Camels trail paved the way for Route 66

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The 1848 treaty that ended the war with Mexico resulted in the United States receiving all of Texas above the Rio Grande, New Mexico and California, as well as parts of Utah, Nevada and Colorado. In this huge piece of real estate was a large desert area much different than the rest of the country.

This arid territory forced the United States government and the U.S. Army to contemplate a different means of travel other than the horse, mule and oxen. To protect the citizens living and crossing this region, a novel form of transportation was needed — the camel.

Two events precipitated the actual purchase of the “beast from the Middle East.” In 1836, Lt. George Crossman, a West Point graduate who was later promoted to major, proposed that the Army consider the camel for Western operations. He argued that camels were stronger than horses and mules and were adapted for an arid climate.

The camel experiment

This idea fell on deaf ears until the senator from Mississippi, Jefferson Davis, was appointed secretary of war in 1853. Davis, president of the Confederacy during the Civil War, was a creative secretary and introduced a number of changes to the military during his tenure that had long-range benefits. The camel experiment was one of his initiatives, but it was only a short-term benefit.

On March 3, 1855, Congress appropriated $30,000 for the purchase of camels for military purposes. The first task was to locate the camels since the only ones available in the country were in zoos or circuses, hardly suitable for military purposes.

In Syria and Egypt, 33 camels were located at $250 per head along with six Arab camel drivers and a Turkish veterinarian. The USS supply ship spent two rough months at sea and finally landed in Texas, April 24, 1856. The camel corps was increased by an additional 41 animals the following year.

The corps was at Camp Verde, some 60 miles west of San Antonio. The camels were quickly pressed into service, being sent on long expeditions along with mules and horses to make comparison of their ability to perform as beast of burden. On several occasions, these expeditions traveled as far west as California.

Edward Beale

The most celebrated expedition took place in 1856, when Edward Beale began a survey of the 35th parallel as a possible military road to California. Beale was a marveled individual — a former U.S. Navy lieutenant, part-time Indian agent, Mexican war veteran, self-assured entrepreneur and brigadier general in the California militia.

Twenty-five camels plus horses and mules, 44 soldiers and two camel drivers successfully surveyed the military road along the 35th parallel under Beale’s supervision. Tracks of the road are still visible in New Mexico, Arizona and California today.

The camels performed well on the many expeditions. A good camel could carry three to four times the load of a pack mule and could travel greater distances and was easier on feed and water. The camels, in many ways, proved themselves to be superior to the horses and mules in the desert. But the camels had some flaws.

Drawbacks

They had a strong odor that clung to the clothing of the troopers and the same smell was offensive to the horses and mules that were often spooked by the strange-looking brutes. The camels tended to be stubborn when mistreated and had a habit of biting, spitting and kicking their handlers for entertainment. The noise they made sounded like a sour tuba in a fog. Cavalry troopers didn’t care much for the beast; they wanted a horse. Despite the troopers’ dislike, the camels proved their usefulness to the army, especially in the southwest.

Civil War

In 1858, Congress was asked to purchase 1,000 camels for military use. By that time the country was sliding towards Civil War and the idea of a “camel corps” had little to no attraction. The Civil War put an end to the camel experiment.

The Confederate forces took possession of Camp Verde in Texas during the Civil War, while the camel detachment in California remained under Union control. In 1865, what remained of the “camel corps” in Texas and California was sold to zoos, circuses and mining companies.

Those camels that had escaped or were deliberately turned loose by troopers over the years occasionally turned up all across the southwest in the twilight years of the 19th Century. As late as the 1940s, individuals traveling on trains or airplanes reported seeing camels on the horizon.

In 1926, a major highway of asphalt and concrete connected Chicago to Los Angeles. It followed closely the old desert trail Edward Beale created in 1857. Today, it is called Route 66.

That’s your history!

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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to: editorial@farmanddairy.com.

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