A Texas Camel Story

Texans make a lot of extravagant claims. Sometimes they are true; like the story about having camels in Texas. Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War (1853-1857) under President Franklin Pierce, convinced Congress to appropriate $30,000 to buy and import camels for military use as beasts of burden. Davis claimed that camels were well-suited to the desert-like conditions of the West because they carried tremendous loads, traveled long distances without water and would forage on any plant.

Gwinn Heap Illustration for Jeff Davis report to Senate 1857. National Archives

On May 13, 1856, citizens of the thriving seaport of Indianola on the Texas Gulf Coast turned out in droves to watch thirty-two adult camels and one calf wildly rearing, breaking halters, kicking, and crying as three Arabs and two Turk handlers made a valiant effort to control the beasts. Before the day ended the camels regained their land legs and amid the tingling of bells hanging from their saddles, they plodded docilely toward the corral constructed by the War Department.

A horseback rider rode ahead of the camels shouting to get horses and mules out of the way since the sight and smell of the strange beasts sent both horses and mules into frightened frenzies causing runaway wagons and tossed riders. The townspeople followed the parade thoroughly enjoying the commotion.

Some accounts claim that the War Department ran out of wood for building the corral and resorted to stacking up the plentiful prickly pear cactus for fencing. The camels ate the prickly pear.

Major H.C. Wayne, who purchased the camels and accompanied them to Texas, reported to Secretary Davis that Indianolans voiced skepticism about camels being stronger than their mules and oxen. In sort of a PR stunt, Major Wayne directed one of the handlers to take a camel to the Quartermaster’s forage house for four bales of hay. Major Wayne mingled among the crowd listening to the derisive comments of those certain the kneeling camel could not rise under the burden of two bales weighing 613 pounds. Then two more bales were added for an incredible 1,256 pounds. To the astonishment of the onlookers, the camel rose on command and easily walked away.

After three weeks of exercising to prepare the camels for the 200-mile trek to Camp Verde on the western frontier of Texas, the procession moved majestically across the prairie.

A Victoria woman along the route gathered some of the camel hair and knitted socks for President Franklin Pierce. He sent a thank you letter but did not mention wearing the things.

The experiment proved so successful that an additional forty-one camels arrived in 1857. The beasts carried supplies for a team surveying a wagon road from New Mexico to the Colorado River and on to California. They hauled supplies in the first expedition to explore and map

1859, Thomas Lovell, Big Bend Expedition
Courtesy Abell-Hanger Foundation & Permian Basin Petroleum Museum

the Big Bend on the Texas/Mexican border.

A Methodist circuit rider, John Wesley Devilbiss, wrote that he was conducting a brush arbor camp meeting south of Camp Verde when six camels walked into the meeting carrying wives and children of Camp Verde military officers. At the end of the day, the visitors climbed aboard the docile beasts and plodded away.

When Texas seceded from the Union, Federal troops abandoned the western frontier and the camels were left to roam. The Confederates used some camels to pack cotton bales to Mexico where international ships waited to barter for guns and medical supplies. One camel carried all the baggage for an entire infantry company.

Although the camels fulfilled all expectations as beasts of burden, they were eventually sold. Some were purchased by circuses and others roamed the West until they died out. They never gained acceptance because they smelled terrible, they frightened horses and mules, and their handlers, who preferred the more docile mules, hated them.

Circus Camels 189?
University of North Texas Libraries

Advertisements

THE RISE AND FALL OF INDIANOLA

Waves lap the sunbaked shell beach of a ghost town that never should have been. Despite its locale at near sea level, the thriving port of Indianola rivaled Galveston after the Civil War as a major shipping point on the Texas coast.

In the 1840s a group of German noblemen heard of the cheap land available in Texas, and they saw an opportunity to make a lot of money by ridding Germany of peasant farmers that had no hope of securing more land, craftsmen who were out of work because of the Industrial Revolution, and intellectuals who were unhappy with the strict political environment. The noblemen organized the Adelsverein or Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas and charged each family $250, which paid for transportation to the new land, 320 acres, seeds, tools, and a food allowance to sustain them until the first harvest.

By December 1844 the poorly organized and ill-fated Adelsverein had sent four shiploads of Germans to the bare shell beach at Indian Point, an empty spit of land jutting into the waters where Matagorda and Lavaca bays converge. It was March 1845, before that first wave of immigrants reached their new home, which they named New Braunfels.

The noblemen, ignoring the lack of any kind of village or port facility on the bay, continued sending ships that dumped a steady flow of immigrants, creating a horror story for over 5,000 men, women, and children who arrived at Indian Point and could not find transportation to move inland. Polluted water and lack of sanitation caused diseases that killed hundreds before they could be moved off the coast.

Disillusionment with the Adelsverein led many of the Germans to refuse to join the trek to the land they had been promised. Instead, they remained on the coast and built docks into the shallow bay to receive the steady stream of ships. By 1849 a community had developed at Indian Point, and the residents changed its name to the more melodious “Indianola.”

The United States War Department built a wharf and opened its Army Supply Depot to serve as the disembarkation point for personnel destined for posts as far away as El Paso del Norte (future Fort Bliss) and along the western edge of Texas settlement. Hundreds of freight wagons and Mexican carts loaded with silver from the mines of Chihuahua, Mexico, rolled into Indianola, where ships transported the silver to the mint in New Orleans.

If anything proved to the citizens of Indianola that their seaport was making a name for itself in Washington D.C., it was the arrival of thirty-three camels in May 1856, followed by a second shipment of forty-one camels the next February. The entire affair was an experiment initiated by the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, to test the viability of camels as beasts of burden in the Southwest.

Indianola was a southern town, but it boasted a seaport’s connection to the more cosmopolitan world of commerce, business cooperation, and a diverse blend of residents newly arrived from all over Europe. The soil—gritty shell beaches cut by a crisscross of shallow bayous and lakes—did not lend itself to cotton growing. Thus the vast slave plantations thrived much farther east and north along the rivers and in the rich bottomlands. Planters who came to Indianola to purchase supplies could also buy slaves at auction on the front porch of Indianola’s Casimir House, an elegant hotel and social center that used slaves to serve its guests. Most of the blacks in Indianola were free—having bought their freedom or been freed by previous owners. They worked the docks and they operated pig farms on the huge Powderhorn Lake that sprawled ominously behind the low-lying port city. Unlike most southern towns, the residents of Indianola accepted the presence of free blacks, and they were allowed to go about their business without interference.

During the fall of 1860, talk of Lincoln’s possible election caused little concern and no apparent disruption in the cooperation between northern business people pouring into the port and local shipbuilders producing steamers at a brisk pace. The newspaper editor touted the rosy financial picture, expecting it to continue indefinitely.

Before the first war shots were fired, United States military personnel that had manned the posts along the western edge of Texas settlement to protect colonists from Indian attack, began marching through the streets of Indianola to the docks where federal ships waited to carry them away. The federal blockade of the Gulf of Mexico soon forced the Indianola merchants to close and many residents to flee the city. Despite bombardment by federal troops in October 1862 and a three-month occupation of Indianola in early 1864, residents quickly returned after the war and began rebuilding the destroyed docks and their homes and businesses. The eagerness to return their port to a thriving commercial center and to assist families that had been impoverished by the war played well for an economy that thrived on its maritime commerce.

The problem of high tide washing into the downtown streets was virtually ignored as profits soared, freight wagons by the hundreds clogged the thoroughfares leading to the docks, and ships sat patiently at anchor waiting for access to the busy port. In September 1875, Indianola overflowed with visitors from all over the region who had come to witness the murder trial of participants in the infamous  Sutton-Taylor Feud. Few people noticed the increasingly bad weather until the road out of town became impassable and the railroad tracks washed away. By the time the storm ended, several hundred had died and most of the business houses were destroyed, washed into the huge Powderhorn Lake. Many residents moved inland, but those who remained were determined to rebuild their city.

When railroads were built from rival ports undermining Indianola’s shipping enterprise, businessmen began developing the town as a resort to take advantage of its clear water, excellent fishing, and fine restaurants and hotels.

In August 1886, a West India hurricane moved into the Gulf of Mexico. By the time it reached Indianola it was one of the most powerful storms in recorded history. Structures that had survived the 1875 storm soon gave way to the force of wind and flood. A lamp exploded in a disintegrating building and the wind fanned flames across the entire downtown. At dawn, the port city of Indianola was gone, and the survivors moved, many without ever looking back at the ghost town they left behind.

 

I have told Indianola’s story in The Doctor’s Wife and Stein House.

https-//goo.gl/wMjbVf.webloc

Indianola Thriving

If anything proved to the citizens of Indianola that their seaport was making a name for itself in Washington D.C., it was not just the arrival of thirty-three camels on May 14, 1856, but a second shipment of forty-one camels the following February. The entire affair was an experiment initiated by the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, to test the viability of camels as beasts of burden in the Southwest.  Davis believed, like so many others of that day, that the Southwest was mostly uninhabitable land.  He wanted to see if camels—known for carrying tremendous weights, for traveling long distances without water, and for foraging off anything that grew in their path—might serve the military outposts spread across Indian country.

The War Department secured $30,000 from Congress, and President Franklin Pierce assigned Maj. H. C. Wayne to oversee the whole operation.  A naval storeship, the USS Supply,

USS Supply transported camels to the port at Indianola.

USS Supply transported camels to the port at Indianola.

tracked along the North African coast as Wayne purchased camels and hired three Arabs and two Turks to handle the beasts.

When the camels arrived, Indianola—known for its serious business climate with ships clogging its docks and freight wagons and Mexican carts milling in endless throngs along its streets—came to a complete halt.  Merchants and shippers, businessmen and crowds of children filled the streets and hung out of upstairs windows to watch and to laugh at the gangly camels.  After three months at sea, the seven-foot tall beasts—both one- and two-hump varieties—stepped on solid ground and began rearing and kicking.  They cried, and they broke their halters while frantic handlers fought to regain control.  Some of the males even tried attacking each other before they were finally saddled.

After hours of entertaining the townsfolk with their antics, the new arrivals, wearing colorful blankets adorned with tiny bells tingling in rhythm with every step, allowed the handlers to lead them along the coast road to old Indian Point where a corral had been built to house them until they became accustomed to their new surroundings.  Like the throng following the Pied Piper, townspeople, still whooping and laughing at the sight, trailed the train of slowly plodding animals.  The camels’ natural odor was so strong that freight drivers meeting the entourage were forced to turn their frightened mules away, even driving them into the edge of the bay to avoid runaway freight wagons.  Some horses, seeing and smelling the approaching animals, reared and threw their riders over nearby fences.

Some accounts claim that the builders constructing the corral for the camels had run out of lumber and resorted to piling the plentiful prickly pear cactus up to complete the fence. One of the qualities that made camels desirable for the arid West was that they would eat anything.  They ate the prickly pear fence.

For three weeks, residents enjoyed following the camels as their handlers led them about town to prepare for the long trek to Camp Verde, south of present Kerrville.  On one occasion a camel was led to the Quartermaster’s forage house to get four bales of hay, each weighing over 300 pounds.  A skeptical crowd watched the animal kneel, and some people began having sympathy for the terrible weight being placed on its back.  With the addition of each bale, onlookers became more confident of observing a failure.  When the four bales were secured, the camel rose and walked away without noticing it carried over 1,200 pounds.

When the camels finally plodded off toward the West, residents watched them go, assured that Washington, D.C. recognized Indianola as a fitting place to land its most extraordinary experiment.

Camels at the Camp Verde Store.

Camels at the Camp Verde Store.

A second shipment of forty-one camels arrived in 1856, and the great, lumbering beasts made their way to Camp Verde.  Twenty-five camels were used to survey a wagon road from Fort Defiance, New Mexico, to the Colorado River and on to California.  The Camel Corps proved successful again in 1860 as it carried the equipment for a survey team mapping the Big Bend.  The Rev. John Wesley Devilbiss, a Methodist circuit rider, wrote an account of a brush arbor meeting he was holding just south of Camp Verde.  He said that just as the singing began, six camels appeared carrying wives and children of military officers from Camp Verde. After spending the day at the camp meeting, the families boarded the camels and rode back to Camp Verde.

During the Civil War, the posts in the west fell under Confederate control, and the camels were scattered.  Some were used to carry bales of cotton to Brownsville for transport to British ships anchored at the mouth of the Rio Grande.  One infantry commander employed a camel to carry the baggage for his entire company.

The end of the camel experiment came, not from the camels’ failure to fulfill their mission as beasts of burden.  It ended because the camels smelled terrible, they frightened horses and mules, and their American handlers detested them because they were not as docile as mules.  They were auctioned off to private owners and allowed to wander off on their own.  Feral camels were still being sighted in the early 1900s in the Southwest.

The next blog post opens with the gathering of war clouds over Indianola, the seaport accustomed to welcoming ships and travelers from all over the United States.

Camels in Texas

Texans make a lot of extravagant claims.  Sometimes they are true.  Like the story about having camels in Texas.  Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War (1853-1857) under President Franklin Pierce, convinced Congress to appropriate $30,000 to buy and import camels for military use as beasts of burden.  Davis claimed that because camels carried tremendous loads, traveled long distances without water and ate any plant they were well-suited to the desert-like conditions of the West.

On May 13, 1856, citizens of the thriving seaport of Indianola on the Texas Gulf Coast turned out in droves to watch thirty-two adult camels and one calf wildly rearing, breaking halters, kicking, and crying as three Arabs and two Turk handlers made a valiant effort to control the beasts. Before the day ended the camels regained their land legs and amid the tingling of bells hanging from their saddles, they plodded docilely toward the corral constructed by the War Department.

A horseback rider rode ahead of the camels shouting to get horses and mules out of the way since the sight and smell of the strange beasts sent both horses and mules into frightened frenzies causing runaway wagons and tossed riders.  The townspeople followed the parade thoroughly enjoying the commotion.

Some accounts claim that the War Department ran out of wood for the corral and resorted to stacking up the plentiful prickly pear cactus for fencing.  The camels ate the prickly pear.

Major H.C. Wayne, who purchased the camels and accompanied them to Texas, reported to Secretary Davis that Indianolans voiced skepticism about camels being stronger than their mules and oxen.  In sort of a PR stunt, Major Wayne directed one of the handlers to take a camel to the Quartermaster’s forage house for four bales of hay.  Major Wayne mingled among the crowd listening to the derisive comments of those absolutely sure the kneeling camel could not rise under the burden of two bales weighing 613 pounds.  Then, two more bales were added for an incredible 1,256 pounds.  To the astonishment of the onlookers, the camel rose on command and easily walked away.

After three weeks of exercising to prepare the camels for the 200-mile trek to Camp Verde on the western frontier of Texas, the procession moved majestically across the prairie.

A Victoria woman along the route gathered some of the camel hair and knitted socks for President Franklin Pierce.  He sent a thank you letter, but did not mention wearing the things.

The experiment proved so successful that another forty-one camels arrived in 1857.  Camels carried supplies for a team surveying a wagon road from New Mexico to the Colorado River and on to California.  They hauled supplies in the first expedition to explore and map the Big Bend on the Texas/Mexican border.

A Methodist circuit rider, John Wesley DeVilbiss wrote that he was conducting a brush arbor camp meeting south of Camp Verde when six camels walked into the meeting carrying wives and children of Camp Verde military officers’.  At the end of the day, the visitors climbed aboard the docile beasts and plodded away.

When Texas seceded from the Union, Federal troops abandoned the western frontier and the camels were left to roam.  The Confederates used some camels to pack cotton bales to Mexico where international ships waited to barter for guns and medical supplies.  One camel carried all the baggage for an infantry company.

Although the camels fulfilled all expectations as beasts of burden, they were eventually sold and allowed to die out.  They never gained acceptance because they smelled terrible, they frightened horses and mules, and their handlers, who preferred the more docile mules, hated them.