Discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in December 1848 set off a rush for California. Eager miners had to choose from three difficult and dangerous routes to get there.
The fastest, but expensive, was a sea journey to Panama, a portage to the Pacific and another trip by ship to San Francisco. A mid-continent route required arduous climbing through the Rocky Mountains. A southern route through desert country -- newly won as spoils in the Mexican War -- had to contend with lack of water and animal forage.
Jefferson Davis, a senator for Mississippi, later president of the Confederacy, suggested that camels be imported to carry supplies across the southwestern desert to the miners and gold on the return trip. His proposal was greeted with jeers and laughter in Congress.
In 1853, Davis was appointed Secretary of War and in a position to pursue his camel venture. Two years later, Congress appropriated $30,000 to buy camels for military purposes.
After Congress appropriated money for the camel project, Major Wayne and Lieutenant David D. Porter were sent to the eastern Mediterranean in a Navy ship, the Supply, to buy the first camels. An experienced horse trader, Wayne spent considerable time investigating camel lore and studying the offerings in the camel markets of Egypt. It was time well spent. All but one of the 33 animals he bought at an average of $250 apiece survived the tough, three-month ocean voyage to Indianola, Texas.
In February 1857, a second cargo, consisting of 41 camels, landed on the Texas coast. A permanent camel camp was established soon thereafter at Camp Verde near San Antonio, where various experiments were tried. Soon it was discovered that six camels could do the work of 12 horses and in 42 hours less time, and that they climbed trails that wagons could not manage.
The camels of Texas, purchased under a grant from the U. S. Government, were seized by the Confederates at the outbreak of the Civil War. Somewhat strangely, however, the Southern camel-kidnappers had little interest in the plan that their own President, Jefferson Davis, had sponsored in the Senate.
Private American companies were not, however, blind to the potential profits to be made in camel transport. Bactrian camels were imported from Manchuria to San Francisco in 1860 and put to work as pack animals in Nevada. More were imported in 1862; these were quickly reshipped at a profit to British Columbia to serve in pack trains.
In the U. S., in the early 1860s, many southwestern forts were abandoned as troops were needed for battles in the East, and the forts camels wandered away. Thirty of the creatures eventually turned up in Los Angeles. A special corral was built for them on Second Street, which is today in the heart of the City of Angels. Most other camels were simply let loose.
In 1863, a camel-express service was tried between New San Pedro and Tucson, Arizona, but with only limited success. Around that same time a group of Mexicans loaded up some camels on wagons with the intention of making beasts of burden out of them, but abused them so severely that most of the animals died.
In the middle 1860s, a company of Frenchmen in the Southwest obtained two of the camels that had survived the Mexican abuse. They nursed the animals back to health. By 1870 the pair had increased to a herd of 25, all doing labor for their masters. The animals were kept on a Nevada ranch, near the Carson River, from which they carried salt and hay to the Comstock gold and silver mines. Sometime later, these camels were sent to Arizona where they hauled ore from the Silver King mine to Yuma. They were finally turned loose in the desert near Maricopa Wells.
In 1885, a young boy of five whose father commanded the army garrison at Fort Selden, New Mexico, saw an extraordinary sight that he recollected much later in life. One day a curious and frightening animal with a blobbish head, long and curving neck, and shambling legs, moseyed around the garrison . . . the animal was one of the old army camels. The little boy would later become known to the world as General of the Army Douglas MacArthur.