By Steve Hathcock
Special to the Parade
As early as 1836, Maj. George H. Crossman urged the United States War Department to use camels in Indian campaigns in Florida because of the animals’ ability to keep on the move with a minimum of food and water. But twenty years passed before the great experiment began.
May 14, 1856, Indianola, Texas: Thirty-four camels, part of an experiment in military warfare under the auspices of Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, were led ashore by two Arabs and one Turk who had been hired to teach the soldiers how to handle the humped-beasts, the caravan caused a near riot. Business came to a standstill as the local population gathered near the shore to view the arrival of the dromedaries.
The creatures from the east were foul smelling and made loud raucous braying sounds as they plodded along the docks. In his book Texas Camel Tales, Chris Emett, quoted Joe Fimble, who was a young when the camels arrived, as saying, “When the keepers of the animals would move them around from place to place, a rider on a horse would be sent ahead and shout to the teamsters on the road. Get out of the road, the camels are coming!” This was done because the teams of horses and mules were scared of the camels and would bolt at the scent of the strange beasts.
“Mary Shirkey of Victoria, knitted a pair of socks from the hairs of the camels, sending them to President Franklin Pierce in Washington D.C.,” Emett wrote, “thus displaying a keen sense of history.”
Several successful experiments were conducted at Camp Verde, Texas. Major Wayne, of the United States Camel Corps, reported mixed results. On the positive side, camels rose and walked with as much as 600 pounds without difficulty, traveled miles without water and ate almost any kind of plant; a very desirable trait indeed, when in hot pursuit of renegades. But there was also a downside. The soft-footed camels didn’t take to the West’s rocky soil. Prospectors’ burros and mules, even Army mules, were afraid of the odd-looking creatures and would sometimes panic at their sight.
The great experiment came to an end with the first shots of the Civil War. The Confederates used some of the animals while others escaped and bred in the wild. Most were shot by prospectors and hunters as pests. Descendants of the camels could be found wandering the deserts of the west for the next half-a-century.