On This Date in History: We’ve lately been examining Congressional spending. After all, that is the topic of conversation in the press these days. A few days ago we had an example of the Department of Agriculture spending a bunch of money on a pluviculturist…a rain maker who had the idea of firing cannon to explode in the sky and the concussion was to make rain.
This time, we have an example that actually is perhaps a bit more valuable. If the record is accurate, you will find that the idea of camel travel in the New World came up in 1700’s Virginia. The topic continued into the 19th Century and the use of the beasts of burden of the Middle East was given great consideration in 1836 for the exploration of the Southwest. But, the wheels of government traditionally move slow and it wasn’t for another 19 years that the camel came to Uncle Sam. On this date in 1855, Congress made a $30,000 appropriation to fund the US Army Camel Corps. Who was the guy who pushed the hardest for the appropriation? None other than Secretary of War Jefferson Davis who in just 5 years would become the President of the ill-fated Confederate States of America. Davis may have been effective in getting money from Congress but he couldn’t get those wheels to move any faster.
It took a year, but 32 camels arrived in Indianola, Texas after a three month journey from Egypt. The smell was reported to be “horrendous” which is saying alot when one considers that 19th Century America was still mainly driven by animal power. Nevertheless, the man in charge of the operation was so enamoured with the animals that he immediately asked for more. Lt. Edward Beale was charged with making the first expedition and took 25 of the camels to investigate a route from New Mexico to California and is credited with surveying the trail that would become part of the famous Route 66. Beale loved the fact that the animals could each carry on their back as much as a wagon pulled by six mules and travel nearly twice as fast. Based in part on the report of Beale, the War Department acquired 1000 more camels in 1858.
But…the country was getting closer to splitting apart by then and Congress, as well as Jefferson Davis, had turned its attention to the slavery issue and the potential for secession. Also, the attributes put forth by Beale notwithstanding, soldiers found the animals rather difficult to handle. Those factors and the Civil War led the army to end the program in 1863. Most of the animals were auctioned and ended up in circuses or going to work for mining companies that took advantage of the payload and speed considerations of camels. But, there were some that simply got away. One was referred to as the Red Ghost. It was a giant camel with red fur that was first spotted some two decades after the project ended. In the Arizona Territory in 1883 the Red Ghost appeared outside a cabin and trampled a woman to death. Now, why would a camel attack a frontier woman?
As it turns out, the Red Ghost didn’t like anyone and perhaps for good reason. Seems that the creature had a human corpse tied to its back. No one got close enough to determine if the guy was dead before he was lashed to the Red Ghost’s back or after but I’m sure that the camel didn’t care either way. All he knew was that he had a stinking, decaying dead guy on his back. The Red Ghost continued to roam about for another ten years before someone decided it was a good idea to shoot him. Wild camels in the West were reported for many years to come with last sighting coming in 1941. No word on if there was a dead guy on that one or not.