Texas’s Role in the Great Camel Experiment

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Tony Maples Photography


While camels do not naturally exist in the United States, once, the U.S. Army decided to change that. You may have noticed a camel on the symbol of Camp Verde’s restaurant and general store. This camel alludes to the important role the Hill Country played in the Great Camel Experiment, which resulted in tragedy for the camels and failure for the plan. Discover who thought camels in the American Southwest would be a good idea and why the Great Camel Experiment happened.

Camels in the United States?

US Camel Corps Historical Marker for the Great Camel Experiment

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Though not indigenous to the United States, camels did roam wild in the southwestern United States for a while. These camels descended from several the U.S. Army brought to Texas in the years before the Civil War. Texas served as the entry point for these exotic beasts, and many of the four-legged participants in the Great Camel Experiment stayed at Camp Verde, Texas.

Why Camels?

Camp Verde's General Store and Restaurant Logo

Photo: Facebook/Camp Verde General Store and Restaurant

In the mid-1850s, the United States continued to expand westward over the great deserts, but travel proved difficult. A transcontinental railroad had yet to be completed, and standard horses did not do well in the hot, arid environment. In 1855, U.S. Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis (Yes, the same Jefferson Davis who would go on to become president of the Confederacy.) lobbied Congress for funding for the Great Camel Experiment. He posited that camels could be used as pack animals across the desert, which would more easily connect the distant Army outposts.

Camp Verde’s Role in the Plan

Old Camp Verde Marker

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This funding provided the means for Major H.C. Wayne to travel to the Middle East to acquire the necessary animals. He gathered 33 camels, which arrived in Indianola, Texas, in 1856. This herd marched to Camp Verde, where they remained until the army could put them to use. The following year, an additional 40 camels joined them. By June 1857, 24 camels went on an expedition to California, while the rest remained in Camp Verde. After five months, the California group successfully arrived just north of modern-day Los Angeles, completing a trip of 1200 miles. The Camp Verde camels continued to work as pack animals around Texas.

What Happened to the Camels?

Camel Statue in Camp Verde

Photo: Facebook/Camp Verde General Store and Restaurant

The result of the Great Camel Experiment was a failure. Not because the animals could not perform as expected. In fact, the camels outpaced any expectations. But those who raised and sold mules saw their businesses in jeopardy, and vocally opposed the camels’ use. Furthermore, the Civil War brought the Great Camel Experiment to a halt. After the Confederates took over Camp Verde, the camels scattered. Some died. Some were sold, and others retreated into the wilderness.