An American Tale: Camels Go West (And South)

Photo courtesy of wikipedea


When you think of a camel, you probably imagine it standing in the middle of a North African or Asian desert. Nowadays camels live in the arid climates of the Middle East and Central Asia, but that wasn’t always the case. Let’s not forget that the closest relatives of Old World camels are the llamas, alpacas and vicunas of South America. How did these camelid cousins end up so far away? 

Interestingly, the oldest fossils of camels are found in North America, and it’s not until millions of years after the earliest camel ancestors lived that more modern camels show up in the fossil record in either Old Word or the Southern Hemisphere. So they basically evolved midway between Asia and South America, and then dispersed in opposite directions, some going North through Alaska and some heading South.

Camels are an American invention. Although the earliest camels inhabited grasslands, the adaptations that would later help Dromedary and Bactrian camels survive in Old World deserts were shaped by the evolutionary kick-start of extreme Arctic winters. The branch of the camelid family that moved south evolved along different lines, adapting to the cool, mountainous terrain of South America. If you have never owned an Alpaca wool sweater,  I highly recommend trying one out.

As for the populations of early camels that remained in North America, they became extinct around ten thousand years ago, either due to climate change or human predation. Their bones can be found all over North America, even here in Texas. Don’t believe me? You can go see for yourself! There are actually places in Texas where you can go look for the fossils of camels and other ancient creatures. Although I must admit, it’s quite a bit harder than finding sea shells or sharks teeth.

As a side note, you may have heard about wild camels living in West Texas. The U.S. army experimented with using camels to supply remote Western outposts in the 1850’s, and after the Civil War many of these animals were released into the wild. For decades camels would pop up throughout the West, and stories of the “Red Ghost” would make the papers. But these were imported Dromederies, far removed from the early camelids that raomed the West thousands of years ago.


Camelops skeleton for our Hall of Paleontology

Miss the belly-dancing and dervish-whirling at World Trekkers: Egypt? Join us Aug. 9 for World Trekkers: France!

If you didn’t make World Trekkers: Egypt last Friday, we hate to break it to you, but you missed out.

World Trekkers: Egypt at HMNSThere were belly dancers, a whirling dervish and TWO congenial camels, named Gunther (above) and Teddy (not pictured). Even our own Director of Social Media and Assistant Director of Public Relations & Marketing tapped into their Arab roots and delighted our younger guests as Cleopatra and King Tut.


World Trekkers: Egypt

Gunther was quite the hit with the kiddies.


World Trekkers: Egypt

Face painters kept it festive.


World Trekkers: Egypt

Belly dancers got hips swiveling.


World Trekkers: Egypt at HMNS

Damien and Ernesto from Cat Eyes Makeup Artistry made everyone look like Egyptian royalty.


World Trekkers: Egypt

And our brilliant volunteers designed crafts to take home AND teach you something.


World Trekkers: Egypt

World Trekkers: Egypt

World Trekkers: Egypt at HMNS

So if you’re feeling a twinge of regret, file that away for now. Just don’t miss our next World Trekkers event Aug. 9, when we indulge our inner Francophile in France!

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.

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.

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


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.

Camels of the Silk Road – Free Family Event! [Guest Post]

Editor’s Note: Secrets of the Silk Road opens in just two weeks! Join us opening weekend for a special, free family program: Camels of the Silk Road, from 12 – 4 pm. Camel connoisseur Doug Baum is bringing 6 camels to the Museum for a fascinating educational program. There will also be camel crafts for kids! Doug has given us a little preview of what’s to come on opening weekend in a guest post below.

Try applying for a bank loan, having to explain, “I’m a camel rancher.” Next time you’re on a flight and your seatmate makes small talk, asking about your job, answer with, “I guide camel treks in the Middle East.” Or, try convincing your father-in-law you’ll be able to take care of his daughter as you grow your camel business!

Now I’m tasked with introducing myself to you, the followers of the Houston Museum of Natural Science blog.

I’m Doug Baum, owner of Texas Camel Corps, a business (admittedly unconventional) dedicated to cultural, historical and environmental education using camels. My family will be bringing six of them to HMNS for an afternoon of programs on opening weekend of the Secrets of the Silk Road exhibition Saturday August 28, from noon to four o’clock. Programs will focus on the camel’s role in cultures along the historic paths as well as environmental adaptations the camel uses to survive in extreme climates.

This is really exciting for me, but it’s not the camels’ nor my first trip down the Silk Road. In 2002, when famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma helped organize the Smithsonian’s Annual Folklife Festival celebrating the Silk Road, I was honored to present programs on the National Mall for two weeks. Closer to home, our camels visit Texas schools, libraries, faith-based institutions and museums throughout the year.

Now I know those hardened camel men, as well as the camels working the oriental trade routes, had it tough: the varied conditions of plains, deserts and mountains are nothing to sneeze at, not to mention disease and banditry along the way. But as I plan my camels’ next journey down the Silk Road, the logistics I have to consider carry their own challenges. Hauling six camels from our farm in Central Texas to Houston may not be like going from Xi’an to the shores of the Mediterranean, but I bet my pre-trip checklist isn’t that different. Water, check. Foodstuff, check. Camels, OOPS! I should introduce my camels. They’re really the stars of the show.

Along for the ride will be Irenie, Gobi, Richard, Marianne, Ibrahim, and Xi’an (yes, really!). Gobi and Xi’an are appropriately-named Bactrian camels, the two humped variety native to Central Asia, while the other four are Arabians, the more common and numerous one-humped species found from North Africa through the Middle East and into India. I’ve decided to bring both species, as well as a variety of camel-related artifacts representative of the different societies living along the length of the Silk Road, to demonstrate just how widespread and varied the cultures along the routes were.

But back to the camels. Each has its own personality and my family and I will be happy to help you get to know them. You may hear stories from my 10-year old son, Pecos, about why Irenie is his favorite. Teenaged daughters Vanessa and Delany will likely tell you they prefer Ibrahim, our beautiful white camel, and that this is actually Ibrahim’s second trip to Houston. A few years ago, he traveled into an underground service entry, up steps, through corridors and onto a freight elevator before greeting travel convention goers outside the doors of a hotel ballroom!

Maybe those Silk Road camel men didn’t have it so tough after all.

Our family looks forward to meeting you when our humble caravan rolls into Houston. In the meantime, come visit us online, on Facebook, our blog, and our web site.