- Early California
- The Camel Experiment
- The Camel
- by Colonel Herbert M.
Hart, USMC (Retired)
Passed by the 33rd
Congress and signed by the President, March 3, 1855.
"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
- 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
- The Mythical
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 1864.
- 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
- The Camel 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
- 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,
- 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 25 camels.
- 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.
- "Ned" Beale 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":
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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 past."
- 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
- 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,