Sunday, July 23, 2017

THE REAL WEIRD WEST: The US Camel Corps Part 2

   So in Part One, we wandered the Weird West where Congress passed a law in 1855 for $30,000 to then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. This, so ol' Jeff could fix to bring some camels to the United States. He felt these would make fine pack animals and even mounts, toward the expansion of the western frontier following the Mexican American War. Lotta desert out that way, so what better animal to see them through it?
   Only place they felt to get the beasts was the Eastern Mediterranean. What they called back then The Levant. Fertile Crescent is there, Cradle of Civilization, too. Look up Arabian Peninsula on a map of the times and take the north bit of that, then some of Mesopotamia, a bit of Egypt, you pretty much have it. Few other places but that's the general area. They're desert places.
   Camel places.
   They asked George to go, our Captain Crosman, who first came up with the idea of this whole deal. George said no. Maybe he was feeling petulant since everyone shit on his plan for ten years, maybe he was just sane. Who knows.
   So ol' Jefferson sent Major Henry Wayne (his pal helped him out getting the 30 grand from Congress) and a fella named Lt. David Porter. Porter was to take a ship named Supply to Northern Italy, Wayne was to head to England and learn about camels. No internet then so you took a boat to a foreign country. It's just how things were done. The boys were to meet up later and go from there.
   Sure, ol' Jefferson gave Hank plenty of books and all, and the man knew some things, but England had a zoo where they'd kept camels and some folks there had studied the animals close-up. Some gents in Paris too, had used camels fighting in Algeria. For Dave, well, he hung out with the Duke of Tuscany and studied the man's camel herd. In the end, Hank and Dave learned plenty and once they met up in Italy, broke it all down for ol' Jefferson in some letters:


Looks like we got two kinds of camels goin' on. Two-hump Bactrians and one-hump Arabians. First one's tough as shit and good for hauling heavy things. Second one is faster than a sumbitch and would make a good mount. We can get one-humps in the Middle East, the two-humpers in Central Asia. We know you want the one-humpers for chasing Injuns, but we think the two-humper is maybe the way to go, all told. We're gonna take the boat around though, and try to get both.

Hank and Dave

   The boys went to Tunis, Salonica, Constantinople, all over that Levant. What they wanted was a nice, big load of camels. Both kinds, good stock, good price. They looked at camels, bought camels, rode camels, traded camels, everything camels, trying to gather up the best herd. These two guys from America, from a place with no camels, were becoming expert camel folk.
   In fact, a couple they'd added to their growing collection they now knew were no good. In Constantinople, they said 'Well, let's get a few bucks' and sold them to a butcher for about $40. Then in Egypt, the viceroy tried to pawn off a half dozen clunkers and Dave told him to go screw. Then, after a stop in Smyrna, the boys completed their cargo and set out for the States with 33 camels, a good mix of one- and two-humpers. It was February 16, 1856.
   Hank and Dave brought some Arabs and Turks along to help care for the camels during the trip and they kept a 'Camel Journal' outlining the herd's daily routine: diet, illnesses, everything. Having both males and females on board, things happened of course and en route, six calves were born, two surviving.
   Dave was intent upon the calves and kept careful watch, monitoring them and writing up letters to ol' Jefferson about his progress in caring for them. Pretty soon, he was a better camel doctor than the Turk they had. That man was no great shakes and evidence suggests he's the reason the other four calves died. For various ailments, he suggested tickling the camel's nose with a chameleon's tail, or feeding the things cheese if they had a cold.
   For obvious reasons, Dave fired him and promoted himself to the unofficial (though entirely necessary) rank of ship's camel doctor. He saw the beasts through sickness, storms and once (during a stopover in Kingston, Jamaica) 4,000 gawking locals. He took his new capacity very seriously and when the ship finally docked near Indianola, Texas in May 1856, all 33 (and two calves) were safe as kittens.
   The United States finally had its first herd of happy, healthy government-issue camels.

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