December 25, 2008



By Kathleen Y’Barbo

The image of camels is integral to some versions of the nativity story. Legend holds the three wise men traveled via the beasts to find the Savior. Camels have also historically been thought of as the means of transportation in many countries of the Middle East. Indeed, sand dunes and camels conjure up images of such larger than life figures as Laurence of Arabia and others of his ilk.

Would you believe, however, that camels also have an association to historical Texas? As the beasts were hardy and adapted well to high temperatures and drought conditions, the great Texas camel experiment was born.

Here’s what Lieutenant William H. Echols reported to Congress in 1861:

After his proposal to build a transcontinental railroad along the line of the thirty second parallel had been blocked by sectional politics over slavery in the territories, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, an experiment to solve the need for transportation across the "Great American Desert" to the new state of California and to the intervening army post, introduced in 1856 and 1857 seventy five camels into Texas. Although many Congressmen considered the camel plan unrealistic and fantastic, an appropriation of thirty thousand dollars had been made for the purpose. After all, were not camels the logical beast of burden with which to cross the desert?

The first of two shipments was landed in Indianola on May 14th 1856, and then was moved to Camp Val Verde, the eastern terminus of the projected camel route, located just south of the preset day Kerrville. Test were begun immediately to determine whether the camels or the tried and true mules pack mules were superior modes of transportation in the Southwest. One test was the reconnaissance expedition of Lieutenant William H. Echols in the summer of 1860 into the perilous Big Bend Country. Echols' journal of the expedition appears below not only because of the interest in the camel experiment but because of its description of that part of Texas. There were also other trips, some extended as far as California; but with the outbreak of the Civil War the military personnel were recalled from the Texas frontier, and within a few years the abandon camels had vanished. (Lieutenant William H. Echols, "Report," in United States, Thirty-sixth Congress, Second Session, Senate Executive Document, No. I (Washington, I861), 37-50.)

Something to think about, isn’t it? There among the cowboys and cattle roamed camels. Can you imagine?


Pamela J said...

I had NEVER heard of camels in Texas. Now my mind is having a run away with all the cowboy stories I've seen on TV and read about in books. WHAT IF the camels were there instead of horses??? Or at least the dominant animal of the time?
Fun trivia for the unsuspecting one in a game of a future party.
Pam Williams
cepjwms at wb4me dot com

Tina Dee Books said...

I had no idea! This is great information, and hard to imagine. Fascinating!

Merry Christmas and thanks for the great post, Kathleen.

Tina Dee

Terry Burns said...

A lot of men lost money betting against a camel outrunning a horse. Besides their legendary water capacity they also could carry much more of a load than a horse. But do you know why the experiment was unsuccessful? Their feet! Big feet with soft pads perfect for desert sand the rocks and cacti of Texas were too much for them. If not we really might have seen camels with the cavalry. There's still a large herd of them just outside of Wichita Falls (in Iowa Park) Texas.

Good column

Terry Burns

Molly Noble Bull said...

Dear Kathleen,
I am a native Texan, and I have never heard of camels in Texas. But I have visited the Big Bend country. The Big Bend area is high, dry and lonesome, and I can see how camels would work well there. Thanks for teaching me something new.

Anonymous said...

William H Echols left the Camel Corps and became the Chief Engineer for the Confederate Army. After The War, he retired to Huntsville, Alabama. There he helped raise his eight grandchildren, four Echols and four Spragins. Two became Generals in the US Army, one a bank president, two college math professors, one a VP for Dupont.

Carol Burge said...

This is just too funny. LOL I did read a Historical Western Romance back in the late 70's or early 80's that had a scene containing this little bit of history. I can't for the life of me remember the title or author, though. :)

I didn't know there were still Camels around! I WAS wondering what happened to them. :) I figured like everyone else that they just up and died. Wow, amazing!

Awesome post!