In the annals of the US Army, are recorded many strange and eccentric schemes and scathingly brilliant notions, but none of them quite equals the notion of a Camel Corps for sheer daft logic. It was the sort of idea which  a clever “think outside the box”  young officer would come up with, contemplating the millions of square miles of desolation occasionally interrupted by lonely outposts of settlements, stage stations and fortified trading posts which the United States had  acquired following on the Mexican  War in the mid 1840s.  The country was dry, harsh, desolate… logically,  what better animal to use than one which had already been used for thousands of years in just such conditions elsewhere?

The notion of using camels in the American southwest may have occurred to others, but it was one 2nd Lt. George Crossman who first raised a perfectly serious proposal for their use. One senses initially that the notion had people falling about laughing at the off-beat nuttiness of it all, and then slapping themselves on the forehead with a strange gleam in their eyes and saying, “By George, it’s a crazy idea… but it just might work!”

 Crossman and other military men kicked the idea around for a couple of years; it had the backing of a senator from Mississippi, who sat on the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, and was in the position to advocate in favor of an experimental use of camels by the US Army. The senator also thought “outside the box” although it would not be clear for another ten years how far outside the box he would eventually go. But Jefferson Davis was not in a position to make a study of camels, US Army for the use of (experimental) happen until he became Secretary of War in 1852.  Within three years, Congress appropriated $30,000 for the purpose, and a designated ship set sail for the Mediterranean, carrying one Major Henry Wayne who had been personally charged by Secretary of War Davis with procuring camels. After a couple of false starts, a selection of 33  likely camels were purchased in Egypt.Wayne had also hired five camel drovers to care for them on the return voyage and to educate the Army personnel on the care and feeding of said camels.

The camels arrived at the portof Indianola on the Texas Gulf Coast with one more than they started with, since one of them was a pregnant female; a rather promising beginning to a project so close to Secretary Davis’ heart.  The herd was removed to Camp Verde, sixty miles west of San Antonio by easy stages from Indianola, where they were eventually joined by a second shipment  later that year. At a stopover in Victoria, the camels were clipped and a local woman spun yarn from the clippings and knitted a pair of socks for the President of the US out of them. Once at Camp Verde they mostly transported supplies and amused and impressed skeptics by carrying four times what a single mule bore, without visible effort. (But a lot of grumbling.)  They were also used for an expedition to the Big Bend. Late in 1857, Edward F. Beale, explorer and adventurer, friend of Kit Carson and Superintendent of Indian Affairs for California and Nevada took a contingent of camels on a long scout to explore the southwest along the 35th parallel, all through the vast deserts  between New Mexico and California. Beale took twenty-five camels and two of the drovers, who were nicknamed Greek George, and Hi Jolly. The camels performed heroically all the way to California with Beale, and were used for a time to transport supplies from Fort. Tejon.

Alas for the demise of what looked like a brilliant solution; although it might have come to something eventually, but for the Civil War. Just about everyone who was a strong advocate for the use of camels suddenly had much greater problems to worry about than overcoming the resistance of Army muleteers and diverse other potential users. For the camels as draft animals were not readily biddable; they were even less cooperative than mules, which says a lot. They spat, nastily and accurately, stank to high heaven, and scared the living daylights out of horses and mules unaccustomed themselves to their presence, and generally did not endear themselves to most of the men who had to work with them.  The California herd,  those of them which had not been allowed to wander away, was sold  – mostly to small enterprises and circuses . Those camels, or their descendents who escaped into the desert southwest were spotted for decades afterwards, well into the early 20th century.  Beale even took a few of them to his own ranch; a sort of camel refuge as it were. The Texas herd was also sold off or left to wander the range near Camp Verde; although according to one source,  a camel found its way into the possession of an Army officer who used it to carry the baggage of his entire company all during the war. The drover,  Hi Jolly eventually took a small herd of  camels sold as surplus after the Civil War to the Arizona Territory and used them to haul water for a time, before turning them loose.  And so passed the end of an experiment, and the last of the US Army Camel Corps.

 There is one small footnote to this; the story of the Red Ghost, which terrorized  south-eastern Arizona Territory, for about ten years after 1883; a huge reddish camel… with the dead body of a man tied to its’ back. No one ever who he was, or how he came to be secured to the back of a camel, with knots that he could not have tied himself.

19. August 2011 · Comments Off on Indians · Categories: Uncategorized · Tags: , , , , ,

  A few weeks ago, my daughter drew my attention to this story in the UK Daily Mail, with considerable amusement; both for the breathless sense of excitement about the headline – about something that was very, very old news to students of Texas history – and the matchless idiocy reflected in some of the resulting comments – the kind of crystalline-pure idiocy that can only be achieved  from learned every darned thing they know about the aboriginal inhabitants of North America from having watched Dances With Wolves.  I’ve always given handsome credit to that bit of cinema as excellent and almost anthropologically detailed peep into the world of the Northern plains Sioux in the mid-1860s  . . .  did anyone else ever notice how all the tribes-folk are always doing something, while carrying on a conversation in the side? Almost without exception, they are working at something. Pay no attention to the plot, just watch the people, and realize that they are just one tribe, among all the native peoples.

Anyway, this bit of Brit excitement seems have been inspired by this book – which came out over a year ago, and is pretty fascinating on it’s own. But reading the story and the comments exasperated me yet again, reminding me of my own particular exasperations with the popular culture version of the American frontier. As far as movies and television go, pretty much the whole 19th century west of theMississippi is a big-one-size-one-location-just-post-Civil-War generic blur. And all the Indians in these generic Western adventures were also pretty much generic, too  . . .  which means that historical knowledge gleaned from TV and movie westerns is  – to be kind –  not to be relied upon.

 Because the tribes varied enormously as to culture and capabilities, as any anthropologist will tell you. I’m not one myself, but I have had to read pretty thoroughly in the course of writing about the American west – and that is one of the things that emerges almost at once; the various Tribes fell into a wide range of cultural and technological levels. This range went all the way from the hunting/gathering peoples, like the various divisions in California (who being in a temperate and generous land did very well) and in the deserts of the Great Basin (the Utes and Paiutes did rather less well) to the Cherokee of the southeast who farmed, traded, and swiftly adopted an alphabet for their language, and embraced printing presses and higher education. In between these two extremes were those tribal divisions who farmed, like the Mandan and others of the Ohio-Mississippi-Missouri River basin, and the sedentary tribes of the Southwest; the Hopi and Navaho – farmers, weavers, potters and basket-weavers  . . .  all of whom, at somewhat of a squint, were not all that remote, technology-wise, from the white settlers, although one thing they all did have in common was a lack of resistance to the diseases which Europeans brought with them.

And then there were the hunter/gatherer tribes of the high plains, those who were the first to take full advantage of the horse  . . .  the horse, which ironically, had been brought into North America by the Spanish. The various Sioux divisions, the Kiowa, and most especially the Comanche – became peerless horsemen, hunters and warriors. They took the plains as their own, hunting the vast herds of buffalo who made their home there – all the land between the mountains and forests to the north and west, the Mississippi on the east, and nearly as far as the Gulf Coast to the south. For nearly two hundred years, the horse-tribes of the plains took it all for theirs, and lived for the hunt  . . .  and for war.

No, war did not come with the white settlers – it had been there all along. The various tribes warred vigorously, frequently and with every evidence of keen enjoyment upon each other; for the rights to camp and hunt on certain tracts, for booty and slaves, for vengeance and sometimes just for the pure enjoyment. The Comanche warred with such brutal efficiency on the Apache, that the eastern Lipan Apache were nearly wiped out, and pushed along with the Tonkawa, into alliance with the new-come Texian settlers. But for about fifteen years, the Penateka Comanches held a peace treaty with Texas German settlers – as allies against other enemies – a peace treaty which held for a lot longer than anyone might have expected, which goes to show that reality is almost always stranger than fiction. From the mid-1830s on, the Comanche’s traditional enemies in Texas, Lipan and Tonkawa warriors served with the Texas Rangers on various battlefields against the Comanche. In the Northern plains, the Sioux likewise warred with the Crow – with the result that the Crows were very pleased to serve with the US Army in the west, as scouts, guides and fighters. During the Civil War itself, the Cherokee split into Union and Confederate factions. Indeed, one soon gains the impression from the accounts of early explorers encountering various tribes and peoples, that those peoples were most interested in enlisting the European and American explorers – with their strange new gunpowder technology – as allies against their traditional tribal enemy.

This all made a very much more complicated and nuanced picture. Individuals and tribal groups reacted in practically as many different ways that there were individuals and groups; the whole spectrum of adaptation, resistance, and acquiescence, or even in combination and in sequence. The stories are endlessly varied, with heroes and villains, triumph and heartbreak aplenty  . . .  on all sides.