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Yes, this is true. It really is! I thought Bryce was pulling my leg yet again when he told this story about the camels in Heartbreak Trail. (After all, he’d already described the serpent in that lake up in Idaho, and I hardly believed him then. Read about it here >>) But Cook confirmed the new story. Camels were really shipped to the West in the 1800s.
No American ever took a camel seriously. They found it to be an ugly, bumpy creature with a face that shouted “stupid!” and eyes that popped out of its head. The camel was good only as a curiosity in a sideshow or a zoo. But all of that changed in 1848.
The United States had just won the Mexican War and taken over thousands of square miles in the Southwest (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California). How would eager settlers move supplies across this untracked desert wilderness? Congress thought the camel would be perfect. After all, didn’t camels do the majority of packing in North Africa? “Let’s ship some camels to America and see how they work,” the men decided. In 1855, Congress set aside money to do just that. They purchased thirty-three camels from Egypt and unloaded them at the port in Galveston, Texas.
The army officers who worked with the camels made some amazing discoveries about this unusual animal. It could travel as fast as a horse but could carry much more weight than either a horse or a mule—about 1,000 pounds! The camel felt right at home in the American desert, even eating the bitter-tasting bushes that dotted the land. Better yet, when the camels were tried out in the Colorado and California high country, it was discovered they took to the cold and high altitude just fine, and they were surefooted over steep slopes. They could even successfully swim the mountain streams. This seemed too good to be true!
By 1859, the government officials were “sold” on the camel. They wanted to bring 1,000 more to the Southwest. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the American Civil War of 1861-65 interrupted their ambitious plans. The camel might have overcome deserts, mountains, rivers, and heavy burdens, but it could not shake the worst obstacle of all: the animal itself. Americans were used to their beautiful horses, not this ungainly, goose-necked beast with bumpy knees, a split upper lip, and a loose, sagging jaw. One settler insisted that the first time his horse saw a camel, the horse became so frightened “it climbed a tree” to get away.
Worse than its homely appearance, the camel’s temperament exasperated the settlers. If a camel felt mistreated, it would spit a foul stream of saliva—and it was accurate up to ten feet away. Other times the camel sneezed a “mass of filth.” When really angry, the beast kicked or bit the nearest person, horse, mule, or cow within range. The camel stank both in body and breath and could emit a long, piercing cry that rattled the ear drums from afar.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, American settlers were much more interested in using the new transcontinental railroad to transport their goods rather than either the horse or the camel. Some of the camels from this experiment were given to zoos; others were set loose in the desert, where they were hunted by Indians or simply died off. The camel never found a permanent home in America.