Tejon "Camel Corps"
George Stammerjohn, State
Historian II, California Department of Parks and Recreation
At Fort Tejon, camels
were NOT an essential element of the Fort's history. Camels were
at the Fort for only 5-1/2 months, from Nov. 17, 1859 to mid
April 1860. The camels were never used by the soldiers at Fort
Tejon. They were government property and were kept here only
a short time during the winter of 1859/60 before being moved
to the Los Angeles Quartermaster Depot on their way to Benicia
where they were auctioned off at a loss to the Government in
Fort Tejon was never any
"Terminus" for the camels. There was never a "U.S.
Camel Corps" as has been stated by so many authors; it was
just an experiment. E.F. Beale was a civilian under contract
to survey a road from New Mexico to California by the U.S. Government.
He was never in command of Fort Tejon, the camels or any soldiers.
The camels have been one
of the greatest myths and legends of Fort Tejon's past. The story
is great and many writers have latched on to it. It is great
stuff for western lore, but most stories about this interesting
experiment have little grounding in fact. Unfortunately, many
writers are perpetuating these myths and rely on the early authors
that wrote in the 1920s to 1960s who based their research and
assertions on non-historical methods.
Experiment in California
The victories and settlements
of the Mexican-American War increased the expanse of the territorial
United States. To control and protect this new territory and
the new citizens encompassed within its boundaries or rapidly
moving into the new territories, the government deployed the
vast majority of the U.S. Army. Quickly, Congress and the War
Department became appalled at the unexpected new cost of simply
supplying the outposts scattered over the new region. The transportation
cost of the Quartermaster Department alone was more than the
entire pre-war budget for the whole of the United States Army.
Distances were great,
and often now through arid or semi-arid country. The Army posts,
once conveniently established along waterways and supplied cheaply
by contract steamboats, were now hundreds of miles from water.
This meant expensive civilian contracts with drayage companies
or even more expensive government owned wagon trains managed,
operated and maintained by large numbers of employed civilians,
paid at the prevailing wage - which out west was several times
higher than eastern wages. The expenses seemed never to stop.
Army wagon trains, using mules or oxen, needed regularly spaced
repair, water and feed depots. Water and feed points were necessary
at least a days journey apart and had to be resupplied either
by Army contract or supply trains. If local farmers could not
deliver forage, hay and grain, to given points, then the Army
had to buy it at one point and stock the feeding points or it
had to carry feed for the animals which were pulling the freight
Wagons. This often meant a ratio of two forage wagons to every
freight wagon. If a train was outbound for a destination which
could not supply livestock feed for the return journey and grazing
along the route was minimal, then empty wagons (actually partially
loaded wagons for the animals pulling them had to be fed) would
start back for a depot point, to load up with forage to meet
the homeward bound wagon column. If timely contact was not effected,
costly government mules (or oxen) would die. And the feared auditors
in Washington, D.C. would want to know why.
Despite the motion picture
image of the western Army on the frontier, the biggest problems
were not "wild Indians" or "renegade Mexican bandits".
They were transportation, forage, live drayage animals and a
constant demand for economy.
Spurred by a hope for
improved and economical transport across the more arid sections
of the west, the U.S. Government dusted off an old plan to experiment
with camels as freight animals. Some 75 Mediterranean camels
were imported in the mid-1850s and delivered to an Army quartermaster
at CampVerde, Texas.
Fanciful legend has overshadowed
the real story of the camel experiment. There never was a "Camel
Corps"; Edward F. Beale was never appointed to command a
camel corps, and Fort Tejon, California, was never the headquarters
of the non-existent "camel corps." There is myth and
reality about the Army's camels, and the truth is a more interesting
story than the fiction which surrounds the story. Over developed
romantic fiction has the Army using the camels to haul freight,
regularly to carry the mail, and for active patrols against bandits
and hostile Indians. In reality, very little of this actually
happened or was true.
On trips east across the
Great American Desert, Gwin Harris Heap, a proselytizing convert
to the idea of camels as a cheap transportation methodology for
the American west, foisted upon Edward F. Beale the recently
published book by the Abbe Huc, Travels in Tartary, Tibet and
China, During the Years 1844, 1845 and 1846. While Beale later
claimed be was immediately captivated by the journal, at the
time the opposite was true. It seemed to have made no impression
upon him. In fact, Beale may have considered Heap somewhat a
pushy zealot of a relative, for they later parted ways under
less than happy circumstances.
Gwin Heap became the proponent
of camel transportation and ultimately the buyer of camels when
the U.S. Navy was ordered to acquire camels from Turkey and Egypt
and bring them to Texas. Nowhere in government correspondence
of the time is to be found any advocacy for the use of camels
originating with Edward F. Beale.In fact, when Beale won the
contract for a re-survey and road development along the 35th
Parallel, Secretary of War John B. Floyd ordered Beale to take
25 camels to California (and return with them) as part of the
expedition. Beale exploded in anger and in ink to the Secretary.
He protested mightily and insisted that Floyd was wrong to order
him to use the camels. Secretary Floyd stood firm: he wanted
to see what these expensive forage burners, lounging about Camp
Verde outside of San Antonio could do. Reluctantly Beale, who
had no choice, traveled to Camp Verde, Texas, and picked up the
The majority of the foreign
laborers hired by the U.S. Navy to work with the camels were
Greek urbanites from the streets of Constantinople (modern day
Istanbul) who had no experience in the employment of camels.
They had seen a free ride to the United States, where it was
rumored the streets were paved with gold and it was a true land
of flowing milk and honey. The two Turks who were hired by the
Navy, and actually knew how to handle camels were soon disillusioned
by the flat Texas prairies. They wanted to go home. The Navy
contract specified that all foreigners associated with the camels
coming to Texas were to work six months and then, if they wished,
be discharged, given a bonus, and transported home for free by
the Navy. The two Turks went home. This meant that the Greeks
available to Beale were absolute novices in handling the camels.
soon discovered this flaw, to his anger as his correspondence
to the Secretary of War points out The Greeks seemed untrainable
and totally incompetent, but in time several mastered their new
chore and went on to a long historic, association with the camels
which came west. The others departed the scene upon arriving
in California, leaving a confusing trail for the historian to
follow. Three of the men had names similar to George (Georgics,
Georgious and Georges) and only one emerged out of the confusion
as "Greek George": Georges Caralambo.
Two of the other Greeks
also had similar names: Hadji Alli and Hadagoi Alli. While Hadji
Alli became historically known as "Hi Jolly", the other
Alli disappeared after leaving behind a total confusion caused
by the numerous ways his name could be spelled. All five floated
through the story of the camels until about December 1859, when
government records clarified only two were still in view: "Greek
George" and "Hi Jolly".
Despite his initial outrage,
Beale did develop an appreciation of the camels' ability, docility
and temperament. He gained trust in the animals' patience; camels
would not stampede, while mules scattered to the four winds.
The camels did have to be watched. While they would not run in
fright, they would amble about for miles to feed. By the time
Beale's expedition reached California, Beale was a believer in
the camels' worth.
This did not mean, however,
that Beale was totally honest in his report to the government
over the camels' usefulness. He failed to report that be had
lost three camels, the expense of which would have been deducted
from the contract's final financial settlement. And he failed
to report that the Mojave Desert's rocky soil nearly crippled
the animals' soft hooves. They were bred for work in the softer,
sand-gravel deserts of the eastern Mediterranean.
Beale also ignored orders
to bring the camels back to New Mexico. Using the lame excuse
that the camels would be invaluable if the troops in California
were to become involved in the "Mormon War", then seeming
to be a reality on the Pacific Coast, Beale left the camels with
his business partner, Samuel A. Bishop, and hurried home in early
This homeward journey
created another myth, whereby in later years Beale adopted a
heroic leadership which does not match the historic correspondence
of the time. Once again Beale had outlived the other participants
and this allowed him to tell his version of the story without
eyewitness contradictions. So "the story" became "history".
As Beale remembered it,
he departed Los Angeles in early January 1858, with a group of
dragoons to protect "him" to the Colorado River. When
he reached the river, "he" stopped a river steamer
and ordered it to ferry him and his men across the river. "He"
had brought along ten camels to carry forage for his mules and
then "he" sent the camels back to Fort Tejon in case
of war in Utah. It is a great heroic tale and you can find it
in all the biographies on Beale, but it only happened that way
in Beale's imagination, 28 years later.
While Beale was moving
west in the early fall of 1857, the U. S. government was moving
troops westward against the Mormon colony in Utah. In California,
the Mojave and Salt Lake Road connected Los Angeles, San Bernardino
and Salt Lake City. The majority of citizens in, southern California
harbored strong anti-Mormon attitudes. While pending "war
news" filtered into California along the Salt Lake Road,
a fantastic set of rumors emerged that the Mormons departing
California were smuggling tons of firearms toward the Utah colony.
The newspapers reflected these rumors by playing them to the
hilt, often with wild embellishments. Added to the gunrunning
rumors were others, particularly that Mormon special agents were
organizing the desert Indians to attack "Gentile" parties
crossing the Mojave Desert into southern Utah (now southern Nevada).
While the Army in San
Francisco did not put much faith in these rumors, it decided
to launch an investigation. Major George A. H. Blake, then senior
1st U. S. Dragoon officer in California, was ordered to take
a large patrol out along the Mojave Road and to examine these
rumors. His orders also included closing the 1st Dragoon headquarters
which had been at Mission San Diego since August of 1857, and
relocating them at Fort Tejon at the end of the expedition. The
Department headquarters also informed Blake that on the way he
should meet Beale, who was returning east, at Cajon Pass and
escort him as far as the Colorado River. Blake received his orders
in mid-December of 1857 and immediately wrote an order to 2nd
Lieut. John T. Mercer, commanding Company F at Fort Tejon, to
join him at Cajon Pass.
Major Blake's orders reached
Los Angeles in the midst of a driving rainstorm, a freak break
in weather during the two year old drought torturing southern
California. First Lieut. William T. Magruder, the commanding
officer at Fort Tejon, was doing Army business in Los Angeles
when the correspondence from San Diego arrived. Despite the miserable
weather, he attempted to return to Fort Tejon. It took him four
muddy days and a broken wagon to get across the San Fernando
Valley. Then, once in the mountains, he was caught in a wind-whipped
blizzard and nearly lost his way in a world of blowing snow.
On January 2, 1858 he finally managed to reach Fort Tejon, buried
in snow, where he informed Lieut. Mercer of the task before him.
Meanwhile, Beale was in
Los Angeles, organizing his return trip. He had brought ten camels
to the pueblo to haul forage for his mules, leaving the other
twelve at Bishop 's Ranch - not at Fort Tejon. At Mission San
Diego, Major Blake immediately organized his part of the expedition
and, despite the weather, moved out with Dragoon headquarters
staff, band and part of the escort detachment of Company F troopers
left behind when the company had relocated to Fort Tejon in late
August. To guard company and regimental property at the old Mission,
Blake left a small detachment of many F troopers. He hurried
on his way, assuming that Mercer would also be on the move. Blake
was an impatient, headstrong martinet, who listened only to his
own opinion. He reached Cajon Pass on New Year's Eve 1858, and
gloweringly looked northward for Mercer's approaching column.
As Blake stood on the eastern flank of Cajon Pass, Mercer had
not even heard yet that he was ordered to join Blake.
Lieut. Mercer took his
time obeying the orders from Blake. The weather was impossible.
It snowed and snowed and the snow, driven by terrible winds,
piled up ten foot drifts along the route to Antelope Valley and
Los Angeles. Finally, four days into the new year, Mercer moved
his men out. He did not taDuring 1858, Bishop continued to use
the camels privately. He hauled freight to his own ranch and
to the developing town of Fort Tejon, located three-fourths of
a mile south of the Army post. He did not haul Army freight,
for Phineas Banning of New San Pedro had won the quartermaster
contract once again. Banning held the contract until the Los
Angeles Depot was finished in mid-1859 and then the Army hauled
its own freight, often with Banning contracted to make up the
shortages in mules and wagons.ajon Pass. He joined a very angry
major Blake on January 10, 1858.
Edward F. Beale was also
detained by the weather and by the afternoon of January 10, had
not reached Blake 's camp at Cajon Pass. The next morning, Blake
took up the march over the Mojave Road for the Colorado River.
Beale was at least thirty hours behind Blake and never caught
up. When Blake reached the river he hailed an exploring river
steamer and requested it to wait. Beale finally arrived, ferried
his men and mules over the Colorado and sent the camels back
with Samuel Bishop to Bishop's ranch in the lower San Joaquin
Valley. Blake, moving fast, led the way back and took his own
command on to Fort Tejon.
During 1858, Bishop continued
to use the camels privately. He hauled freight to his own ranch
and to the developing town of Fort Tejon, located three-fourths
of a mile south of the Army post. He did not haul Army freight,
for Phineas Banning of New San Pedro had won the quartermaster
contract once again. Banning held the contract until the Los
Angeles Depot was finished in mid-1859 and then the Army hauled
its own freight, often with Banning contracted to make up the
shortages in mules and wagons.
The few immigrants to
use the poorly developed 35th Parallel wagon road were harassed
by Mojave Indians at the Colorado Crossing (Beale's Crossing).
None of the immigrants were able to cross and they turned back.
To protect the new route, the government ordered a fort to be
established near the northern crossing of the Colorado River.
Major William Hoffman,
6th U.S. Infantry, led a reconnaissance in January 1859. He was
escorted by dragoons of Companies K and B from Fort Tejon. There
was trouble with Mojaves at the river; the dragoons killed perhaps
a dozen and Hoffman recommended to San Francisco a full scale
campaign from Fort Yuma against the Mojave Indians. Hoffman requested
a depot be placed at Los Angeles to haul supplies for his expedition
across the desert; the War Department approved and ordered Captain
W. S. Hancock to Los Angeles. Knowing it would take Hancock time
to organize his wagon trains, Major Hoffman requested that the
Army take charge of the camels and use them to haul supplies
an the desert. The Secretary of War refused Hoffman's request,
stating that the camel experiment was in the hands of civilians
in California and would remain so. Hoffman's expedition went
forth without the camels.
In the meantime, Beale
had been ordered by the government to improve the 35th Parallel
wagon road and to do it right this time. Immigrants had complained
about the road, saying it was not in reality what Beale's propaganda
said it was. For this second expedition, Beale was assigned 25
more camels, which worked well along the route. These 25 camels
did not cross into California. At the same time, Bishop was using
the original camels to haul freight for Beale's work crews, and
Bishop had several large
skirmishes with the Mojave, who were willing to attack civilians
but not the soldiers. Possibly the skirmish with the dragoons
had taught the Mojave a mild lesson, or it could be they were
surprised by the numbers of soldiers along the river. The civilians
were fewer in number. Hoffman, having fought no Mojave, concluded
peace, established his fort (to become Fort Mojave) and withdrew,
leaving many warlike Mojaves still out in the desert, eager to
kill a white man.
East of the river, Bishop's
men encountered a large force of Mojaves who showed all signs
of wanting an open battle. Bishop mounted his civilian packers
and laborers onto the camels of this party and charged. They
routed the Mojaves. It was the only camel charge staged in the
west and the Army had nothing to do with it. Then Bishop moved
on eastward to find Beale.
On their march home to
San Bernardino, Hoffman's troops ran out of food and allegedly
broke into one of Bishop's buried desert food caches. Three thousand
pounds of food was stolen. Beale was outraged, demanded compensation
and opened a major breach between himself and the Army. This
breach widened and, beginning in the late summer of 1859, the
Quartermaster Department began to demand that the camels under
Bishop's control be turned over to the Army at Fort Tejon. Finally,
on November 17, 1859, Bishop delivered all of the camels but
four to 1st Lieutenant Henry B. Davidson of the 1st Dragoons,
regimental and post at Fort Tejon. Davidson hired two civilians
to herd and care for the animals: Hi Jolly and Greek George.
Three of the four missing camels were found near San Bernardino
and finally, after Christmas of 1859, the fourth was found at
Whiskey Flats in the Kern River gold country.
On November 17, 1859,
the Army at Fort Tejon took charge of the camels from Bishop.
The post quickly discovered that most of the camels were in poor
physical shape, with sore backs, and that it was very expensive
to feed 28 camels on hay and barley. In early March 1860, they
were moved to a rented grazing area 12 miles from the post, under
the care of the two herders, Hi Jolly and Greek George.
One of the government
projects for the western experiment of the camels was to see
if they would breed and procreate in the far western territory.
The camels, with males and females intermixed, proved to the
Army that they could procreate, and produce young, strong, healthy
camels. The herd continued to grow, if slowly. There is a great
deal of nonsense written about the brutality of Army camel herders
to their charges. Camels were reputedly shot dead, bludgeoned
to death, or stabbed to death by their herders or packers. The
Army took a dim view of herders or packers destroying government
property. Camels were expensive, and if a herder, camel packer,
or soldier had killed a camel, he would have paid for it by deductions
from his salary. An examination of the salaries of herders, packers,
and soldiers in government employment records revealed no such
incident. The death of each camel (those few that died before
1864, when they were sold) is documented in government quartermaster
records in the National Archives. However, Beale managed to lose
a total of 13 camels and also managed to escape from paying for
the animals. In 1861, the Army at Fort Smith, Arkansas, was still
trying to get back 10 of the camels sent with Beale on the second
There is also a great
deal of undocumented story-telling on how Army camels frightened
and routed herds of government horses, overturning wagons or
dumping troopers on the hard ground. Attempts to confirm these
stories have not proven fruitful. Rather, Army reports indicated
how regularly the animals blended together in the same corrals
or fields, and tolerated each other with natural ease. When the
camels were introduced to the government mule corrals at the
Fort Tejon Depot in November 1859, the quartermaster reported
no panic, no tumult; in fact, he was surprised at how easily
the animals adapted to one another. The camels, showing effects
from hard labor, primarily wanted to eat, and they consumed expensive
oats, barley and hay at alarming rates.
Brevet Major James H.
Carleton of Company K, 1st Dragoons, refused to use the camels
for his Mojave River expedition in the spring of 1860. The camels,
having only joined the Army in November 1859 and moved to a grazing
camp in March 1860, had not yet recovered from the hard usage
of Samuel Bishop, who had worked them to haul supplies to Beale's
road expedition, his ranch, and to merchants in the civilian
town of Fort Tejon from New San Pedro and Los Angeles. The camels
remained at the grazing camp 12 miles east of the fort under
the care of two civilian herders, and a small detachment of soldiers
to protect the herders, until September 1860.
The first official test
for camels by the Army in California was conducted by Captain
Winfield S. Hancock, Assistant Quartermaster in Los Angeles,
in an attempt to cut the expense of messenger service between
Los Angeles and the recently established Fort Mojave on the Colorado
River. This trial, in September 1860, featured the camel herder
Hadji Alli ("Hi Jolly"), riding a camel like a Pony
Express rider, carrying dispatches for Fort Mojave. One camel
dropped dead from exhaustion at the Fishponds (modern-day Daggett),
while a second attempt to use an "express camel" killed
it at Sugar Loaf (modern-day Barstow). The Army discovered that
while camels died, and it was cheaper, the camels were no faster
than the two-mule buckboard in service under contract to haul
the mail to Fort Mojave. They also discovered that these camels
were not express animals; they were not bred for speed, but to
slowly carry heavy weights.
At the end of September
1860, Hadji Alli and Georges Caralambo were dropped from Army
payrolls, and two former soldiers were hired as "camel herders"
at Fort Tejon, at a higher salary. Hi jolly was fortunate that
he had been ordered by Captain Hancock to race a camel to Fort
Mojave. He was not held accountable for the two dead camels and
received his full month's pay of $30.00 for the last month of
his employment. Greek George was fired "for causes",
which translated as stupidity, being unable to read or write,
and a too-frequent fondness for American whiskey.
The second experiment,
during the early months of 1861, was again by a government-contracted
civilian party. They were to survey the California-Nevada boundary,
under the leadership of Sylvester Mowry, a former Army officer
and currently a citizen of west New Mexico Territory. Mowry stayed
in Los Angeles fighting a bitter war with the California State-surveyor
and turned the field work over to J. R. N. Owen. Owen had charge
of four of the camels and hired "Hi Jolly" to care
for them. The expedition went forth to Fort Mojave with only
The survey was a fiasco,
poorly led, poorly organized, and hopelessly confused. The group
was often lost and never fond the coordinates for the new Nevada-California
boundary line. Instead the expedition drifted into the northern
Mojave Desert and faced disaster in the barren wilderness. Mules
died, equipment was abandoned; it was only the steady plodding
of the camels which saved the expedition from becoming a fatal
exploration statistic. When they finally struggled over the Sierras
to the village of Visalia it was obvious that the camels had
saved the day.
At the end of the survey,
the three camels were returned to Los Angeles. On June 17, 1861,
the camels, 31 in number, of which three were still at the Los
Angeles Quartermaster Depot, were transferred from Fort Tejon
to Captain Hancock at the Los Angeles Depot. There is no further
documentable association of camels with the later Civil war period
at Fort Tejon.
William McCleave, a former
First Sergeant of Company K, 1st Dragoons, delivered the camel
herd to Captain Winfield S. Hancock on or about the 19th of June
1861. The camels were placed in the government corrals at the
Los Angeles Quartermaster Depot, where once again they easily
mixed with the government mules. Macleave continued as chief
herder until early August, when Brevet Major James H. Carleton
lured the former sergeant away from Los Angeles to accept a commission
as a Captain in the forming 1st Battalion of California Cavalry.
Emil Fritz, another former dragoon first sergeant, also traveled
to San Francisco with Carleton to accept a captaincy in that
same battalion. To command the battalion, Carleton, who would
become Colonel of the 1st California Infantry, gathered in Captain
Benjamin Davis of Company K, who would receive the grade of Lieutenant
Colonel of California Cavalry. Carleton, who was expected to
lead an expedition along the California Trail, wanted his developing
cavalry force commanded by former dragoons. Much to Carleton's
disgust, the Governor appointed a number of men to be officers
in the battalion who did not have mounted experience.
When Carleton and comrades
boarded a steamer for San Francisco in early August 1861, they
were joined by Captain Hancock who had turned over the Los Angeles
depot to Second Lieutenant Samuel McKee of the Dragoon regiment.
Hancock, rumored to have received a staff promotion to the rank
of Major at the San Francisco Quartermaster Department headquarters,
took along his chief clerk, leaving his office and paperwork
in disarray. At San Francisco, Hancock discovered he was authorized
a leave of absence with War Department permission to seek an
Ohio senior officer's commission. Hancock soon had his general's
star and a command moving from Ohio into western Virginia.
When McCleave departed
for San Francisco, Charles Smith also gave up his position as
assistant camel herder. McKee then sought out Hadji Alli and
Georges Caralambo and hired them as camel herders for the depot.
When McKee departed for the east with his regiment, the camels
were left in limbo with Alli and Caralambo looking out for them.
They were moved to Camp Latham, in what today is Culver City,
in early December 1861.
The next two years were
a period of frustration for the Army on what to do with the camels,
which continued to eat while some of the females produced healthy
young. When the Los Angeles depot was transferred to Camp Latham
and then to Wilmington on the establishment of Drum Barracks
in February 1862, the camels went along. For a short period they
were the concern of George C. Alexander, the former sutler or
post trader at Fort Tejon, who was the first senior clerk and
financial accountant at Drum Barracks. Alexander soon gave up
the clerkship, and the post quartermaster office.
First Lieut. David J.
Williamson, 4th Infantry, California Volunteers, then became
the guardian of the camels. Hadji Alli ("Hi-Jolly")
and Georges Caralambo ("Greek George") continued to
be in charge of direct supervision. The question was: what to
do with the growing and useless herd? No one wanted, or had time,
to bother with them.
Schemes were proposed
by the Drum Barracks officers. A mail express was proposed for
the San Pedro to Fort Yuma run; it was not tried. Then in late
1862 and again in early 1863 there was a proposal, by Major Clarence
Bennett, to carry mail from San Pedro to Tucson, Arizona. Nothing
happened. An irregular mail express was attempted from San Pedro
to Camp Latham (Culver City) and from Camp Latham on to Los Angeles.
A few trips were made, but then the service was dropped. Bennett
then suggested a mail run to newly re-opened Fort Mojave on the
Colorado River. The express was tried, but the camel foundered
and died 65 miles from Los Angeles and "Hi-Jolly" once
again carried the mail packet on his back across the desert on
foot to reach the fort on the far side of the Colorado River.
Major Bennett then proposed
sending the camels to Fort Mojave but Lieut. Williamson, the
former acting assistant at Camp Latham and Drum Barracks, rigorously
protested the move. He could barely feed his own mules, which
were necessary for the operation of the desert fort. He had no
extra forage to feed a small herd of camels. Furthermore, the
camels were unsuited for the rocky desert roads of the Mojave.
The camels' hooves were too tender; they became lame and were
useless. Williamson declared that Edward Beale had learned this
years ago, but had not reported the truth about his use of camels
on the California desert floor.
At this point Federal
Surveyor-General Edward F. Beale of California and Nevada, from
his San Francisco office, again appeared on the scene. He requested
the use of the camels in order to conduct land surveys of the
uninhabited portions of the new State of Nevada. Brigadier General
George Wright, then in command of the Department of the Pacific,
endorsed Beale's concept and Lieut. Colonel Edwin B. Babbitt,
the Department' s quartermaster, pondered the suggestion and
then agreed with Wright's opinion. In reality, Babbitt felt the
camels would never be "used profitably" and as early
as November 1862, had recommended that the experiment be cancelled
and the camels sold. However, Beale's request and the Army decision
to turn the camels over to another federal agency were kicked
upstairs to Washington, D.C. The Quartermaster General in Washington
endorsed Wright's proposal and Wright was then about to take
action when two separate developments delayed his decision.
In mid-July 1863, Captain
William G. Morris, Assistant Quartermaster at Wilmington, penned
a letter to Colonel Babbitt. Beale, Morris stated, only wanted
part of the herd and the camels from his experiments had developed
a personality problem. The camels did not like being used in
small groups away from the herd. They became sulky when separated,
refused to eat or drink, and on reaching a stream of water a
camel would suddenly lie down in it, throwing the rider and refusing
to move. On rocky or gravelly roads their feet became tender,
and very sore. They became cranky and refused to take commands
and often upon nearing a creek dumped their riders into the water.
In the meantime, Beale
was accused of misusing government funds and of irregularities
in conducting surveys. It would appear that Beale was only surveying
property in which he, or his friends, had a financial interest.
The main charge was that Beale had spent a great deal of his
federal budget on redecorating his own office in San Francisco.
The amount of $64,000 spent on new carpets and furnishings was
bandied about in anti-Beale circles. Beale was suddenly in disfavor
and General Wright withdrew his support.
In early September 1863, the General in Washington, D.C. wrote
to Colonel Babbitt that the Department of the Pacific should
sell the camels. Babbitt requested opinions from his quartermasters.
Lieutenant Williamson wrote that the camels were of no use. Again,
he stated the failures of their use at Camp Latham and at San
Pedro. And he reminded Babbbitt that the experiments by "Lieutenant
Beale and his partner Samuel Bishop" showed that mules were
superior. The roads when rough and rocky crippled the animals.
They were only good on sandy ground. Williamson reminded Babbitt
that the recent trial run of a camel to Fort Mojave had foundered
the animal just 65 miles from Los Angeles, and the mail carrier
had to walk on to Fort Mojave. The express mail could be carried
by "horses or mules with regularity and with much less expense
to the government." Babbitt was convinced; the camels would
be sold at auction as soon as possible.
A decision was made to
sell the camels at auction at Benicia Arsenal. Obviously too
many people in the Los Angeles area knew their weaknesses and
there was an import market for camels in the San Francisco area
where, after several false starts, a merchant had been bringing
in Siberian camels since 1860.
Captain Morris was informed
to prepare to send the camels northward at the earliest moment,
but at the cheapest method. On November 19, 1863, Morris replied
to Babbitt that the camels, apparently 35 or 37 in number, were
"in first rate condition for the trip to Benicia Depot."
However, he was delayed in forwarding them due to the heavy winter
storms along the coast route. After two years of terrible drought,
it was raining. Morris also considered that the current storms
would produce grass along the coastal road, allowing the animals
to be fed cheaply enroute. The camels were started north in late
December 1863. For a brief period Morris thought of shipping
them by sea, but the cost of feeding them was unreasonable and
so Morris decided the final answer was to drive them overland.
The camels reached Santa
Barbara on December 30, 1863 and the herders held them there
while they celebrated the coming of the New Year. Then they crossed
the mountains and moved on to the Salinas Valley and progressed
to Mission San Jose. They skirted the south end of the bay and
traveled up the east road of the shoreline of the Contra Costa,
arriving at the landing site for Martinez on January 17, 18 64.
The next day the camels were ferried across the lower Carquinez
Straits to the government wharf at Benicia Arsenal and were then
moved to the corrals behind the stone constructed buildings at
the Benicia Quartermaster Depot. They were placed in the open
corrals; they were not stabled in any of the fairly newly buildings
at the depot.1
Auction notices were published
and on February 26, 1864, the gavel came down on each camel as
a separate government item. The high bidder for almost all the
camels was Samuel McLeneghan, who reputedly had worked with the
government camels earlier. However, nowhere in government employment
hiring records was McLeneghan's name found. The 37 camels brought
only $1,945, much to the grief of the Benicia Depot's quartermaster
for be had expected more active bidding and a higher sales profit.
Apparently McLeneghan was the only bidder, and the auctioneer
had trouble getting any response from the meager crowd that showed
up. McLeneghan got the whole herd for $52.56 each.
The next day, the Benicia
quartermaster wrote a report to his senior in the Department
of the Pacific headquarters in San Francisco. He expressed his
regrets that the total amount of money was so low, explaining
that few of the people who attended were interested in putting
forth money for camels. He had hoped for more; the auctioneer
had tried mightily to encourage the group of interested or curious
spectators, but at least the camels were sold. The experiment
in California was over. As consolation he offered a thought of
relief: "They have been but a source of expense for years
Author's Note: For years
I have worked on the fascinating, if disappointing, story of
the camel experiment in the West. I have plowed through clouds
of myths and good stories, and have been supported by the ongoing
humor of my colleagues in this business. My friends have sent
numerous new clues, or badly interpreted or footnoted tales of
the camels. But there is one last tale. Humboldt Lagoons State
Park has been one of my history projects with the Department
of Parks and Recreation and the lagoons are located in Humboldt
County, far away from Fort Tejon, Drum Barracks and Benicia Arsenal.
Yet, the camels haunt me.
In mid-1865, two camels
of government vintage were sold by McLeneghan, or his associates,
to the Portland, Oregon, Zoo. They were placed aboard the ocean
going steamer, the Brother Jonathan, in the same compartment
where George Wright's big black riding horse was also stabled,
and the ship steamed out of San Francisco for the Columbia River.
Off Crescent City the Brother Jonathan struck a submerged rock
and went down, with only a few of the human passengers surviving.
All the animals aboard were lost. Several weeks later, on the
long sandbar which blocks Stone Lagoon from the ocean, the bodies
of General Wright's horse and a "Fort Tejon camel"
washed ashore. The local ranchers were forced to bury the stinking
carcasses. One just cannot get away from the Army camels.
The "Camel Barns"
at Benicia Arsenal are not camel barns. The elongated double
tiered stone buildings were "construction buildings"
where the Quartermaster Department manufactured equipment or
altered civilian items purchased on the open market prior to
delivery to the troops in the field. Later, the buildings were
used for storage as warehouses.
There are good and bad descriptions of the camel story. Beginning
with those who tried to be accurate:
A Bibliography of the Camel, California Historical Society
Quarterly, December 1930.
A. A. Gray, "Camels in California", California
Historical Society Quarterly, March 1930.
Lewis B. Lesley (ed.), Uncle Sam's Camels, the Journal
of May H. Stacey, 1929.
Woodard, Arthur and P. Griffin, The Story of El Teion,
1942. A very incomplete and undocumented work.
Faulk, Odie B., The U.S. Camel Corps, 1976. A readable
but sloppy work. The section an the far west is filled with errors.
And the bad:
Howard, Helen A.,
"Unique History of Fort Tejon", Journal of the West.
A mythical account; almost nothing is factual.
Fowler, Harlan D., Camels in California, 1950. A cut and
paste rip-off of history published by Stanford University.
Robertson, Deane and Peggy, Camels in the West, 1979.
Riddled with errors.
California History Commission, Booklet, Drum Barracks
and the Camel Corps. Hilarious collection of errors, mistakes,
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