By Frank H. Gonzales
Such was the warning camel handlers shouted out above the clanging of bells that hung around the necks of the animals as they approached San Antonio on June 18, 1856.
U.S. Army camels in San Antonio, what a sight! The strange animals plodding though the heart of the city fascinated the population of about 7,000.
The camel march resulted from efforts of the U.S. Army to protect American settlements in the Southwest, but just like the pioneers themselves, the Army had its difficulties adjusting to the sparse Texas terrain. Forts and camps sprang up in a line from the Texas Panhandle to the Rio Grande, but the climate and the landscape made communication and supply of these outposts very difficult. Soldiers, mules and horses suffered in the harsh Texas environment, so the camel concept surfaced as a potential solution to transport problems because they could travel further with little water and because they could survive on the minimal nourishment of natural vegetation that horses and mules often would not eat.. After three years promoting the camel experiment, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis won a Congressional appropriation of $30,000 for the purchase of camels and tests of their suitability for Army use in the West.
Thus, in May of 1856, a ship carrying the first camels from the Levant landed in Indianola. Major Henry C. Wayne of the United States Quartermaster’s Department commanded the camel operations, and his troops and the strange beasts moved inland from the port through Port Lavaca, Victoria, and Cuero. Wayne wrote in his journal, “I moved slowly, both on account of their recent sea-trip, and for the little ones that were unable to march long.” Wayne camped at the Cibolo Creek south of San Antonio and left the camels with Albert Ray, his clerk and veterinarian, and rode twelve miles to San Antonio. There he met with Colonel A.C. Myers who had arranged with the town council to temporarily station the camel corps at San Pedro Springs where fodder and water were plentiful. Then on June 18, 1856, as Ray, the soldiers and the camels approached the streets of San Antonio, the townspeople heard the “Camels are coming!” and the jangle of the harness bells, and rushed to see the spectacle the strange procession made in the small town. But the San Pedro Springs encampment did not work out—the town’s cantinas offered the troops too many temptations for misconduct. Wayne, wishing to minimize distractions for his troops, moved his men and the animals twelve miles further from town to the Medina River ranch of Major Howard. They remained there until their move to Camp Verde 60 miles northwest of San Antonio.
In September 1856, the first trial of camel capabilities came when three wagons with six mule wagon teams and six camels with packs headed to the San Antonio depot at the Alamo to bring back oats and feed. The camels took a rather direct route through the Texas Hill Country and made the round trip in fifty-four hours. Each camel carried a load of 608 pounds. The mule wagons carried 1,834 pounds each, but they followed a longer route along the primitive roads west of San Antonio. Because they could not return until the mule teams had rested, they took ninety-six hours to return to Camp Verde. The next month, twelve camels were in the city when a heavy downpour caught them, but the camel’s packs were nonetheless loaded with 325 pounds of supplies, and again, they returned to Camp Verde in fifty-four hours. Major Wayne was ecstatic as he reported, “Camels thrive in this climate…two full mule teams play out on a San Antonio test haul; the Camels saunter ahead of schedule…troopers are accepting the animals (with less profanity…).” However, Wayne’s enthusiastic views of the local tests were preliminary, since plans called for more severe tests.
In 1857, Major Wayne transferred to Washington and John B. Floyd succeeded Davis as Secretary of War. Floyd, also a camel experiment enthusiast, followed Wayne’s recommendations that the Army take charge of the camels at Camp Verde. He ordered Captain Innis Palmer of the Second United States Cavalry to take charge of camel management—to the chagrin of the captain and his troopers. The continuation of the camel tests, however, fell to former naval officer Lt. Edward Beale of the Topographical Engineers, who conducted the first long distance test west from Texas to California. Again, San Antonio served as the staging area for the experiment. A young May Humphrey Stacey described in his journal of the expedition, that the caravan of mules, horses, and men filled the “Grand Plaza” in front of the San Fernando church in San Antonio on the morning of June 16, 1857. They waited for Beale’s arrival from Camp Verde on the evening of June 21, and Stacey wrote, “The first intimation we had of their approach was the jingling of the large bells suspended from their necks. Presently, one, then two, three, four, until the whole twenty-five had come with range…who could have thought, one hundred years ago, that now Camels would be used on this Continent as beast of burden?” The camel expedition formed up, and moved out of town on a journey that took them across West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada, and on to California. Beale’s report on his successful journey pleased War Secretary Floyd, and he requested funds to procure 1,000 more camels from the Levant. Congress, however, struggling with the political tensions of the slavery question, did nothing. Yet, in October, 1858, Beale conducted a winter survey on the New Mexico route from Fort Smith Arkansas, and again met with great success.
In 1859, another Camp Verde expedition undertook reconnaissance and mapping in the Trans-Pecos. Colonel Robert E. Lee, commander of the Department of Texas, assigned Lt. William H. Echols of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, and United States Army Second Lieut. Edward L. Hartz to head it. The effort succeeded, and in June 1860, Echols again used San Antonio as his staging area for supply, and departed for the Trans-Pecos and the Big Bend country to continue mapping the area.
In February 1861, when Texas secessionists confiscated United States property in the state, the exchange included the camels. They continued to be a familiar sight in San Antonio although the Confederate troops assigned to them knew little about camel care. Neglect resulted in some of the animals wandering off; others carried goods and cotton bales from San Antonio to Mexico. At times, other camels served the needs of the Confederate Postal Department.
After the war when Federal troops returned to the area in July 1865, they took possession of the camels at Camp Verde, but the Reconstruction government would not appropriate funds to further test camels. In March 1866, Quartermaster Sawtelle received orders to sell the camels in Army possession, and they moved to San Antonio where circuses, zoos, and individuals bought them at government auction. One camel buyer was San Antonio resident Bethel Coopwood who offered a winning bid of $31.00 a head. He sold some of the camels to a circus for $3,745, and used the proceeds and the remaining camels to start a freight and mail business from San Antonio to Mexico. Local Presbyterian minister Velie C. Ostrum joined him in the enterprise, and though successful for a time, the business eventually failed. Coopwood found another partner, Dr. M.A. Taylor who loaned him $10,000 to restart the freight business but this venture failed too. Coopwood and his camels stayed a familiar sight in San Antonio for many years afterward. Local stories said the he had a favorite camel named “Kitchen”, and that from time to time, he rode Kitchen the 70 miles from a home in Austin to his San Antonio law office.
Stories about sightings of free roaming camels in Texas up to the turn of the century abound, and in 1903, a circus came to San Antonio with a menagerie that included an old camel bearing the U.S. Army brand. It was the offspring of the Army’s Camp Verde herd years before, and a few days later when that circus left town with the branded camel, San Antonio’s connection with U.S. Army camels ended.
Eva Jolene Boyd, Noble Brutes: Camels On The American Frontier. (Plano, TX: Republic of Texas Press, 1994).
Lewis Burt Leslie, “The Purchase and Importation of Camels by the United States Government, 1855-1857” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, V. 33.
Carl Coke Rister, Robert E. Lee in Texas (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1946).
May Humphreys Stacey, Uncle Sam's Camels: the journal of May Humphreys Stacey supplemented by the report of Edward Fitzgerald Beale, Lewis Burt Lesley (ed.), (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,1929).