|Camp Verde, just south of Kerrville, as it appeared around 1940.|
Robert E. Lee most likely visited Kerrville before the civil war, when he was a colonel stationed at Fort Mason and went to visit Camp Verde (about 12 miles south of Kerrville); Albert Sidney Johnston, too, was at Camp Verde.
The Kerrville they visited looked a lot different than what we call Kerrville today, and when they passed through our community, both men were thinking of camels.
Camp Verde was established in 1856 – the same year Kerr County was organized. It had been the idea of Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War in the Pierce administration, to use camels “for transportation purposes” across the deserts to our west.
According to Bob Bennett, in his useful history of Kerr County, Davis conceived this idea during the Mexican War of 1847-48, while serving with his father-in-law, Zachary Taylor.
A bill appropriating $30,000 for the purchase of the camels was passed by Congress in 1855, and a Navy store vessel, the “Supply,” was sent to obtain camels. The “Supply” visited Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and other countries, and brought 33 camels back to Indianola in April, 1856. Three Arab drivers came with the camels: Mico, “Greek George,” and Hadji Ali, known from here to Arizona as “Hi Jolly.”
The trip from Indianola to San Antonio took fourteen days; the camels were finally driven to their home at Camp Verde in August, 1856.
By the time of the Civil War, when Camp Verde was occupied by Confederate troops, the herd had increased to eighty head, not counting those in transport service from here to California, or those strays that had escaped the fort.
A Lt. Edward F. Beale was ordered to open a wagon road from New Mexico to California, and chose camels for the task, hoping to demonstrate their “practicability.” On this journey the camels “carried water on the desert for the mules; they traversed stretches of country covered with sharp volcanic rocks without injury to their feet; with heavy packs they climbed over mountains where mules found it difficult to go, even with the assistance of their dismounted drivers, and to the surprise of all the party, the camels plunged into rivers without hesitation and swam with ease.”
Two things doomed the experiment to introduce camels to the American west: the Civil War, and the fact that most Westerners had no experience with (or use for) camels.
The war ended the experiment because those involved were called to fight; many of those stationed in our area became generals in that war. The Confederate soldiers at Camp Verde during the war saw the herd increase to 100 head, but little was done with them during that time.
And those who worked with the camels had little use for them. According to Bennett, “Horses and mules had an unconquerable fear of them; packers and soldiers detested them.” These feelings were probably because the soldiers and packers had little experience with the animals.
It’s worth noting that the Beale expedition, mentioned above, included in its ranks “Greek George,” and “Hi Jolly,” two experts at loading and driving camels. That expedition noted the usefulness of the camels. Other expeditions, lacking expert guidance, didn’t fare as well.
After the war, of course, anything associated with Jefferson Davis wasn’t given a high priority by the federal government, so by 1869 the experiment and the fort were history. In 1866, the federal government got “out of the camel business,” selling sixty head of camels to Bethel Coopwood in San Antonio, at a price of $31 each. Camp Verde was abandoned November 30, 1869.
As for the camels other than those sixty sold to Coopwood, local lore says many were simply released into the wild. If you see a descendent of one of those Camp Verde camels, let me know.
Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who wishes his editor, Donna Hatch, the best of luck as she moves to Florida to be closer to family. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times October 3, 2015.