Military Trivia: The United States Camel Corps. Part 3

About the United States Camel Corps. which were purchased from Egypt for use in the newly acquired American Southwest in the mid 1850s, a strange bit of history.


The Secretary of War agreed the experiment was a success. He ordered 1,000 more camels from the Middle East. But while Congress debated the request, the Civil War broke out. The project was shelved--and soon forgotten.

What happened to the original 75 camels? Beale gave 28 to the growing city of Los Angeles. They were housed on Main Street, used to transport mail and move harbor baggage up from San Pedro. In 1864 the U.S. Government auctioned the remaining camels to the highest bidder. A rancher named Sam McLeneghan bought them, sold 3 to a circus, employed the remaining 30 in a freight service between States. Gradually they were separated, and spread throughout the West. The Confederates captured several in Texas, but the mule drivers couldn't understand them and turned them loose.

There were other camels, too. Beale's success with them earlier had encouraged private companies to import them. One concern brought 32 over from China, auctioned them for $475 each in San Francisco. They were used in the Nevada salt mines, mistreated, abandoned. Another concern brought 22 camels from Tartary. These were equipped with leather shoes in order-to traverse rough roads in British Columbia. But they frightened horses and were abandoned.

While most of the imported Arab drivers settled on the coast, they turned to other trades, although each of them managed to obtain or retain one camel from the original herd.

Of the imported camelteers, Elias Calles ended up in Sonora, Mexico. His son, Plutarco Calles, became President of Mexico in the early 1920s. "Greek George" served a long term with the U.S. Army and died in Montebello, Calif., in 1913. Hadji Ali, known as "Hi Jolly," became a living legend until his death in Arizona in 1903. Once, insulted because he had not been invited to a German picnic in Los Angeles, he broke up the gathering by driving into it on a yellow cart pulled by 2 of his pet camels. In the 1930s, a monument was erected to his memory in Quartzsite, Ariz.

For years prospectors kept sighting the abandoned camels. Just 50 years ago Nevada had a law fining anyone $100 for using a camel on a public highway. In Arizona, a great red camel carrying a worn saddle on its back was seen at the turn of the century. In 1907 a prospector ran into 2 wild camels in Nevada. In April, 1934, the Oakland Tribune printed the following: "THE LAST AMERICAN CAMEL IS DEAD. Los Angeles--Topsy, the last camel that trekked across the desert of Ariz. and Calif. is dead. Attendants at Griffith Park destroyed her after she became crippled with paralysis in the park lot where she spent the declining years of her life." Actually, Topsy may not have been the last of the U.S. Army's camels. According to rumors, one was recently seen in the Texas desert.

The U.S. Camel corps, which had successfully kept open communications between Texas and Colorado and had carried military loads throughout the new West, finally died of mistreatment and neglect--because it was too strange.

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