Camels in Nevada

20 Jun

And yes, Joe Cool, but also the other kind was also in the state for awhile.Kidron's NV pics 063

I grew up in Dayton, and we had historic camel barns downtown.  And yet, I never really knew the story of camels in North America.  So last time I was at Walla Walla, I snatched up a book (The Last Camel Charge:  The Untold Story of America’s Desert Military Experiment, by Forrest Bryant Johnson) on the subject.  I highly reccommend the book, even though the NV history for which I purchased it was less than a chapter long–probably less than a page.

NV Feb 2010 147

Here is more or less (less) the short version of the story, copied from various (less reputable/researched) sources:

-Purchased by Jefferson Davis when he was the US Secretary of War in 1855.  He purchased 77 bactrian (two hump) and dromedary (one hump) camels in the Near East for southwest desert transport (2).

-Middle-Eastern Dromedary (1).

-Congress funded a small naval expedition which was quickly dispatched to the Arab nations along the Mediterranean. After eight months, this naval “Noah’s Ark” returned (4).

-US Camel Corps put together back in the mid 1800’s (3).

-The idea was to find alternate means of transportation in the dry and rough climate of the South Western United States. To put the plan into motion $30,000 was set aside on March 3rd, 1855. Although it took awhile traveling to the Middle East, the US eventually had 34 camels (3).

-Several handlers from the Middle East were also brought with the camels. The most famous was a Syrian named Hadji Ali, although he was called Hi Jolly. A second later shipment brought the number of US camels up to 77 (3).

-Edward F. Beale maintained the animals could haul materials for the military in the arid West. They could carry more than horse or mules, and they had a legendary ability to survive without much water (1).

-could carry 600 pounds for 30 miles in desert conditions without water (2).

-After their trial run, Beale put the camels up on his friend’s ranch, claiming that they should stay in California for future use if a war with the Mormons of Utah ever occurred. His friend, Samuel Bishop utilized the camels to haul freight on his own ranch and back and forth to Fort Tejon. The route taken to Fort Tejon passed through lands controlled by the Mojave Indians who often attacked civilian transports, but avoided any military soldiers. As Bishop was a civilian and the camel experiment currently officially a civilian experiment, no soldiers were with the camel caravans traveling from Bishop’s ranch to Fort Tejon. A large force of Mojave Indians threatened Bishop’s teamsters, forcing Bishop to order them to mount the camels and charge the attackers. The surprise charge of the teamsters on such strange beasts did in fact rout the Mojave Indians and also went down in history as probably the only camel charge in the west, which ironically was performed by civilians as opposed to the military (3).

-There are rumors of a few more experiments performed with the camels. They are attributed to the US army when it was still trying to find a use for the beasts. The first involved using the camels in an attempt to perform a pony express or “camel express”. Sadly in both the first and second attempt the camel dropped dead from exhaustion. It was determined that although the camel could carry enormous loads and travel for extended periods of time with little rest, food, or water, it was not an appropriate steed for a mailman to speedily deliver the mail, especially since its maximum speed appeared to be no faster than the mules already used to deliver the mail. In the second experiment, the army turned the camels over to a survey crew, mapping the Nevada / California border. The expedition became lost, was forced to abandon their equipment, lost their mules, and grew hopeless of ever surviving to see civilization. The camels took over the mission, led the crew back to Visalia, and saved the surveyors (3).

-The Civil War distracted the army from the experiment and the Deputy Quartermaster General for California got permission from the Secretary of War to sell off the animals.  A corral was built on the southern part of the arsenal property and all the camels were gathered from all over California to be auctioned off.  The local youngsters of Benicia earned extra money hauling water to the barns.
The 34 camels which were auctioned off brought a total of $1,495 in 1864 and were purchased by Samuel McLeneghan to haul freight to Nevada mining camps (2).

-By November 1863, the California Camels were put up for sale and purchased largely by zoos, circuses, and mining operations with a few camels going to private individuals such as Beale himself. Those camels remaining in Texas were sold off in 1865, though the government later reclaimed some of them as stolen property and then promptly released them into the desert on their own (3).

-Sam McLeneghan purchased ten of the Army’s Dromedaries for hauling supplies in the territory. Camels brought salt to mills in bothVirginia City and Austin (1).

-On his way to Virginia City with ten camels in 1864, McLeneghan stopped in Sacramento and staged a “Dromedary Race” in the city’s Agriculture Park. Some of the camels were recruited into circus acts; others were used by private freight-hauling and road construction outfits. Eventually, many of the poor beasts were abandoned in the desert, where some survived for years. Angry Wells Fargo stagecoach drivers complained of camels all the way from Lake Tahoe to Ely. Their teams panicked at every encounter with the strange, humped creatures. Even 30 years later, some wide-eyed prospector would stride into a Comstock saloon, belly up to the bar and tell the bartender of the bizarre “mirage” he had seen (4).

-They were resold again but only a few were purchased and the remaining camels were released into the desert where they startled travelers for years (2).

-In 1875, the Nevada legislature prohibited camels on public highways to safeguard horse traffic. This effectively ended the commercial use of camels (1).

-In Lyon County [my county of Dayton], if you let your camel stray, they threw you in jail for 30 days (4).

-The act was repealed in 1899 (3).

-Operators set many camels free while selling others to circuses. For decades, various people throughout the West reported seeing the wandering beasts throughout Nevada and the southwest (1).

-The last surviving camel died in 1934 in the Griffith Park Zoo in Los Angeles (2).

-Camels later assumed a different role in Nevada history and culture. In 1959, the revivedTerritorial Enterprise reported the results of a fictional camel race held in Virginia City. To the delight of residents, the San Francisco Chronicle reported the event as fact. The following year, actor-director John Houston, in northern Nevada for the filming of The Misfits, heard of the contest and became determined to ride in the “second annual” camel race. Virginia City held an actual competition, Houston won, and the annual camel races grew into a tradition celebrated to this day (1).

1)  http://www.onlinenevada.org/camels

2.)  http://www.beniciahistoricalmuseum.org/ArsenalHistory/arsenalhit_1860.htm

3.)  http://www.weirdca.com/location.php?location=36

4.)  http://www.thestormking.com/tahoe_nuggets/Nugget_190/nugget_190.html

 

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  1. Hi Jolly (via AZCentral) « Pilant's Business Ethics - July 3, 2013

    […] Camels in Nevada […]

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