Cowboys and Camels in the Southwest Deserts

Written by on October 15, 2009 in Southwest Characters - Comments Off on Cowboys and Camels in the Southwest Deserts

Imagine a ruggedly handsome stranger, wearing a white cowboy hat, a clean western shirt and chaps. He’s just saved the town from a bunch of bank robbers in an amazing shootout. He mounts his white horse and rides off into the sunset with a hearty “Hi Ho, Silver, and Away!” That’s our romantic image of the good guy of the Old West.

Now imagine that same scene, only instead of mounting his white stallion, the good guy spends 20 or 30 seconds (or more) convincing his camel to lower itself to the ground (the camel grumbling and muttering and spitting the whole way down) so he can climb aboard. Then imagine our hero wildly clutching the saddle horn as the camel lurches awkwardly to its feet. Then watch as our hero placidly plods off into the sunset. Not nearly as romantic an image is it?

Oddly enough, the second scenario came very close to being a reality in the Southwestern United States. In the early 1850s, as the military was attempting to develop a supply route from Texas to California, the Army ran into problems. With scant grass, little or no water, and very rough terrain, horses and mules did not fare well. In 1855, Jefferson Davis was the head of the War Department. He came up with the idea of using camels for the supply route. He gave Major Henry Wayne the task of learning as much as he could about camels and then traveling to the Middle East to buy the best stock available.

Wayne did just that and turned his charges over to Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale. Unfortunately, Beale and his men knew next to nothing about camels, so their initial attempts at riding and caring for the animals were laughable. Luckily, a number of camel drivers, the most famous Haiji Ali also known as Hi Jolly, had traveled to the U.S. to help care for the camels on their long ocean voyage and they taught the military men what they needed to know. As the troop progressed across the Southwest, the soldiers came to admire the camels more and more. The camels were docile, could carry over 1,000 pounds, travel 40 miles a day without tiring and required very little water. Best of all, they ate anything available – like cactus and greasewood shrubs — fodder that no mule or horse would touch. They could travel faster than horses over rougher terrain, swim rivers, climb mountains and survive in deep snow. In short, the journey was an outstanding success.

So why isn’t the Southwest teaming with camels? Shortly after the successful journey, the conflict between the North and the South exploded. The military could no longer afford to keep up the isolated outposts in the Southwest and the personnel were recalled to fight the Civil War. A few of the camel were sold, but many escaped into the desert and the project was forgotten.

However, there is an interesting final note to this story. About 30 years later, a fellow down on his luck captured a camel near Fort Yuma. To get out from under a heavy debt, he took the camel to Phoenix, Arizona, and traded him to the man he owed money to. The gentleman was delighted to take the camel in trade because he knew the circus was coming to town and planned to sell the animal to the circus owner. Unfortunately, the camel escaped and thereby caused a memorable event in the early history of Phoenix.

The camel, once loose in Phoenix, galumphed clumsily through the streets and caused complete havoc. Since no North American animals had ever seen a camel before, they panicked at the site of the beast. Anyone on horseback or riding in anything drawn by horses found themselves attempting to control suddenly hysterical animals who ran away from this horrific vision. One unlucky fellow was herding a large group of pigs to market when the camel burst into their midst. For weeks afterwards, the local newspaper ran stories about the hog sightings all over Phoenix. It was in incident that remained in the annals of Phoenix history and the memory of its irate citizens for a very long time.

In truth, the army’s idea to use camels was actually a smart one. Camels were once a native species to the area. Bones of the ancient species known as Camelops have been found in the Southwest. Much like today’s camels only far larger, Camelops once roamed Mexico and areas of the Southwest and finally became extinct 10,000 years ago during the last ice age.

As practical as camels would have been during the early years of settlement in the Southwest, they never caught on, leaving our romantic image of the good guy riding his horse into the sunset intact.

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