Saturday, December 19, 2009

Ghosts of Camels Past

I just had an article published in The Sun Runner Magazine called "Ghosts of Camels Past." The article appears below. To check out the entire issue (the theme is "The Mysterious Mojave") click here:

Mention camels, and most people think of the Middle East, China, Mongolia—anywhere but Southern California. Yet camels left their mark on this area not once, but twice. The first time was between 44 million and 11,000 years ago, as shown by the fossil record at the La Brea Tar Pits and Anza- Borrego/Joshua Tree National Park. The second time was in the mid-1800s, when the U.S. government authorized an experiment known as the Camel Corps.

After winning the Mexican-American War, the United States gained 529,000 square miles of western territory. The cost of feeding horses and mules to cross vast desert tracts was astronomical, so a few forward-thinking individuals promoted using camels instead. They pointed out that camels could carry huge loads, travel long distances without water, and thrive on a diet of native desert vegetation.

The idea found a supporter in Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (later president of the Confederacy). In 1855, Congress appropriated $30,000 to import camels and test their abilities. Two shipments of camels arrived in Texas, and in 1857, their moment of truth arrived: 25 of them accompanied an expedition to survey a wagon road to the Colorado River.

(This photo shows a reenactment by the modern-day Texas Camel Corps. Visit their website here.)

As pack animals, the camels exceeded all expectations. Expedition leader Edward F. Beale said, “Certainly there was never anything so patient and enduring and so little troublesome as this noble animal.”

More might have come of the experiment if the Civil War and the Transcontinental Railroad hadn’t intervened. There were a few half-hearted attempts to make further use of the camels. Some of them remained in military forts until 1863, when the government ordered that they be rounded up and auctioned at Benecia, north of San Francisco. A number of camels ended up in mining operations, others went to circuses, and still others escaped into the desert. Camels imported by civilians during this time period sometimes became feral as well.

For generations, wild camel sightings were common in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Texas. Over time they grew less frequent, but the reports never completely stopped. The most notorious story involved the “Red Ghost,” a camel that supposedly roamed Arizona with a human skeleton strapped to its back. Legend has it that Hi Jolly, the renowned camel driver who accompanied the Beale expedition, died in 1902 alongside a camel in the Arizona desert.

In the early 1900s, tales of camel sightings circulated in Imperial County, especially around Borrego and the Chocolate Mountains. In 1929, a wild camel supposedly stampeded horse herds near Banning. In 1941, a camel was reported on the shores of the Salton Sea. It’s been said that the last sighting of a wild camel in North America was in Baja California in 1956. But some folks believe wild camels still roam the remote deserts of the Southwest.

Stranger things have happened…so if you’re ever out in the back-of-beyond and hear a rumbling growl that sounds like Chewbacca—remember, it just might be a “ship of the desert” plying the sandy seas.

Camel Fun
• In 1963, the New Christy Minstrels recorded the song “Hi Jolly the Camel Driver” on their album Ramblin’.

• Hollywood latched onto the Camel Corps story in 1954 with Southwest Passage, a 3-D western starring Rod Cameron, John Ireland, and Joanne Dru (not yet available on DVD). There’s also Hawmps!—a 1976 slapstick comedy with James Hampton and Slim Pickins that’s short on history but darn funny.

• Camels can be very vocal. A camel growl was one of the sounds used to create Chewbacca’s voice in Star Wars.