New Kerr County History Book Available!

Sunday, January 5, 2020

What happened to the Camp Verde camels? Here's where 14 ended up.

A camel in Central Park, New York, New York, in the late 1860s. (Wikimedia Commons.)
Click on any image below to enlarge.
Shortly before Thanksgiving my friend Michael Bowlin, who has been writing about Kerr County history a lot longer than I, sent over a clipping from the Janesville, Wisconsin Gazette, dated February 10, 1868:
1858 Camp Verde map, found by
the late Joseph Luther
“Fourteen camels, raised in Texas, have arrived at Indianola, to be shipped to New York, and placed in the Central Park of that city. Some years ago, it will be remembered, a lot of camels were imported by the War Department for use in transportation of supplies across the desert regions of New Mexico; and the lot above referred to came from that stock, having been raised in Camp Verde, Texas.”
What became of the Camp Verde camels has been a local question since the fort was finally abandoned in 1869. The question persists, even beyond Kerr County. In a recently published novel, Inland, by Téa Obreht, the fate of some of the camels and their cameleers is crucial to the story, which takes place in the deserts of southern Arizona. Closer to home, a Camp Verde camel can be found in The Which Way Tree, by Elizabeth Crook, a writer who lives in Austin.
Why, you might ask, were there camels at Camp Verde?
Camp Verde, around 1935
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.
Mowing "Sheep Meadow,"
in New York's Central Park

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.
Camp Verde, by Bryden,
probably 1940s or 1950s
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. 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.
Camel rides, Central Park
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.
After the war, of course, anything associated with Jefferson Davis wasn’t given 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.
Whether the camels shipped to New York’s Central Park were from the herd owned by Coopwood, no one knows.
The February 13, 1868 issue of the New York Times had this on page 4:
“The young people who frequent the Central Park, and the musical amateurs also, very probably, will be glad to hear that the camels are coming, being at present on their way from the State of Texas, for the purpose of being domiciled along with the rest of the fauna now in the menagerie of our metropolitan pleasure-ground. These camels are native Americans, born of the animals imported from the East several years ago for some of the more desert tracts of the South and the West.”
The camels proved popular, and several photo postcards from that time show camels wandering around Central Park, or being fed by visitors. Not a bad gig for 14 Kerr County natives.
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who would like to visit the grounds of Camp Verde. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times January 4, 2020.

Two books, filled with historic photographs of Kerr County, are now available.  Both books are available at Wolfmueller's BooksHerring Printing Company, and online by clicking HERE.

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