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In 1856, the United States Army began an experiment that has often been overlooked by history: the use of imported camels insurvey expeditions in the Southwest. The experiment died with the outbreak of the Civil War, but camels continued to provetheir worth on the American frontier–in addition to scaring the heck out of civilians, horses and mules. Freelance writer EvaJolene Boyd documents this sometimes heroic, sometimes comic chapter of history in Noble Brutes: Camels on theAmerican Frontier. Relying on official records and contemporary journals, Boyd traces the use of the dromedary andBactrian beasts of burden in the West–from the American officials’ attempts to buy camels in the Middle East; to the Armyexpeditions in the Southwest; to civilians’ use of camels after the Civil War; to the legend of the “Red Ghost,” a wild camel thatterrorized Arizona Territory from 1883 to ’93 like something out of a Washington Irving tale.

Boyd attempts to write the definitive book on the “Great Camel Experiment,” and she certainly has insight into the use of these animals. In 1982, she took part in a re-enactment–complete with camels–of the 1861 boundary survey in theMohave Desert in California. Boyd’s writing, however, is somewhat repetitive, and the book loses focus after the end of the Army experiment. Also, a photograph identified as Camp Verde, Texas, circa 1875, is actually of Fort Verde, Ariz.Camp Verde, Texas, the base of operations for the camel experiment, was abandoned in 1869. Even if not definitive, though,Noble Brutes has merit. Boyd details USS Supply’s journey into Levant and the work of Lieutenant David Dixon Porter andMajor Henry Wayne, who bought the first camels for the Army. Likewise, Edward Fitzgerald Beale’s 1857-58 wagon roadsurvey from Texas to the Colorado River receives a thorough treatment. For anyone who hasn’t seen a camel coming down aWestern road lately, Noble Brutes is worth a read.
Johnny D. Boggs