Camels of the Wild West [Distinguished Lecture 2/8!]

Our guest blogger, Doug Baum of the Texas Camel Corps, who previously wrote about camels for our blog, writes again to tell us different myths about camels in the USA and how several ended up in Texas. Don’t miss our upcoming lecture on Tuesday, Feb. 8 on the creation of the Texas Camel Corp and the immigration of camels to America.

© Texas Camel Corps

It’s an honor to be visiting with you, the readers of the HMNS blog, again. The last time we were together I was bringing my camels to Houston as part of the opening weekend of “Secrets of the Silk Road.” This time, I’m blogging about camels in, perhaps, a slightly less exotic locale.

The Great US Army Camel Experiment of the 19th century may or may not be familiar to you. As a reenactor specializing in this bit of arcane military history, it is my pleasure to help guide the reader through the minefield of both information and misinformation.

Let’s start with the common myths:

The US Army Camel Corps was a Corps.

It was not. There were no camel-specific groups of soldiers and the camels weren’t ridden by the cavalry. In fact, they were hardly ridden at all. The camels, imported from North Africa and the Middle East as a result of federal legislation in 1856, were simply a warehouse item (like a sack of flour or a bale of hay) attached to the 2nd US Cavalry and 1st Infantry at Camp Verde (in the Texas Hill Country), and could be used for transporting loads by any military group that requested them.

The camels were imported to replace the horse.

If you’re building a house, would you use only a hammer, or would you also use a saw, drill, level and other tools? The camel was a perfect complement to all the other animals used at the time (like the horse, donkey, mule and ox) and was employed mainly to haul water for those other beasts of burden as well as the soldiers and civilian drivers working with them- water the camels themselves would rarely partake of due to their innate ability to abstain from drinking for great periods of time.

HOLD YOUR HORSES! Yes, horses spooked when first they spied (and smelled) the camels, but this was only true for those horses outside the military realm. Those equines regularly in contact with the camels became accustomed to the recent immigrants and, like the horse and donkeys on my own farm today, they coexisted perfectly with the new additions to the Texas landscape.

The camels were abandoned because their feet couldn’t handle the Texas terrain.

Anyone who thinks Texas’s desert expanses are any rougher than that of the Sahara, Sinai, Gobi (or any of the dozens of global arid regions camels call home) is clearly unaware only thirty percent of deserts are sandy. Most, in fact, look a lot like our own Chihuahuan desert: rocky, gravel-strewn plains.

Perhaps the best-known myth: After the Civil War, the Federal government simply let the camels loose.

It’s well documented where the camels were after the War and to whom they were sold. Remember, these were government property (some might say recovered spoils of war, considering that the Confederacy had been in possession of the more than five dozen camels in Texas during the early-mid 1860s) and Washington would no more release the camels, then, than Congress would leave parked Humvees, today, with the keys in ‘em!

Now, with all the mythbusting complete, it’s necessary to provide some context.

camel
Creative Commons License photo credit: me and the sysop

Army Camels: The Facts

The 75 camels originally imported between two shiploads from Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey were a mix of Arabian (one-hump) and Bactrian (two humps). The Bactrian lives in a more northerly climate and roughly a dozen were procured while the Army was camel shopping in Turkey, the southwestern-most range of the two-humped camel. The more common Arabian lives across North Africa, the Middle East and into India. Both species adapted well to the Texas climate upon landing in the Lone Star State that fateful month of May, 1856.

The camels were used by the Army, primarily for hauling water and other camp supplies, and were put to major interstate and intercontinental trials in 1857, 1859 and 1860 in addition to regular hauling between Camp Verde and San Antonio, site of Texas’s Quartermaster Depot. The Beale Expedition of 1857 saw some two-dozen camels accompany the journey, the goal of which was to connect the Ft. Smith-Santa Fe trail to the border of Arizona/California. The hoof prints and wagon tracks created on this 19th century sojourn would later be paved over and are now recognizable as historic Route 66.

The 1859/60 trips into what we consider the Big Bend region of Texas were conducted by the US Army’s Topographical Engineers and were intended to survey new routes to the Rio Grande and scout possible locations for new fortifications. During all the trips, the officers in charge extolled the virtues of the camels. Beale wished for more, commenting numerous times in his journals about their general docility. Hartz and Echols, in charge of the two near-deadly Big Bend expeditions (a paucity of rain had rendered the region bone-dry), literally abandoned their three-dozen unshod mules, noting even “the camels’ feet have been abraded to the quick,” yet the expedition returned to Camp Stockton (now Fort Stockton) with all the camels.

While the officers offered platitudes, the soldiers’ less than positive attitudes toward the camels cannot be overemphasized. Most US servicemen were horsemen from back East, not camelmen from the “East.” These fellows had no more interest in working with camels than, say, a rodeo cowboy today would (I have some particular experience in these matters, having traveled the US with my camels!) This lack of willingness to adapt to something new wasn’t the death knell, but it didn’t help.

But the aforementioned trials (as if we were the first culture to consider using camels!) were doomed almost from the start. Not because of any inherent shortcomings of the camel, rather because of the looming US Civil War. Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, had been Secretary of War prior to the division of North and South and at his urging Congress had appropriated thirty thousand dollars to purchase the camels. This inextricably linked Davis to the camels. His lack of popularity after the War created for the camels an unfair demise and by 1866 the entire fleet of “ships of the desert” was sold.

camel
Creative Commons License photo credit: me and the sysop

“Beale’s” camels in California (they’d not returned to Texas) were sold to a freighter named McLeneghan (sometimes identified as McLaughlin) who used the camels to haul salt to the newly created mines in Nevada. The sixty-six camels remaining in Texas were bought by a man named Bethel Coopwood who put the camels to work on a freight line between Laredo, Texas and Mexico City. Both men sold their camels and other entrepreneurs used them for similar purposes, but ultimately the railroad would put all animals out of work (how many of you ride a horse to work today?). Many camels ended up in traveling menageries and as late as 1902 a camel with the US brand on its hip was seen in San Antonio.

Houston Camel Connection

Even in your neck of the woods, Houston had a passing flirtation with camels. A private shipment, separate from the US Army’s camels, arrived in Galveston, October of 1852, under suspicious circumstances aboard a boat registered to a British woman named Watson. It was said that the boat was actually carrying slaves and the camels were on board to help cover the tragic stench that emanated from the ship. Regardless, the ship was turned away, but not before Francis R. Lubbock (later the ninth governor of Texas) consented to take charge of the herd. Kept around Buffalo Bayou and herded around the area, Lubbock’s camels caused enough panic among horses in Galveston that laws were enacted to keep camels off the streets during daylight hours. I taunted that very law a few years ago, when I presented a program at the 1894 Grand Opera House, by inviting the audience to walk around the block with my camel, David, and me. I’m happy to say that neither David nor I was arrested.

There are some great books about the historic US Army camels. I highly recommend Eva Jolene Boyd’s “Noble Brutes,” Chris Emmett’s “Texas Camel Tales” and May Humphreys Stacey’s “Uncle Sam’s Camels.” Stacey’s book is a first-hand account of travels with Beale from Texas to California in 1857 and reads like an adventure story, complete with desertion, Indian sightings and stampeding horses (but not camels!). Better yet, come see for yourself at any of the living history events I’ll have camels at this spring. Our next appearance is  March 4/5 in Brackettville, Texas at the Ft. Clark Living History Event. Check out our full schedule at http://www.texascamelcorps.com/

 

Don’t miss our distinguished lecture “Bringing Camels to America,” given by Dr. Stewart B. Nelson at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 8, 2011. You can purchase tickets here.

Ankylosaurs aren’t very aerodynamic*

But they can still fly!

Ankylosaur Flying! [1.21.11]
Quite a view! See the entire set from the move on Flickr.

If you’ve never seen a dinosaur fly, then you weren’t in the vicinity of the museum around 11 am last Friday – at which time it was almost impossible to miss our airborne ankylosaur.

Pretty cool! The ankylosaur – an original created for the 1964 World’s Fair – has been a much loved part of our paleontology hall for decades. As part of the ongoing construction associated with our current expansion, the ankylosaur – along with several other displays from the hall – was de-installed and will be stored until it re-emerges in our new paleo hall in 2012!

Carolyn recorded this video – it’s amazing how fast this big guy hopscotched over our entire new wing!

More on the Ankylosaur!

HMNS Flickr Set“Warwick Towers Survive Dinosaur Attack” on Swamplot | Flickr set from allison362

*Excellent point, via twitter from @laelaps

The Mythology of Love [Museum Store]

You know what time it is? Valentine’s Time. And whether you’re a devotee of Cupid or a this-holiday-was-invented-by-Hallmark humbug, our museum store has a range of gifts you’ll love giving – or receiving.

Check out these these heart-warming selections – each was chosen based on an ancient cultural belief or historic tradition associated with the material from which it’s made – meaning your gift will be much more than just jewelry. It will be a story that you’ll both remember forever.*

Check out our full list of Valentine’s Selections – and Get 10% Off!

AMETHYST

Amethysts are a guy’s best friend! Greek and English legends attribute many virtues to this stone, thought to aid the warrior in victory and make a man shrewd in business.

The Greek word amethystos translates to “not drunken.” Amethyst was considered to be a strong antidote against drunkenness or lovesickness; wine goblets were often carved of this stone.

Amethysts are also a perfect way to make your woman feel like a queen on Valentine’s! February’s birthstone was associated with royalty by the Europeans – this stone is featured in the British Crown Jewels.

Mythology of Love
Shop local! These gorgeous amethyst earrings are set with
24kt gold vermeil by local designer Via Vandi. Earrings: $280. Members: $252.
See more amethyst selections.

DIAMONDS

Give the stars: in Roman mythology, diamonds are splinters of stars that the god Eros used as arrow tips. You can put them to a much more romantic use.

Mythology of Love
Handmade by Houston designer Rebecca Lankford, this 14kt gold necklace features
two sweet details: a lovely heart, and 3 multi-color raw Indian diamonds.
Necklace: $430.  Members: $387.
See more diamond selections.

VENUS

Venus is the Roman goddess of love – and also the brightest natural object in the night sky. Show your significant other how much they brighten your life.

Mythology of Love
Washington glassblowers Glass Eye Studio create this stunning recreation of the galaxy’s
most romantic planet from Handblown and dichroic glass. Paperweight: $135. Members: $121.50
See our other Valentine’s gift ideas.

BUTTERFLIES

Butterflies flirt. In their courting dance, each partner moves away in various directions yet always comes back to the other. This behavior has made these insects symbols of love, especially in Japan.

Late Roman artifacts often portrayed Prometheus making humankind while Minerva stood nearby holding aloft a butterfly, which represented the soul.

Show your soul mate how much they mean to you with these naturally collected butterflies – which come from butterfly ranches that support rain forest conservation.

Mythology of Love

“Purple haze” butterfly specimen box by Houston artist Todd McKamy. $145.00. Members: $130.50.
“Ascia buniae” butterfly specimen $25.00. Members: $22.50.
See more butterfly selections.

PEARLS

Pearls are associated with Greek Aphrodite, goddess of love – you can’t get much more romantic than that.

Or maybe you can: according to Arabic mythology, the pearl was created when a moonlight-filled dew drop fell into the sea.

Pearls were also associated with the Moon in Hindu culture, where they were symbols of love and purity. Hindu texts say that Krishna discovered the first pearl, which he presented to his daughter on her wedding day.

Mythology of Love
Handmade in Thailand, this stunning bracelet features freshwater pearl and leather.
From Nakamol Design. Bracelet: $46. Members: $41.40.
See more pearl selections.

SEASHELLS

Imagine that you’ve been parted from your true love, stuck on a long sea voyage, thinking of nothing but her – and fish – for months. You’re heading home, and you want to bring her something that will express the depth of your long-held affection.  it might look something like this:

Mythology of Love: Sailor's Valentine
Evoke old-style romance with a mirror inspired by traditional Sailor’s Valentines!
“Sailor’s valentine” style mirror: $24. Members: $21.60.
See our other gift selections for Valentine’s Day!

RUBIES

She’s the center of your universe – why not give her something associated with the Sun? Rubies belong to the Sun according to the Jyotish, an ancient Asian Indian classification of gems and astrology. They are also said to grant the bearer great success in love.

Mythology of Love

Rubies, oxidized sterling silver chain, 14kt gold. Handmade by Houston designer Rebecca Lankford.
Earrings: $380. Members: $342.
See more selections in ruby.

Much more is available in store!

Check out our full list of Valentine’s Selections – and Get 10% Off!

Born to be Wild 3D – Coming Soon to IMAX!

Sumatran Orang-utan
Creative Commons License photo credit: Chester Zoo

Who doesn’t love animals? Here at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, we not only love animals, we relish the chance to share that love with our visitors. What better way than to announce an upcoming 3D IMAX film that follows the tale of a cute orangutan and an adorable baby elephant.

Born to be Wild 3D is an inspiring story of love, dedication and the remarkable bond between humans and animals. This film documents orphaned orangutans and elephants and the extraordinary people who rescue and raise them—saving endangered species one life at a time.

Animal Innocence.
Creative Commons License photo credit: matrianklw

Stunningly captured in IMAX 3D, Born to be Wild 3D is a heartwarming adventure transporting moviegoers into the lush rainforests of Borneo with world-renowned primatologist Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas, and across the rugged Kenyan savannah with celebrated elephant authority Dame Daphne Sheldrick, as they and their teams rescue, rehabilitate and return these incredible animals back to the wild.

This film is narrated by Academy-Award® winner Morgan Freeman.

Adorable animals?
Check!

Interacting with Humans?
Check!

Soothing voice of Morgan Freeman narrating?
Check!

On a six story tall IMAX screen in 3D?
Check, check, and check!

Get excited for Born to be Wild 3D, swinging into the Wortham IMAX Theatre May 27, 2011

Can’t see the video? Click here.