Saturday, February 4, 2017

THE REAL WEIRD WEST: The US Camel Corps Part 4

   Jefferson Davis instituted the 'Camel Experiment' in March 1855, and two men, Henry Wayne and David Porter, imported 70 camels to make it happen. Setting up at Camp Verde, Texas in 1856 and '57, things started off just fine. But politics, personnel and plain and simple prejudice was about to queer the whole deal.
   Camp Verde was up and running, the camels were performing above expectations, but with ol' Jefferson and Mr. Wayne gone, it all tended to idle. The public was aware, the government was aware and things did happen, but not in any one direction.
   Quick aside: It's unknown (at least to my research) what happened to Dave Porter. Oh, his life is a vast record, he had a fine military career before falling in with his pal Henry and got another during the Civil War, but between landing the second camel ship in Texas in '57 and getting an offer to command a steamship in '59, I got no idea.
   It's surely in any number of biographies on the man. I like to think whatever he did, he never missed an opportunity to pick up a lady with what has to be the one of a kind line: "Hey, there. I'm an unofficial camel doctor."
   Any rate, folks hit up Camp Verde for camels all over, but none of it was 'official'. There was no direct backing from the government to truly continue the experiment toward either replacing horses or mules or 'officially' exploring the western frontier. "Hey, long as we got camels, knock yourself out," was the message. "If your little study or expedition helps, we'll take the credit. If not, oh well.   
   And no, we're probably not gonna change a goddamn thing as a result of any of it, good or bad."
One of the curious and undaunted in the face of all this was a man named Edward Beale. Ed was an explorer, best known for the road that bears his name. Called Beale's Wagon Road, it went from Arkansas to California - for the most part - and some of it survives today, courtesy of the park's service. Any rate, Ed knew ol' Jefferson and others in DC and was able to get 25 of the Verde camels (some say 22) for a march out into the world to establish that very trail.
   He set off in summer of '57 and when he arrived that winter, had nothing but high praise. Fact is, Beale kept the animals on his ranch there in California through 1864, when they were finally sold at auction. This, despite their service during the Civil War of messenger and supply work. Our nation's capital didn't care. "Glad they helped out Ed, but nobody asked 'em to," was the message.
   Quick aside: Beale's son, Truxton, would come out around 1912, almost 20 years after his father passed on, and try to compound his daddy's already robust legacy with this  - paraphrased - bit:
"Basically, my old man came up with the idea of the Camel Corps. He was hanging out in Death  Valley with Kit Carson one day (a man who never had an exaggerated word attached to him, as we all know) and was like 'Holy shit, Kit! How good would camels be, right now?' and Kit was like, 'Pretty damn good!'"
   There's varying accounts of how exuberant Trux was on convincing folks of his father's contribution to the Camel Experiment. No doubt, Ed contributed plenty and made detailed records of his adventures with the animals. The man goes down as a prominent figure in frontier history, absolutely. But he didn't come up with the Camel Corps idea.
   Well. From 1857 until the outbreak of the Civil War, others came to Camp Verde and took the animals for government or private work. Or bought the beasts off other herds that began when folks started importing or breeding the beasts themselves. Sometimes, they could be found wandering on their own, cut loose from a troubled owner.
   Surveys, expeditions, mining work, they were put to any number of things. The owners kept journals, wrote letters and made requests for more camels. They made plans to continue the Camel Experiment on their own as well, but still, none of this was 'official' and it bore no mark of a single direction.
   Camels were hardy animals, capable and uncompromising creatures. But they were never 'ours'. They were foreign, irascible and mean as hell. They spooked horses, as said. Their Arab trainers - where these were about - got snubbed or abused or outright ignored. Americans who got trained in their care resisted or fell back to horse handling ways.
   The whole thing caused a feeling that, while the country had a use for camels, the camels themselves lacked a purpose. Strange as it sounds, they'd never been given that 'rubber stamp' of approval. Again, they weren't 'official'.
   If you wanted one, they were there. But there wasn't near enough for the average person to feel anything had changed. Camels were for folks with more time and money than a regular man had. Back channel government programs and wealthy private firms. Not for a homesteader or entrepreneur wondering if he should swap out his horses.
   And when the War broke out, all that shoulda changed.
   Except, nobody asked it to.

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