Originally published in the July 1938 issue of the Improvement Era

The Phantom Herd

There are those who say that wild roam the Mojave Desert; that a huge “snow white” one leads a pack of these ungainly “ships of the desert” across the vast solitudes of our southwest’s most arid country.

Just how true are the occasional vivid tales told by old prospectors of seeing these supposedly long-vanished creatures far out on the wastelands? Is there really a remnant of that early government experiment remaining?

These are questions that might well exist in the minds of many, coming on the heels of the announcement, recently, of an old “desert rat” who allegedly saw his pet burro elope with a band of the humped animals, led by an enormous white one. Of course, everyone knows that the loneliness and eternal silence of the desert, coupled with the long (many times disappointing) years spent in search of the illusive “strike,” is conducive to at least some of the strange sights reported by members of this grizzled fraternity. Yet the desert holds many incredible truths—and mirages!

While it is a matter of conjecture whether or not any descendants of that camel venture of the ’50’s are to be found today, it should be noted that the government, in 1855, brought a ship load of them from Asia Minor, at the insistence of Gen. George H. Crossman. The latter was convinced that camels were the only sensible mode of transportation across that “vast Sahara which could not be traversed by mules, horses, or oxen.” Mr. Crossman is credited with having conceived the idea of using camels in the Southwest as early as 1848.

At that time, California existed in the minds of most persons as some strange, mythical place, fabulous almost as the Seven Cities of Cibola, that lured the early Spaniards westward in the 16th century. Today, that eternal lure still exists in the minds of countless thousands, not one whit diminished since the days of the bold conquistadores.

The “camel craze” swept the country. It was laughed at and joked about. While the House of Representatives was ridiculing the bill, introduced by General Crossman, for an appropriation to import a few camels for experimental purposes, Jefferson Davis, the deeply interested War Secretary, succeeded in obtaining the appropriation.

Mr. Davis pointed out the great importance of these beasts of burden in Asia and Africa, and their valuable service to the British in East India. He was convinced that they could be equally valuable in our own arid frontier, and very effective against hostile Indians.

Some of the newspapers became earnest in advocating the plan of forming a “dromedary express, to carry the fast mail and to bring eastern newspapers and letters to California in fifteen days.” The arguments backing the proposed scheme at the time were entirely logical. It was even indicated that “fast camel passenger trains” would be plying between the Missouri River and the Pacific Coast. Camels there must certainly be!

There was his famous reputation of going for as long as ten days without water. It was a long way “between drinks” from the Missouri to the Colorado River, but not too long for the camel, who could board himself on sagebrush, cover 30 to 50 miles a day with a load of a thousand pounds, and deliver his freight and passengers in the California coast town in two weeks from starting time.

At length, in 1854, a Congressional appropriation of $30,000 was obtained—which was the initial move in America’s first and last experiment with camels as a means of transportation. A purchasing expedition headed by Major Henry C. Wayne was conducted to Egypt and the Levant. “The history of the Army abounds in unusual duties performed by its officers, but few compare with Major Wayne’s mission,” writes Robert Gainsburgh. “It required an international diplomat, an accomplished auctioneer, and an obedient soldier, and mostly the patience of Job.”

His ship reached Tunis in August, 1855. After acquiring three camels there, he proceeded to Malta, where news of his coming had preceded him. On his arrival there he found every sore-backed camel in Asia Minor doctored up and waiting on the coast, to be “offered to the United States at a grievous sacrifice of ten times its value.”

A half-dozen other seaports were touched, and each in turn had its motley camel herd waiting for him. But at last the purchasing was complete, and thirty-four irritable and sea-sick animals and their native attendants comprised the expedition when it finally arrived at Indianola, Texas. On the voyage there had been six births and four deaths. The Texans, many of whom had perhaps never seen a camel, turned out in large numbers to witness the unloading of this peculiar cargo, of which someone has written:

“The animals, led by their American and Oriental drivers, marched down the gang-plank in a most docile manner. As soon as they hit the solid earth, however, their demeanor suddenly changed. They became excited and uncontrollable. They reared, kicked, cried, broke their halters, tore up the picket lines and engaged in other fantastic tricks such as pawing and biting each other. The Texans, at first amused at these antics, became panic-stricken and fled.”

Of them their admiring commander had written—possibly on too slight acquaintance: “They are the most docile, patient, and easily managed creatures in the world and infinitely more easily worked than mules.” But if this little introductory demonstration was a disillusioning example of their “docile and patient” natures, it was certainly no less disheartening than the experiment of acclimating them to the barren wastes of the American Southwest.

Major Wayne had expected a great deal of the camels in effecting a “lightning charge against unsuspecting Indians;” but in this he was sadly disappointed, for the cameleers seldom could coax their animals above a walk. And, if it is true that for some months the Indians scurried like mad at the sight of these huge, squealing, biting, “humped horses,” it was because of the latter’s unearthly appearance with rider and load perched ten feet above their enormous, padded feet.

The next year another caravan of about forty more camels were brought over, arriving in February, 1857. Troops of them were stationed at the forts in El Paso, Texas,, and Fort Bowie, Arizona. Another herd was used in packing freight across the plains. Twenty-three were ordered to Fort Tejon in Southern California.

A subject of much comment was; the camel’s remarkable ability of finding adequate subsistence in even the most barren country, and his gigantic “drink” of water, which was enough to’ last him a week or more. His stamina and endurance cannot be denied.

It is not true, as some writers have alleged, that the camel experiment never gave any promise of success. A caravan system had been established by the Army, in 1860, that has been compared with those of the Orient; and every military post on the principal trail between Texas and California had its quota of camels. Certain business firms in San Francisco noted their great freight-carrying value, and an attempt was made to introduce them for use in Nevada mines.

But in the end the great “camel dream” of the Southwest proved to be a total and costly failure. The famous reputation these animals had on the plains of Asia did not—perhaps through no fault of the camel —assert itself on the arid wastes and lava beds of the American desert. Horses and mules hated and feared them and many stampedes resulted when one of the humped-backed brutes chanced to pass too near. A general feeling of antipathy prevailed, which was shared alike by men and beasts.

The mistake seems to have been in not importing Oriental drivers in sufficient numbers. For it is true that nobody seemed capable of managing the animals except “Greek George” and “Hi Jolly” (Philip Tadio) and the other foreign drivers. The teamsters and army men lacked the necessary patience and understanding to manage the spirited and high-strung creatures. It was like trying to “teach an old dog new tricks.” No doubt, had the experiment been allowed more time, the succeeding generation of camels would have been more adaptable.

Yet, notwithstanding the vexations and serious difficulties experienced by all concerned, there is every reason to believe that real and lasting success might have been the reward of Major Wayne but for one great event that dominated everything in American history—the Civil War. This dealt it its mortal blow, just when the enterprise seemed to show greatest promise. Wayne resigned his commission to take command of a squad of Georgia troops, and Congress became engrossed with more serious matters than camels.

What began as an earnest experiment resulted in dismal failure. As the War raged between the North and South, the camels began to disappear. Those at Forts Tejon and Yuma were taken to Benicia and auctioned off to the highest bidders; others were taken to the great Comstock mines, to carry salt. But wherever they went, horses and mules refused to stay, and disastrous runaways frequently occurred. The board of aldermen in Virginia City adopted a resolution that “no camels should appear on the streets except between midnight and dawn!” Eventually every one of the unwanted beasts was cast adrift on the great Arizona desert, where they wandered aimlessly, to the vast annoyance of prospectors and teamsters, whose horses and cattle were constantly being stampeded by sight of them.

The Apaches had, in the meantime, developed a fine taste for camel steaks, and many a wandering remnant of the herd fell victim to the warrior’s arrows. Regular hunts were organized, and as late as 1905, some were captured for exhibition purposes; later it was not unusual to catch a glimpse of one or more of Greek George’s “ships of the desert” streaking across the sand of the creatures he had come to hate and fear.

It is extremely unlikely that there are any survivors today; but until life itself flickers out, the veteran prospector, as he trudges the desolate solitudes between ancient claim of yesterday and hopeful strike of tomorrow, will continue to see, around his campfire, the phantom herd, dimly stalking across the moonlit spaces. And if the leader be whitened by age, even as the old prospector, that is not strange. Time and the desert do many strange things. The story is told of one hunter who saw “A red camel in the wilds of the desert with a saddle on its back to which was lashed a human skeleton.”

Strange things indeed tread the vast solitudes, and whether they be fact or fancy, such is the heritage of the desert, which holds many incredible truths—and mirages.

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