Updated: Dec 2, 2019
Every Thanksgiving we take time to celebrate the first settlers to come to America and their gratefulness to our Lord for their blessings - including food - despite their many struggles and hardships. This year, we'd like to tell the tale of another first group of settlers – camel settlers.
Did you know that in the mid-19th century the Army recruited camels as pack animals to explore the great deserts of the vast southwest? The United States Camel Corps was the brainchild of a few soldiers and researchers who braved public and political backlash when they championed the idea that camels could outperform mules on the desert trail. If you can believe it, there was an actual mule lobby in Washington that fought hard against pilgrim camels. They mostly thought camels would look ridiculous in breeches and wooden shoes.
Jefferson Davis, the new Secretary of War, finally pushed past the mule wall and obtained $30,000 from Congress to gather the first camel herd from the Middle East. Sailing through the Mediterranean Sea in a ship we’ll call the Wallflower, an ambitious Major Wayne ultimately gathered thirty-three camels total from several different countries, including Egypt, Malta, Greece, and Turkey.
Once aboard the ship, the camels promptly threw up. It’s not in the record, but c’mon. Actually, Major Wayne laid out strict guidelines for caring for the animals and the group arrived in Texas healthier than when they departed. One died, but two calves were born somewhere between Gibraltar and the Bahamas. On a second expedition, Wayne gathered forty-one more camels, though five died on a harrowing return trip. The rest knelt and prayed when they reached shore.
Altogether, seventy camels and two camel drivers hired from the Ottomans formed the Army’s first cud-chewing, vomit-spewing, perfectly adequate camel corps. As predicted, they outperformed mules in every way. Exhausting treks with no water, snake bites, and heavy loads did not wear the camels down, and their endurance impressed everyone in the party. The wayfaring camels began gobbling up once impassable land at the amazing clip of 4 mph. The famed frontier explorer Edward Fitzgerald Beale reported he would rather have one camel than four mules. A white-haired camel named Said became his prized mount. Said’s bones now rest preserved in the National Museum of Natural History.
The camels survived everything but politics. The mule lobby eventually regrouped and fought off requests to import more of the one-humped wonders. The Civil War did her in, as they say. Jefferson Davis became Confederate President and overall interest faded. Our courageous camel pilgrims were sold at auction to mining companies, zoos, and business speculators, or let loose to wander in the desert, where they became a bit of a legend. One became known as the Red Ghost and haunted the Arizona desert until a certain ungrateful farmer shot him for grazing in his tomato patch. Another died a war hero. Old Douglas, as he was called, became a member of the 43rd Mississippi Infantry and was reportedly shot and killed during the siege of Vicksburg. Some say he was buried nearby, but I can imagine a few hungry Confederates had a hard time resisting the thought of camel burgers.
The first camels may not have been Puritans and they probably didn’t wear breeches, but just like the New England Pilgrims they did face many hardships when coming to America. Their God-given endurance made it possible for pioneering soldiers to chart out huge sections of the southwest.
As a side-note, you can experience the history of the camel expeditions brought to life by our friend and mentor Doug Baum, a top-notch cameleer who heads up Texas Camel Corps. Doug is a terrific guide who teaches through camel treks, historic reenactments and programs at schools, libraries, museums, and historical sites. Check him out at texascamelcorps.com!
Thanksgiving was originally a celebration for what God provided through the Pilgrim’s faith and endurance. Today we hope you can reflect on all of God’s graces and all that you and your family have endured. Eat some good food, rest, talk about football, halfway laugh at dad jokes from Grandpa, and – hey, why not remember and celebrate these brave camels from the past with some luxurious camel milk soap? (You really think we’d leave that out? 😊)
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
Special thanks to our media specialist, Laura Rothhaar, for helping put this together!