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What Happened to the Wild Camels of the American West

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Initially seen as the Army's answer to how to settle the frontier, the camels eventually became a literal beast of burden

In the 1880s, a wild menace haunted the Arizona territory. It was known as the Red Ghost, and its legend grew as it roamed the high country. It trampled a woman to death in 1883. It was rumored to stand 30 feet tall. A cowboy once tried to rope the Ghost, but it turned and charged his mount, nearly killing them both. One man chased it, then claimed it disappeared right before his eyes. Another swore it devoured a grizzly bear.

“The eyewitnesses said it was a devilish looking creature strapped on the back of some strange-looking beast,” Marshall Trimble, Arizona’s official state historian, tells me.

Months after the first attacks, a group of miners spotted the Ghost along the Verde River. As Trimble explained in Arizoniana, his book about folk tales of the Old West, they took aim at the creature. When it fled their gunfire, something shook loose and landed on the ground. The miners approached the spot where it fell. They saw a human skull lying in the dirt, bits of skin and hair still stuck to bone.

Several years later, a rancher near Eagle Creek spotted a feral, red-haired camel grazing in his tomato patch. The man grabbed his rifle, then shot and killed the animal. The Ghost’s reign of terror was over.

News spread back to the East Coast, where the New York Sun published a colorful report about the Red Ghost’s demise: “When the rancher went out to examine the dead beast, he found strips of rawhide wound and twisted all over his back, his shoulders, and even under his tail.” Something, or someone, was once lashed onto the camel.

The legend of the Red Ghost is rich with embellishments, the macabre flourishes and imaginative twists needed for any great campfire story. Look closer, though, past the legend — past the skull and the rawhide and the “eyewitness” accounts — and you’ll discover a bizarre chapter of American frontier history. In the late 19th century, wild camels really did roam the West. How they got there, and where they came from, is a story nearly as strange as fiction.

In 1855, under the direction of then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, Congress appropriated $30,000 for “the purchase and importation of camels and dromedaries to be employed for military purposes.” Davis believed that camels were key to the country’s expansion westward; a transcontinental railroad was still decades away from being built, and he thought the animals could be well suited to haul supplies between remote military outposts. By 1857, after a pair of successful trips to the Mediterranean and the Middle East, the U.S. Army had purchased and imported 75 camels. Within a decade, though, each and every one would be sold at auction.

The camels were stationed in Camp Verde, in central Texas, where the Army used them as beasts of burden on short supply trips to San Antonio. In June 1857, under orders from Washington, the herd was split: more than two dozen were sent on an expedition to California, led by Edward Fitzgerald Beale. Five months later, Beale’s party arrived at Fort Tejon, an Army outpost a few miles north of Los Angeles. A California Historical Society Quarterly paper, written by A.A. Gray in 1930, noted the significance of that journey: “[Beale] had driven his camels more than 1,200 miles, in the heat of the summer, through a barren country where feed and water were scarce, and over high mountains where roads had to be made in the most dangerous places…He had accomplished what most of his closest associates said could not be done.”

Back east, the Army put the remaining herd to work at Camp Verde and at several outposts in the Texas region. Small pack trains were deployed to El Paso and Fort Bowie, according to a 1929 account by W.S. Lewis. In 1860, two expeditions were dispatched to search for undiscovered routes along the Mexican border. By that time, though, Congress had also ignored three proposals to buy additional camels; the political cost seemed to be too high. “The mule lobby did not want to see the importation of more camels, for obvious reasons,” Trimble says. “They lobbied hard, in Washington, against the camel experiment.”

If the mule lobby didn’t kill off the experiment, the Civil War did. At the dawn of the war, after Texas seceded from the Union, Confederate forces seized Camp Verde and its camels. “They were turned loose to graze and some wandered away,” Popular Science reported in 1909. “Three of them were caught in Arkansas by Union forces, and in 1863 they were sold in Iowa at auction. Others found their way into Mexico. A few were used by the Confederate Post Office Department.” One camel was reportedly pushed off a cliff by Confederate soldiers. Another, nicknamed Old Douglas, became the property of the 43rd Mississippi Infantry, was reportedly shot and killed during the siege of Vicksburg, then buried nearby.

By late 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, the camel experiment was essentially finished. The California camels, moved from Fort Tejon to Los Angeles, had foundered without work for more than a year. In September, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered the animals be put up for auction. An entrepreneur of the frontier named Samuel McLaughlin bought the entire herd in February 1864, then shipped several camels out to Nevada to haul salt and mining supplies in Virginia City. (McLaughlin raised money for the trip by organizing a camel race in Sacramento. A crowd of 1,000 people reportedly turned up to watch the spectacle.) According to Gray’s account, the animals that remained in California were sold to zoos, circuses, and even back to Beale himself: “For years one might have seen Beale working camels about his ranch and making pleasure trips with them, accompanied by his family.”

The Texas herd was auctioned off shortly thereafter, in 1866, to a lawyer named Ethel Coopwood. For three years, Coopwood used the camels to ship supplies between Laredo, Texas, and Mexico City — and that’s when the trail starts to go cold.

Coopwood and McLaughlin sold off their herds in small bunches: to traveling zoos, to frontier businessmen, and on and on. I spoke with Doug Baum, a former zookeeper and owner of Texas Camel Corps, to learn where they went from there. As it turns out, the answers aren’t so clear. When the Army brought its camels to Texas, private businesses imported hundreds more through Mobile, Galveston, and San Francisco, anticipating a robust market out West.

“Those commercially imported camels start to mix with the formerly Army camels in the 1870s,” says Baum. The mixed herds made it increasingly difficult to track the offspring of the Army camels. “Unfortunately, it’s really murky where they end up and what their ultimate dispositions were, because of those nebulous traveling menageries and circuses,” he says.

That’s not to say the fate of every Army camel was unknown. We know what happened to at least one: a white-haired camel named Said. He was Beale’s prized riding camel during the expedition west, and at Fort Tejon, he was killed by a younger, larger camel in his herd. A soldier, who also served as a veterinarian, arranged to ship Said’s body across the country to Washington, where it could be preserved by the Smithsonian Institution. The bones of that camel are still in the collections of the National Museum of Natural History.

And as for the rest? Many were put to use in Nevada mining towns, the unluckiest were sold to butchers and meat markets, and some were driven to Arizona to aid with the construction of a transcontinental railroad. When that railroad opened, though, it quickly sunk any remaining prospects for camel-based freight in the southwest. Owners who didn’t sell their herds to travelling entertainers or zoos reportedly turned them loose on the desert — which, finally, brings the story back to the Red Ghost.

Feral camels did survive in the desert, although there almost certainly weren’t enough living in the wild to support a thriving population. Sightings, while uncommon, were reported throughout the region up until the early 20th century. “It was rare, but because it was rare, it was notable,” Baum says. “It would make the news.” A young Douglas MacArthur, living in New Mexico in 1885, heard about a wild camel wandering near Fort Selden. A pair of camels were spotted south of the border in 1887. Baum estimates there were “six to ten” actual sightings in the postbellum period, up to 1890 or so. The legend of the Red Ghost — a crazed, wild monster roaming the Arizona desert — fit snugly within the shadow of the camel experiment.

“Do I think it happened? Yes,” Baum says. “And it very likely could’ve been one of the Army camels since it was an Arabian camel.” In other words, the fundamental details behind the legend might contain some truth. A wild camel, possibly an Army camel that escaped from Camp Verde, was spotted in Arizona during the mid-1880s. A rancher did kill that camel after spying it in his garden. And when that rancher examined the animal’s body, he found deep scars dug across its back and body.

Fact or fiction, the story of the Red Ghost still leads back to the inevitable, the unanswerable: Could a person really have been lashed onto a wild camel? Who was he? And if he did exist, why did he suffer such a cruel fate? Says Trimble, “There’s just all kinds of possibilities.”

This article originally appeared on Smithsonianmag.com

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