The Camel Corps: Why Did the U.S. Army Bring Camels to Texas?

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Tony Maples Photography


What does the Middle East and Texas have in common? “Not much,” one might assume, but, in the middle of the 19th century, both areas were home to camels. In 1856, 34 camels arrived via boat at the port in Indianola, Texas. The camels came from such areas as Malta, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt, and were part of an experiment by the United States Army called The United States Camel Corps.

The idea was to use the camels as pack animals in the southwestern portions of the United States – an area that was largely undeveloped and desert terrain. The camels were settled at Camp Verde (in Kerr County), where military officials hoped to begin a breeding program. Alas, while the U.S. Army had some success using the camels in extended surveys in the Southwest, it was rough-going. The camels did not get along with the Army’s horses and mules, which would bolt out of fear when they smelled a camel. The soldiers found the camels difficult to handle and they couldn’t stand the smell of the animals either.

Camels Handled the Texas Terrain Well

camels drinking 2

Photo: Flickr/davida3

The camels excelled at certain aspects of life in Texas though. The camels were content eating the scrub and prickly plants found along the trails in west Texas. They could travel thirty to forty miles a day, go for eight to 10 days without water, and seemed not the slightest bit bothered by the oppressive climate. At one point, a mule-led expedition became lost and led into an impassable canyon. The ensuing lack of grass and water for over thirty-six hours made the mules frantic. A small scouting party mounted on camels was sent out to find a trail. They found a river some 20 miles away and led the expedition to it, literally saving the lives of both men and beasts. From then on, the camels were used to find all watering holes.

The Civil War Ended the Use of Camels in Texas

Baby camel in desert

Photo: Flickr/Christopher Rose

The Civil War largely put an end to the Army’s use of camels in Texas. While, early in the Civil War, an attempt was made to use the camels to carry mail between Fort Mohave, New Mexico Territory, on the Colorado River and New San Pedro, California, the attempt was unsuccessful after the commanders of both posts objected.

When Union troops reoccupied Camp Verde, there were estimated to be more than a hundred camels at the camp, but there may have been others roaming the countryside. In 1866, the U.S. Government was able to round up 66 camels, which it sold in various auctions to circuses throughout the United States and in Mexico

Have You Seen Any Wayward Camels?

Camel Corps

Photo: Flickr/Marianne Bevis

Even though many of the camels from this military project were accounted for and sold at the end of the experiment, it’s widely thought that there are still some who might still roam the barren parts of West Texas and New Mexico. Similar to Chupacabra and Sasquatch, many claim to have seen them. Have you?