The U.S. Army’s experiment of 150 years ago to use the cloven-footed, humped creatures on the Southwestern frontier didn’t last long, but camels left their mark in Western lore.
In 1883 stories circulated throughout Arizona Territory of a cloven-footed creature that moved silently through the desert. It was reddish in color and, according to the King- man Mohave County Miner, might be connected to the horrific death of a woman on Eagle Creek. Miners on the nearby Rio San Francisco, not far from Eagle Creek, reported sighting a gigantic horse that left long red hairs in the brush. Its huge hoof prints, however, were not those of a horse but of some cloven-footed beast. They called it the Red Ghost, and though most listeners were skeptical—tall tales being common on the frontier— others soon reported similar sightings. The claims of one observer proved difficult to dismiss.
Cyrus Hamblin, a respected rancher in the Salt River country some 80 miles northwest of Eagle Creek, reported seeing the same strange creature, but he identified it as a gigantic red camel. Hamblin had seen camels in Arizona Territory before and was a reliable witness, but he added a chilling addition to the tale of the Red Ghost, for strapped on the camel’s back were skeletal human remains. Several weeks later, a group of miners shot at the Red Ghost in the Verde River valley, but the beast escaped out of range. The pursuing men saw something fall from its back and rushed forward to investigate. They discovered, according to the Mohave County Miner, “a human skull with a few shreds of flesh and hair still clinging to it.” The Red Ghost, with what was left of its human burden, vanished into the Arizona desert and into the annals of Western folklore.
The story of the Red Ghost was but a remnant of one of the most quixotic and romantic episodes in all of Western history. Even by the time of the Red Ghost sightings, most Americans had long since forgotten the failed experiment by the U.S. War Department in the 1850s to introduce camels into government service in an effort to explore and open up the Far Western Frontier.
The camel experiment was an important part of a larger plan to consolidate the new territories won from Mexico and tie them to the Eastern states. Distance, landscape, native hostility and climate all conspired to block the movement westward into these new lands, until the discovery of gold in California initiated a mass migration of unprecedented proportions. The California Gold Rush forced Eastern politicians to reconsider their dismissal of plans for a transcontinental railroad to bind the nation together. As sectional tension increased between North and South, the necessity of linking the Far West to the rest of the republic became increasingly urgent.
Politicos could not agree on the route for the line, and bitter sectional wrangling ensued, especially between Northerners and Southerners. In March 1853, Congress authorized Western surveys to determine “the most practicable and economical route” and placed the supposedly neutral War Department in charge of conducting them. Not surprisingly, science would not be allowed to trump politics in these surveys, for the stakes were too high.
The Central Route
The able but devious secretary of war, Jefferson Davis, was hardly neutral. In 1853 he selected four potential lines to be surveyed: a northern route as proposed by Asa Whitney running between the 47th and 49th parallels; a central route favored by powerful Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, between the 38th and 39th parallels; a route through New Mexico Territory on the 35th latitude; and the southern route, favored by Davis, Sam Houston, James Gadsden and other Southerners, on the 32nd parallel.
Edward Fitzgerald Beale became involved in this debate as an ally of Senator Benton. Beale was a close friend of Benton’s famous son-in-law John C. Frémont and a frequent guest at the senator’s home. Benton now approached Secretary of War Davis with a proposal that Frémont and Beale head a survey of the central route. Davis, perhaps worried about Frémont’s reputation as “the Pathfinder” to the West as well as his political ambitions, declined. Undaunted, the shrewd Benton, who had secured Beale the appointment as superintendent of Indian Affairs for California, easily convinced his young friend to follow the central route on his way to his California agency. Beale now engaged in a land journey of three months to explore Benton’s route, when he could easily have voyaged by steamer, and across Panama, to California in 30 days. Beale’s cousin, Gwinn Harris Heap, wrote a journal of the expedition, first published in the National Intelligencer and then as a book in 1854, and it was used by Senator Benton to promote his central route.
The expedition helped cement Beale’s place as one of the pivotal figures in Western history. Born at Bloomingdale, an estate located but a mile and a half north of Capitol Hill in Washington City, on February 3, 1822, Beale grew up in a privileged family steeped in naval tradition. His maternal grandfather was Commodore Thomas Truxton of Constellation and Barbary Pirates War fame, while his father had performed heroically at the Battle of Lake Champlain during the War of 1812. Beale, called Ned by family and friends, emerged as a promising young naval lieutenant.
On July 15, 1846, Beale sailed into Monterey Bay aboard Commodore Robert Stockton’s Congress. War with Mexico was imminent, and they soon learned that American settlers in California’s Napa and Sacramento valleys had joined with Captain Frémont, supposedly on yet another “exploring expedition,” to raise the Bear Flag in rebellion against Mexico. Joining with Frémont, Stockton began offensive operations against the Mexican military forces, with Beale taking a prominent part. Along with frontiersman Kit Carson, Beale became a hero of the Battle of San Pasqual, near San Diego, in December 1846, and then was selected by Stockton to carry vital dispatches to the Navy Department in Washington.
In February 1847, Beale and Kit Carson followed the Gila River Route—later favored by the South for the transcontinental railroad line—with dispatches on the California conquest for Washington. The journey prejudiced Beale against this arid southern route (they ran out of water and were attacked by Apaches). It also, however, led him to consider the usefulness of camels in crossing such an inhospitable landscape. He was later further influenced by reading Evariste Huc’s Recollections of a Journey Through Tartary, Thibet, and China, published in New York in 1852, which extolled the camel’s virtues.
The Potential of Camels
Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, like Beale, was fascinated by the potential of camels. Their joint interest reflected a unique moment in Western history, for the camel experiment grew out of transportation problems inherent on a pre-steam frontier. Yet the great camel experiment was itself a notable part of the effort to bridge the vast expanse of the West with iron and steam—defeating the tyranny of distance that so inhibited military consolidation, civilian development, economic prosperity and political unity.
The idea of using camels in the American West did not originate with Davis, although he proved to be its most powerful proponent. During the Mexican War, Davis had met Major George H. Grossman, a veteran of the Seminole War in Florida, who had urged the use of camels for military transportation back in 1836. The camel, so storied in the exotic lore read by every American child, had proved its worth in the scorching deserts of the Middle East for centuries.
The logic of using the dromedary (the Arabian camel) in the arid American Southwest seemed self-evident to archeologist George R. Glidden, who sent a lengthy paper on the subject to the Senate Committee on Military Affairs in 1852. Glidden had a high regard for the camel’s ability to carry great loads under the most arduous conditions, noting its superiority to the U.S. Army mule. John Russell Bartlett, U.S. boundary commissioner, was convinced as a result of his labors setting the new boundary line between the United States and Mexico that camels alone could live on the brackish water and scarce foliage in west Texas and the desert Southwest borderland. In particular, Bartlett wrote in his report published in 1854, camels might prove invaluable along the Gila River route to California. Nothing was more certain to arouse Secretary Davis’ interest than this connection between camels and the potential Southern rail line.
Davis, in his annual report for 1853, recommended the introduction “of a sufficient number of both varieties of this animal to test its value and adaptation to our country and our service.” Knowing that a transcontinental railroad might soon be built, He nonetheless felt that the vast extent of the interior West would remain untouched by rails for decades. Using Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign as a sure-fire example to stir his readers’ imagination, Davis extolled the virtues of the hardy dromedary for reconnaissance, supply and communication between isolated military posts in a hostile environment. The Arabs who battled the French, he noted, were not unlike the American Indians of the Southwest. Congress failed to respond to this initial request, but in 1855 Davis finally secured a $30,000 appropriation for his grand camel experiment.
Major Henry C. Wayne of the Quartermaster’s Department had also been an early advocate of camel use by the Army. Along with U.S. Navy Lieutenant David Dixon Porter (a cousin of Ned Beale and later a Union admiral in the Civil War), Wayne was assigned to travel to the Levant and secure the necessary camels for U.S. military service. Porter was Gwinn Harris Heap’s brother-in-law, and both Heap and Beale recommended him for the assignment.
Davis instructed Wayne and Porter to sail to Constantinople and into the Black Sea, although he warned that circumstances related to the Crimean War might force them to divert to Syria. “It is believed that the best breed of camels is to be found in Persia,” Davis wrote Porter. Davis ordered his officers to procure samples of both varieties of camels: the two-humped camel and the one-humped dromedary.
Wayne arrived in England on June 7, 1855, and studied the camels at the London Zoological Garden. He decided to use the term “camel” as generic to describe both species and referred to the animals by their region of origin: the two-humped Bactrian camel and the single-humped Arabian camel. Wayne felt that only the Arabian species would be suitable for riding. He then met Porter at Spezzia, Italy, and they sailed Porter’s ship, Supply, to Tunis to immediately procure a camel for shipboard study.
Arriving in Tunis on August 4, Porter was happily surprised to find his brother-in-law. Gwinn Harris Heap was there to settle the affairs of his late father, Samuel Davis Heap, who had served as U.S. minister to Tunis for several years. Wayne and Porter promptly hired Heap, who spoke several local languages, knew many influential men and was quite familiar with camels.
Within a few days, Wayne had purchased the first camel to be owned by the U.S. government. When news of the camel experiment reached the bey of Tunis, Mohammed Pasha, he graciously sent over two fine specimens from his private herd. Supply then set sail for Constantinople. Wayne reported that the animals ate 8 to 12 pounds of hay a day, along with 6 quarts of oats and three buckets of water every three days. He became convinced that “Americans will be able to manage camels not only as well, but better than Arabs, as they will do it with more humanity and with far greater intelligence.” In this the American officer misjudged the capacity of the foul-tempered camel to fret any human, no matter what his ethnic heritage.
From Constantinople the Americans traveled with British officers to Balaklava, where they discovered that the Crimean War had driven up the price of camels to $50 for a good female and $100 for a superior male. The British army had just purchased 8,000 camels for use in the war. Wayne studied the military uses of the beasts in the war against the Russians, noting the immense burdens carried by Bactrians and the ability of Arabians to carry a soldier up to 70 miles in a single day. The British officers preferred the Arabians because of their versatility in carrying both troops and supply loads (up to 600 pounds).
Supply then headed for Egypt, where, after some difficulty with the local officials, nine camels were purchased and loaded on board. While anchored in Alexandria, Porter discovered a new problem with his precious animal cargo: rutting season. During this season, the male camels became unmanageable by even the best Arab handlers. They next traveled to Smyrna, where Heap, who had traveled there on a civilian steamer, awaited them with 21 animals. With the ship full of camels, they departed Smyrna on February 15, 1856, and headed for the Texas coast.
The Camels Reach Texas
Wayne and Porter landed their camels at Indianola, Texas, on May 14, 1856. Wayne had wisely secured the services of three Egyptians as camel attendants and two Turks from Smyrna as saddle makers to serve his camel corps for one year. The camels were moved to corrals at San Antonio, where they were joined in February 1857 by 41 more animals secured by Porter and Heap from the Levant. Heap also secured the services of two remarkable individuals who would prove crucial to the camel experiment: Hadji Ali and George Caralambo. They agreed to serve the U.S. government for up to six months at a salary of $15 per month. On the American frontier where no one could pronounce their names, they were known as Hi Jolly and Greek George.
The spectacle of the camels passing through the Alamo City en route to pastures at San Pedro Springs can only be imagined. To Major Wayne, however, the main point was how well his charges had weathered the arduous journey. The major favored a five-year breeding program for his animals, but Jefferson Davis wanted them put to immediate use. “The object is at present to ascertain whether the animal is adapted to the military service, and can be economically and usefully employed,” the secretary informed Wayne. “When this is satisfactorily established, arrangements can be made for importing and breeding camels to any extent that may be deemed desirable.”
In August Wayne moved his camels to a new post at Camp Verde, three miles from Bandera Pass and some 60 miles northwest of San Antonio. From this camp he conducted a number of experiments on the stamina and carrying capacity of the animals. The dromedaries excelled in all these tests, so that by December 1856 Major Wayne could honestly report with enthusiasm the success of the experiment. The officer worried, however, about the fate of the camels, who needed knowledgeable care, should the political administration change in Washington and he be reassigned. The tough old veteran had grown rather attached to his imported animals. His concern was well founded, for in February 1857 he met with Davis in Washington to discuss the camel experiment and was soon after reassigned to other duties. Captain Innis N. Palmer of the 2nd Cavalry replaced him at Camp Verde.
Ned Beale had been dismissed as California Indian superintendent on May 31, 1854, by President Franklin Pierce at the behest of Commissioner of Indian Affairs George Manypenny, but then James Buchanan, an old family friend, was elected president. Buchanan appointed Beal superintendent of a government survey for a military wagon road from New Mexico Territory to California. Beale would command 35 to 50 men in his work party, 10 wagons to carry equipment as well as provide proof of the suitability of the route as a wagon road, a surveyor, a doctor and 25 soldiers as escort across the dangerous Navajo country (today’s northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona). Beale was also to take up to 25 camels with him and was authorized to hire as many of the Arab and Turk handlers who had accompanied the animals to Texas as he wished. He was ordered to test the “usefulness, endurance and economy” of the camels.
Beale—accompanied by his cousin Gwinn Heap (the second-in-command) and an old naval friend, Lieutenant C.F. Thorburn—departed for the West in May 1857, reaching Indianola, Texas, on June 6. There, the three men organized their wagon train and were met by May Humphreys Stacey, Hampden Porter and James Bell, the teenage sons of Davis Bevan Stacey, David Porter and Judge Thomas Bell (who were all neighbors of Beale back in Chester, Pa.). Beale allowed the young men to join the expedition, and they proved loyal and diligent, if not always successful, subalterns. The 19-year-old Stacey kept a careful journal that eventually became a classic of Western trail literature. Beale affectionately called them “my boys, May, Ham and Joe,” and they accompanied him to San Antonio, where the immortal David Crockett had fallen at the Alamo but 21 years before. Bell and Porter accompanied Beale to Camp Verde to collect the camels, and upon their return, young Stacey invoked Crockett’s famed motto in noting that the camels represented “the ‘goaheadness’ of the American character, which subdues even nature by its energy and perseverance.”
New Mexico and Beyond
On June 25, the expedition headed westward from San Antonio for New Mexico Territory. Before long Beale learned the art of dromedary riding and led the column aboard his white camel Seid. The expedition was now without its second-in-command, for before reaching San Antonio, Beale and Heap had bitterly quarreled. In 1853 Beale had described his cousin as “the noblest companion in the world, and shines brighter the more he is rubbed.” But he must have rubbed him a bit too hard for Heap resigned in June and departed for home. Heap, like his father, became a diplomat and was eventually appointed American consul general at Constantinople.
Beale’s remarkable caravan consisted of 10 wagons, 25 camels (the pick of the litter from Camp Verde, where 46 camels were left behind with Captain Palmer) and a bright red military ambulance wagon for the commander and his young assistants. Beale was without Arab handlers for his camels, for the Arabs had balked at accompanying his expedition because Palmer had not paid them at Camp Verde. Beale’s men did not know how to properly pack loads on the camels, resulting in morning delays and pack-sore animals. Progress was slow, but Beale’s party finally reached Fort Davis on July 17. Beale was deeply impressed with his exotic animals, noting that they “could travel continuously in a country where no other barefooted beast could last a week.” He felt them far superior to his mules. Ten days later the caravan drew supplies at Fort Bliss, and Beale was delighted to find that several of the “Turks” from Camp Verde had hurried ahead to El Paso to enlist in his company, among them Greek George and Hi Jolly.
As Beale’s command made its way north up the Rio Grande to Albuquerque, crowds gathered in every village and along the trail to gawk at them. It was as if the circus had come to New Mexico Territory. Beale left his party in Albuquerque while he traveled north to Santa Fe to arrange for a military escort. Upon his return on August 12, he found nearly everyone drunk, and one of the men wounded in an altercation at a local fandango. Among those unfit for duty was Hi Jolly, who was becoming rapidly Americanized. He, Beale noted, “had not found, even in the positive prohibitions of the prophet a sufficient reason for temperance, but was as drunk as any Christian in the train, and would have remained behind, but for a style of reason much resorted to by the head of his church, as well as others, in making converts, i.e., a broken head.” On August 15, Beale led his company away from the “fandangos and other pleasures” of Albuquerque toward Fort Defiance, 160 miles to the west (near today’s Window Rock, Ariz.). He now left the comforts of his red ambulance and led them aboard his white camel Seid.
At Fort Defiance, Captain Josiah Carlisle greeted Beale with a flask of red eye and a couple of blocks of ice. This led to another short delay. With 20 soldiers as escort and several Hispanic road workers, the caravan was rolling again on August 27. Beale replenished supplies at Zuni, buying considerable corn and amazing the natives by loading it all on the camels, while Stacey and the boys carved their names in nearby Inscription Rock. Beale’s command then pushed on west across what would later be called Arizona Territory.
With the camels leading the way, the expedition reached the Colorado River on October 17 where they traded for watermelons, pumpkins and cantaloupes with the local Mojave Indians. The crossing of the Colorado proved difficult, and two horses and 10 mules drowned before reaching the California side. The Mojaves retrieved the carcasses and ate them. The camels, however, easily swam the broad river. By crossing the Colorado, Beale had completed his mission in surveying a wagon road from Fort Defiance to the Colorado River and in successfully testing the suitability of the camel for frontier service.
Beale later wrote in his journal with only a bit of exaggeration: “A year in the wilderness ended! During this time I have conducted my party from the Gulf of Mexico to the shores of the Pacific Ocean, and back again to the eastern terminus of the road, through a country for a great part entirely unknown, and inhabited by hostile Indians, without the loss of man. I have tested the value of the camels, marked a new road to the Pacific, and traveled 4,000 miles without an accident.”
Beale sent most of the party on to Fort Tejon, which was conveniently near his own ranch, while he proceeded to Los Angeles with Hi Jolly and eight others. Beale rode Seid while Hi Jolly sat astride a camel named Tuili, and the others rode horses over Cajon Pass to San Bernardino and then into the fledgling city of Los Angeles on November 9, 1857.
Secretary of War John B. Floyd, in his annual report for 1858, reported, “The entire adaptation of camels to military operations on the plains may now be taken as demonstrated.” He recommended that Congress purchase 1,000 more camels for military use. No action was taken on his recommendation. In his 1859 report, Floyd again praised the usefulness of the camels. An additional camel expedition was undertaken in Texas in May 1859 with 24 animals. Lieutenant Edward Hartz and Lieutenant William Echols were to make a topographical survey of the Big Bend Country while testing the packing capacity of the camels. “The patience, endurance, and steadiness which characterize the performance of the camels during this march is beyond praise,” Hartz reported as he neared the Rio Grande on July 17, 1859. He was wasting ink, for General David Twiggs, the Army commander in Texas who would soon become infamous for his treason against the Union, hated the whole camel experiment.
Camels After the Experiment
The army in California also had little use for the camels and found them to be a great expense to feed. In September 1860 Captain Winfield Scott Hancock experimented with the camels as a sort of “pony express,” assigning Hi Jolly to ride a camel with dispatches from Los Angeles to Fort Mojave on the Colorado River. Two camels died under Hi Jolly, for the animals were not suited for short rapid trips, but rather for slow trips, carrying great burdens over long distances. At the end of that month, Hancock dropped both Hi Jolly and Greek George from the military payroll. In a few months, they were rehired to look after the camels, which were moved to Camp Latham (in present-day Culver City in Los Angeles) in December 1861. While at Camp Latham, Beale’s favorite, the white camel Seid, fought with Hi Jolly’s Tuili during rutting season and was killed by a crushing blow to the head. Seid’s bones were sent east to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Beale, appointed U.S. surveyor-general for California and Nevada, used many of the camels on his California ranch, and when the Civil War erupted he offered to keep all the Army’s camels on his property. Union Secretary of War Edwin Stanton turned him down, even though the military had no more interest in the animals. On September 9, 1863, Stanton issued an order that all the California camels were to be sold. The animals were gathered at Benecia Barracks, north of San Francisco, and in 1864 were sold at public auction. The government received $1,945 for the 36 camels. Their new owner, Samuel McLaughlin, wanted them to pack freight to the Nevada mines. He also staged several camel races in the mining camps, but he faced hostility wherever he took the beasts, because they so terrified the local livestock. McLaughlin died on an 1865 journey to Fort Yuma, where he planned to sell the camels for work in the Mexican mines. His two new employees, Hi Jolly and Greek George, simply turned the camels loose to range free over southern Arizona. The famed Red Ghost may well have been one of these camels.
The California dromedaries were dispersed throughout the West, some as far north as British Columbia, usually into horrific labors for mining operations. In Texas, Confederate troops captured 80 camels and two Egyptian camel drivers at Camp Verde in 1861. The Rebels had no idea of what to do with this prize, and many of the animals simply wandered off into the hill country. When Union troops reoccupied Camp Verde in 1865, they found more than 10 camels at the post. The Army, however, had no further interest in an animal that had been imported by Jefferson Davis. In 1866 the herd was sold off to the highest bidder, former Confederate officer Bethel Coopwood of San Antonio, who in turn sold the unfortunate beasts to circuses and to mining interests in Mexico. He paid but $31 per camel, and those he could not resell he simply set free.
The camels now entered into Western lore, the quixotic adventure that had brought them to America long forgotten. It is apparent that fugitive camels roamed the West for another generation after the Civil War. In 1875 a camel wandered into Bandera, Texas, and was captured by a sentimental old-timer who remembered the days of Camp Verde. In 1885 no less an eyewitness than young Douglas MacArthur, then a boy stationed with his family at Fort Selden, New Mexico Territory, saw a camel brought in by hunters. There were many sightings in Arizona, although not usually as colorful as the tale of the Red Ghost. Officers attached to a U.S.–Mexico boundary survey reported camels along the border in 1901. In 1913 a Santa Fe Railroad crew sighted a camel near Wickenburg. The last reported Arizona sighting was at a waterhole near Ajo in 1931.
Hi Jolly, who had liberated McLaughlin’s camels near Fort Yuma in 1865, was discharged from the Quartermaster Department of the U.S. Army at Camp McDowell in 1870. But he was eventually rehired by the Army and in 1885 signed on with Brig. Gen. George Crook as a packer during the Geronimo campaign. He had by this time become an American citizen, naturalized in Tucson in 1880, and had married Gertrude Serna of that city with whom he had two daughters.
The remarkable frontiersman followed mining booms into northern Arizona Territory, often using camels as pack animals in his prospecting adventures. These extended trips did not sit well with his wife, and when he returned to Tucson penniless in 1898, he received only a cold shoulder. Alone and impoverished, he applied for a military pension based on his many years of service but was denied. He moved north to barren Quartzsite, where he survived off the kindness of old prospector pals.
A story circulated at the turn of the century that old Hi Jolly was bumming drinks in a Quartzsite saloon when a prospector told a tale of a great red camel roaming near town. The old man rushed outside never to be seen alive again. His body was discovered weeks later in the desert, next to the remains of a red camel. The story was not true, but rings with the authenticity of Western legend as Hi Jolly joins the Red Ghost in a final embrace.
The old Syrian died at Quartzsite on December 16, 1902. In 1935 the state of Arizona honored him by marking his grave with a pyramid-shaped tombstone of stone topped by the metal figure of a camel. There, in a distant corner of the American West, still stands a unique monument to a remarkable pioneer and the forgotten camel experiment that marked the beginning of a new epoch in Western history.
Paul Andrew Hutton is a University of New Mexico distinguished professor, executive director of Western Writers of America and author of Phil Sheridan and His Army. Suggested for further reading: Noble Brutes: Camels on the American Frontier, by Eva Jolene Boyd; Three Caravans to Yuma: The Untold Story of Bactrian Camels in Western America, by Harlan D. Fowler; Uncle Sam’s Camels: The Journal of May Humphreys Stacey, Supplemented by the Report of Edward Fitzgerald Beale (1857- 1858), edited by Lewis Burt Lesley; and The U. S. Camel Corps: An Army Experiment, by Odie B. Faulk.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.