“…with the camel the Arizona desert would become less terrible“ – The United States Camel Corps

4 June 1855, Major Henry C. Wayne of the US Army left New York aboard the stores ship USS “Supply” for Egypt to procure dromedaries and Bactrian Camels to establish a U.S. Camel Corps (USCC).

“Looking athwart the burning flats, far off Seen by the high-necked camel on the verge Journeying southward“ (Alfred Tennyson)

Shipping the Camelids in 1855

is an old Arab legend about the mysterious quality of camels. A bit tongue-in-cheek, admittedly, but while a good Muslim knows 99 names of God, it is only the camel that knows the hundredth. And that’s why they look so damn arrogant. In fact, camels play a quite important cultural role in societies from East and Central Asia to the Middle and the Near East to Northern Africa since thousands of years. They serve as pack-, draft and riding animals, as sources of wool, leather, milk and meat, not to mention being cultural icons and from the 9th century BCE, camels were drafted into the army as well. First mentioned as arm of the service of an alliance of princes in ancient Syria fighting the Assyrians at the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BCE they famously gave Cyrus the Great victory over Croesus at Thymbra in 547 BCE when their smell allegedly routed the Lydian horse and the camels got a reputation that stuck to this day: mules and horses can’t stand their odour and panic. Whether this is actually true or not, the story was handed down by Xenophon and during his invasion of Britain, Emperor Claudius who had a bit of a P.T. Barnum-streak, ordered his legions to be accompanied not only by an elephant to awe the natives but camels as well, for countering the feared chariots of the Britons with camelid evaporations. However, the Romans and Byzantines continued to use camel cavalry, the dromedarii, mainly as patrols in the desert regions on the borders of their empire and the armies of Islam, of course, used them every now and then for the same purpose. Unlike other big game from the further reaches of the Roman Empire, the beasts were not forgotten in Europe during the early Middle Ages, probably because of the many references in the Scriptures, the word “camel” itself was brought back by the Crusaders, though. Until then, the Northerners called the beast ulbandus or olpenta. However, a military use of the beasts like in the days of the ancients was never really considered by the Europeans in their vastly expanding colonial empires, at least not until well into the 19th century.

Assyrian relief showing Arab camel-mounted archers (around 800 BCE)

Camelids in North America didn’t survive the Quaternary extinction event at the end of the Pleistocene epoch either, along with the rest of the American megafauna. However, some areas on the continent seem to be just made for them, or so at least two US Army officers thought when they served in the Southwest, one, Truxtun Beale, allegedly came up with the idea while he explored Death Valley with Kit Carson, the other, Major Henry C. Wayne, convinced the then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis in 1853, famously open for somewhat quixotic ideas, to fund the establishment of a US Camel Corps and at least this plan seemed to work. Beale was tasked to procure camels, both dromedaries as well as Bactrians in Egypt and USS “Supply” arrived at Indianola, Texas, with 33 camelids, 29 of them dromedaries. By and large, the beasts did an uncommonly fine job in California, based at San Pedro, and during the survey of Trans-Pecos region in 1859. Only two mission objectives were not reached – scaring the Injuns, since members of the local nations found them rather interesting and stole a few instead of being spooked and the old legend of equine-camelid incompatibility seemed to be true after all. Instead of the First Nations, US Army horses and mules were terrorised, probably indeed by the stench of the camels like Xenophon noted almost 2500 years before. On top of it, Army personnel seemed to have had their fill with the stubbornness of the mules. Stubborn camels on top of it simply did it. More often than not, the Army camelids were somehow misplaced out in the desert and didn’t return for duty.

The US Camel Corps in ca 1857

The outbreak of the Civil War saw the end of the US Camel Corps. Experienced mule drivers, loaders and animal handlers were desperately needed elsewhere and Major Beale’s military oddities were duly forgotten while he joined the CSA. At least in regards to the Army and military history. The remainder of the dromedaries were sold at private auctions, some escaped and some seem to have joined the misplaced antebellum specimens out in the desert. Unfortunately though, they were not numerous enough to establish a stable population. The last reported sighting of a feral dromedary in the Southwest occurred in Douglas, Texas, in 1941. The Bactrian camels, however, were bought by a one Frank Laumeister, a former participant of the USCC experiment, and led north to Canada to become the locally quite famous Cariboo camels, serving as pack animals on various trails during the Cariboo Gold Rush in British Columbia in the1860s. Some unfortunate members of the Cariboo camel team were mistaken for Grizzlies and shot or ended up as “Grizzly’s Bear” on the menu of a hotel, named after one local, not quite up to date in terms of zoology in general and local wildlife in particular, who mistook a Bactrian camel for a bear and earned himself the nickname “Grizzly Morris”. One of the Cariboo Camels, though, known as “Lady” lived out her life on a ranch in Grand Prairie and died maybe as late as 1905, about the time when British, French, Spanish and Italian colonial armies successfully employed camel-mounted troops again, albeit in the regions of the creatures’ origin. Nonetheless, wandering North American camelids, descendants of vets of the USCC or the Cariboo Camels, are very welcome to roam the outdoor enclosures of the #wunderkammer to be wondered and marvelled at.

And more about the USCC on:


and the Cariboo Camels on: