5/18/16 -Traveling Through the Mountains…on Camel Back?

May 18, 2016

I have always found the history of transportation in the West exciting, but as a historian, I find this subject increasingly relevant not only because it tells a story about changing technology and regional development, but because it also speaks to the power of individual ingenuity and innovation. While I was conducting research for an SHRA case, I came across a surprising tidbit of western transportation history.[1] It was news to me to discover that camels had joined horses, mules, and oxen as work animals on the western trails.

The idea of importing camels to the United States emerged in the 1830s as a means of easing the encumbrance on pioneers and army troops in the West. In 1836, U.S. Army LT George H. Crosman and E.H. Miller, submitted a report to Congress outlining the benefits of using camels as pack animals, especially in the southwest, due to the area’s rugged terrain and lack of water and forage. Crosman praised the camel, “for strength in carrying burdens, for patient endurance of labor, and privation of food, water & rest, and in some respects speed also.”[2] Despite Crosman’s plea that the camel was “unrivaled among animals,” Congress disregarded the suggestion.


In this Thomas Lovell painting, Lovell depicted the arduous journey that the Camel Corp endured in the 1850s. Source.

But the idea did not fade away, and in the 1850s, War Department Secretary Jefferson Davis successfully reintroduced the idea of importing camels, persuading Congress to appropriate $30,000 to purchase camels from Turkey.[3] The first shipment of 34 animals arrived for the Camel Corps Experiment at Indianola, Texas in May, 1856. From there, the U.S. Army marched the herd 120 miles to Fort Verde near San Antonio.[4] Over the course of the next few years, two additional supply ships of camels landed at Indianola. The U.S. Army soon discovered that six camels could do the work of 12 horses in 42 hours less time, and they could maneuver over trails that wagons could not manage.[5] The dromedaries even helped the men survey a wagon road route between Fort Defiance and the Colorado River.[6] However, with the start of the Civil War, support and funding for the Army’s additional importation of camels ceased.


John Butterfield, who had won a government contract for a southern mail and passenger route from St. Louis to San Francisco, procured camels in the fall of 1857 to build portions of his road through Texas, Tucson, Fort Yuma, and Los Angeles which became known as the Butterfield Overland Stage Route. Consequently, camels were in all of the territory of the Southwest by 1858.[7] Photo credit: HannaLore Hein

The Civil War, however, did not seem to affect the desire of western entrepreneurs in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, who also clamored to get in on the camel business to facilitate the development of the mining industry in the early 1860s. Otto Esche, a San Francisco merchant, was one of the first individuals to import camels to California. In fact, his first shipment of 15 Siberian camels arrived in San Francisco in July 1860.


Here a sketch depicts the dromedaries hauling supplies through the West’s rugged mountains. Source.

Esche planned to auction off the camels to Californians who came to San Francisco from as far south as Los Angeles to gawk at the animals. Yet, despite the large crowd, Esche was only able to sell two of his camels for less than $500 each, well below cost.[8] Eventually, Esche’s associate Julius Bandmann took nine camels to Nevada to haul salt from the Columbus Salt Marshes to the mines in Virginia City, after which men clamored to purchase the beasts of burden. Esche’s camels landed as far as Victoria, British Columbia where they worked in the Fraser River mines and as part of Frank Laumeister’s Dromedary Express until 1867 when Laumeister returned the animals to Nevada.


Here, a 1800s photograph shows camels in Missoula, Montana, where miners used the animals to haul materials to and from the mines. Source.

Although the animals had an affinity for the high desert mountains of Nevada, these “ships of the desert,” caused many problems for men who operated with horses and mules. Apparently, the camels did not “play nice” with these other pack animals, a problem that continued to grow. Consequently, the Nevada Legislature passed a law in February 1875 prohibiting camels from traveling on public roads and highways. Any man found guilty of breaking this law faced up to 30 days in jail and had to pay a fine of up to $100 dollars. This law spelled the end of camels as pack animals in Nevada. Most of the transport camels ended up in Mexico and Arizona working the mines there, while others freely roamed the Nevada desert. In fact, prospectors reported seeing wild herds as late as 1905. Still others ended up in circuses or zoos and rumors spread that the last of the government-imported camels died in the Griffith Park Zoo in Los Angeles in 1934.

Although the West’s camel experiment did not result in the wide-spread use and employment of camels for transport into the 20th century, this bit of western history spurred a 20th century hoax, which has since turned into Nevada tradition. In 1959, Virginia City, Nevada’s Territorial Enterprise reported that the city was going to hold an international camel race. Although the newspaper’s editor fabricated the article, a San Francisco newspaper reprinted the story as truth. In an effort to save face, editor Bob Richards scrambled to plan the event. In true western fashion, Hollywood Director John Huston rode in the first ever Virginia City Camel Race on a camel borrowed from the San Francisco Zoo.[9] This event quickly became a thing of legend, and Virginia City has hosted the event, which amounts to amateur jockeys riding on untamed camels, around a dirt track while onlookers holler, every year since. And so, even though camels are still banned from Nevada Highways and are no longer used as a means of transportation, the animals are still a part of Nevada history, tradition, and culture.


Here two camels race neck-and-neck in the 50th annual Virginia City camel race! Source.

– HannaLore Hein


[1] Samuel P. Davis, ed., The History of Nevada, 1913.

[2] Vince Hawkins, “The U.S. Army’s Camel Corps Experiment

[3] Lisa Wade, “The Military Camels of the North American West,” January 13, 2011

[4] Hawkins, “The U.S. Army’s Camel Corps Experiment

[5] Joe Zentner, “The Desert Camel Experiment

[6] Ibid

[7] Kathy Krouse, “The U.S. Army Camel Military Corps in Arizona, Part II,” May, 30, 2010

[8] Mark Hall-Patton, “Hump Days,” December 1, 2013

[9] Virginia City International Camel Races, SierraNevadGeotourism.org