Explorations for Wagon Roads – Camels

Felix Aubrey, who was identified with the Santa Fe Trade, was the first explorer of a wagon route over the 35th parallel, he having driven a wagon all the way from San Jose, California, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1854. Aubrey was accompanied by sixty men, and brought with him to Peralta the wagon which was driven the entire distance, thus furnishing irrefutable evidence that both a wagon road and a railroad were practicable to San Francisco over the 35th parallel. His notes of the journey were printed in the Missouri Republican of September 26th, 1854, and it is to be regretted that they are nowhere to be found in the Government reports, as Aubrey was a private citizen. He also drove over this route a band of sheep into California, without loss.

Aubrey, whose name is thus identified with the early history of Arizona, on his return from this last trip, met his death on the 18th of August, 1854, in Santa Fe, at the hands of Major Weightman in a personal encounter.

Aubrey’s trip undoubtedly stirred up the Government to make a further exploration of that route with a view to establishing a wagon route for the benefit of emigrants into California.

In Senate Document, Second Session, 33rd Congress, Chapter 169, will be found the following:

”Sec. 4. And be it further enacted, That the sum of thirty thousand dollars be, and the same is hereby appropriated under the direction of the War Department in the purchase of camels and importation of dromedaries, to be employed for military purposes. Approved March 3, 1855.”

Jeff Davis, the Secretary of War, appointed Major Henry C. Wayne, of the United States Army, and Lieutenant D. D. Porter, of the United States Navy, to visit Cairo, Smyrna and other points in the East for the purpose of selecting the best camels and bringing them to the United States, to be used in transportation across what was then called “The Great American Desert.” The camels were to be used as beasts of burden, their usual load being from six hundred pounds up to eight hundred pounds; the dromedaries to be used for express purposes. A daily journey for the camel was about thirty miles, but the dromedaries would go seventy-five. The advantage in substituting these animals for horses and mules over the desert country was that they did not require anything like the care of a horse or mule; that they could go for days without water and would subsist on the coarsest of grass and the sprouts of young trees. The camel was a hardy animal that could do good work even in a cold climate. The information given in response to inquiries made in reference to them showed that while they travelled well over the plains in sand or gravel, yet they could also travel through a mountainous country, the rocks apparently having no effect upon their feet.

Upon the first expedition, Major Wayne brought over thirty-three of these animals, nine dromedaries or runners, twenty-three camels of burden, and one calf. Among them were two humpbacked Bactrian camels for use in breeding with the Arabian female. This cross breeding produced a hybrid something like our mule, with only one hump, but much stronger and more serviceable than the ordinary camel. Six Arabs, one of them a Bedouin of the Desert, and a professed camel doctor, came over with the herd, which was successfully transported from Smyrna to Indianola, Texas, where they were landed on May 14, 1856. After they were rested up from their journey, they were driven by easy stages to San Antonio where experiments were made by Major Wayne who was in charge, all of which were very satisfactory. It was found that three camels could carry as much as six mules could draw in a wagon over that country, and could travel twice as fast as the mules. They could, upon occasion, for a day or two at a time, carry burdens of eight hundred to a thousand pounds.

These animals were brought over in the United States vessel “Supply,” Lieutenant D. D. Porter, afterwards an Admiral in the Union Navy in the Civil War, commanding. He made a second trip to Africa, and, returning, landed at Indianola February 17th, 1857, another herd of these animals.

In the fall of 1857 Lieutenant Edward F. Beale, U. S. Topographical Engineers, was ordered to open a wagon road from Fort Defiance, New Mexico, to the eastern frontier of California, and a part of the herd of the camels was put at his disposal for this expedition. The journey was through a wilderness of forest, plain and desert, and occupied forty-eight days, when the Colorado River was reached on October 18th. Lieutenant Beale, in speaking of the work performed by the camels on this trip, declares that they saved the members of the expedition very many hardships, and excited the admiration of the whole party by their ability and willingness to perform the tasks set them. Being determined to give a most thorough demonstration of the practicability of using camels on such expeditions, he subjected them to trials which no other animals could have endured. They carried the water on the desert for the mules; they traversed stretches of country covered with the sharpest 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 them with ease. Lieutenant Beale left San Antonio June 25th, 1857, and, on July 11th, he says:

“The camels are now keeping up easily with the train, and came into camp with the wagons.

My fears as to their feet giving out, as I had been led to believe from those who seemed to know, have so far proved entirely unfounded, though the character of the road is exceedingly trying to brutes of any kind. My dogs cannot travel at all upon it, and after going a short distance run to the wagons and beg to be taken in. The camels, on the contrary, have not evinced the slightest distress or soreness; and this is the more remarkable, as mules or horses, in a very short time, get so sore footed that shoes are indispensable. The road is very hard and firm, and strewn all over it is a fine, sharp, angular, flinty gravel – very small, about the size of a pea – and the least friction causes it to act like a rasp upon the opposing surface. The camel has no shuffle in his gait, but lifts his feet perpendicularly from the ground, and replaces them, without sliding, as a horse or other quadrupeds do. This, together with the coarsely granulated and yielding nature of his foot, which, though very tough, like gutta percha, yields sufficiently without wearing off, enables them to travel continuously in a country where no other barefoot beast would last a week.”

These camels, let it be said in passing, were under the charge of Orientals, ”Greek George” and “Hi Jolly,” who came with them from the Orient and attended to their packing.

In several places in his diary, Lieutenant Beale speaks in the same laudatory terms of the use of the camel, but it is significant that in his report to the Secretary of War, bearing date April 26th, 1858, there is no allusion made to these beasts. He speaks, however, in high terms of the route passed over, and, in reference to the climate he says:

“Accompanying my journal is a table showing the thermometer at its highest elevation and lowest depression during the day on our outward journey in the months of September and October, and another kept on my return in January and February for the same purpose. A comparison of the two established the interesting fact that one may travel the road in winter and summer without suffering the extremes of heat or cold.”

In reference to the route he says:

“As far as the San Francisco Mountains, the road needs scarcely any other improvements than a few bridges. In one place alone a bridge at the Canyon Diablo would save twenty-five or thirty-five miles travel, and on the whole road its length might be shortened by subsequent explorations and by straightening elbows, one hundred miles. As this will inevitably become the great emigrant road to California, as well as that by which all stock from New Mexico will reach this place, it is proper that the Government should put it in such condition as to relieve the emigrant and stock drivers of as many of the hardships incident to their business as possible.”

To do this he recommended that water dams be constructed at short intervals over the entire route, and that a few military posts be established, and a few bridges constructed, as he was of the opinion that if this were done, the whole emigration to the Pacific Coast would pursue this one line, instead of being divided and scattered over a half a dozen different routes.

He calls attention to the fact that it would be economical on the part of the Government to protect only one line instead of a dozen, and that the money thus saved would pay all the expenses attending the construction of the road. He says:

“I presume there can be no further question as to the practicability of the country near the thirty-fifth parallel for a wagon road, since Aubrey, Whipple and myself, have all travelled it successfully with wagon, neither of us in precisely the same line, and yet through very much the same country. ” Starting with a drove of three hundred and fifty sheep, that number was increased by births upon the road, but not one was lost during the journey.”

In order at all times to produce a sufficient quantity of water, he recommends a system of dams across the ravines and canyons. He says that during the year he was engaged upon this work, he had not lost a single man, nor was there the slightest case of sickness in the camp, that the medicine chest proved only an encumbrance. Continuing, he says:

“My surgeon having left me at the commencement of the journey, I did not employ, nor did I have need of one on the entire road. Even in midwinter, and on the most elevated portions of the road, not a tent was spread, the abundant fuel rendering them unnecessary for warmth and comfort.”

He winds up his report by asking for an appropriation of one hundred thousand dollars, to build bridges, cut off elbows and straighten the road from point to point and make other improvements and explorations, claiming that the public lands, which would be brought into the market and sold within three years after the opening of this road would repay fourfold the appropriation asked.

Lieutenant Beale’s route led through the Zuni Villages to Navaho Springs, passing south of the San Francisco Mountains and crossing the Colorado about one hundred and twenty-five miles above The Needles.

After this expedition, the camels were used in various capacities during the time of the overland stages, but proved to be utterly useless, probably because inexperienced men were left to handle them. The true Westerner had no use for camels; horses and mules had an unconquerable fear of them; packers and soldiers detested them. In or about the year 1863, the remainder of the herd, about 14, was turned loose in Arizona, and left to make their own living without the aid or assistance of man. At this writing it is believed they are extinct.

In the year 1876, two Frenchmen gathered together thirty odd head roaming over the desert section north of the Salt and Gila rivers, and took them to Nevada for the purpose of packing wood and salt into the Comstock mines. These ungainly beasts, however, so frightened the freighters’ mules and became such a nuisance that the old Comstock freighters notified the Frenchmen to take the animals out of the country, or else they would be shot. The Frenchmen then took them down to some mining camp in Sonora, which was the last ever heard of this particular band of animals.

In 1879, according to the Expositor of September 26th of that year, a great many camels were running wild along the banks of the Gila in Arizona. They were a source of much annoyance to the teamsters, sometimes making their appearance on the highway and frightening mules and horses. “We understand,” says that paper, “that arrangements are being made to collect the animals together and take them to Colorado where it is thought they can be sold at good prices.”

In the Prescott Democrat of December 30th, 1881, there is this reference to the Arizona camels:

“A capture has at last been made by Indians in the vicinity of Gila Bend, and last Wednesday a carload passed through on their way to the East. While they stopped at the depot quite a large crowd gathered to see them. The carload consisted of seven large and two small ones and were consigned to a circus menagerie at Kansas City. They were in charge of an Egyptian, Al Zel, who had been sent out expressly to get them. They do not differ from ordinary camels seen in this country except that they far exceed in size any ever yet exhibited. The price said to have been paid for them is trifling, the Indians being very anxious to get rid of them as their horses and cattle are greatly frightened by them. There are a large number still in that vicinity.

A dispatch from Tucson, under date of November 28th, 1913, says:

“John Nelson, ax man with the A jo railroad surveying party, at the La Favorita saloon on South Meyer Street last Monday afternoon, solemnly averred that he had seen and hunted camels between the Baboquivari and Gunsight Mountains. He refers the doubting Thomases to Mr. Douglas, a draughtsman now at Gila Bend working up the results of the survey into maps, for confirmation.

“It was one morning about five weeks ago, as I lay in my tent, that I saw the head of an animal peeking at us over the mesquite trees, which stood 15 feet high at the least. It could not have been a horse.

“Have you ever seen a camel?” was asked.

“I have, at circuses. Well, later in the day, Douglas and I mounted our horses and went out to hunt for the beast. We found three of them and ran them across the desert. They outstripped our horses.”

From this last statement it would appear that there are still some roving bands of camels along the deserts of the Lower Gila in the Ajo country That part of the state is almost exclusively desert, and would make a fine home for these animals, if any remain, but the probabilities are that the camels not accounted for, have long since been killed by the Indians, and made into “jerky.”

This is not the first time camels were introduced as beasts of burden into Western America. The same plan was tested in Spanish America three centuries before Jefferson Davis’ time. The first animals imported into the New World were six females and a male, for which Pedro Portocarrero, of Truxilo, paid 8,400 ducats. They proved as useless in the deserts of Peru as they did later upon the sand dunes of the Gila.

Humboldt recommended the use of them for freighting on the Mexican and Peruvian Saharas, declaring that their earlier failures were on account of political pull. “Charles F. Lummis says:

“Major Wayne, chief hero of the camel experiment, is probably the only man that ever drove a pair of dromedaries to harness in the United States, outside of a circus. He did this in 1856, while bringing his charges up to Texas from the seaboard, and found the team satisfactory.”

Of the abilities and habits of the camel, J. M. Guinn writes:

“He could travel sixteen miles an hour. Abstractly that was a virtue; but when camp was struck in the evening, and he was turned loose to sup off the succulent sagebrush, either to escape the noise and profanity of the camp or to view the country, he was always seized with a desire to take a pasear of twenty-five or thirty miles before supper. While this only took an hour or two of his time, it involved upon his unfortunate driver the necessity of spending half the night in camel chasing; for if he was not rounded up there was a delay of half the next day in starting the caravan. He could carry a ton – this was a commendable virtue – but when two heavily laden ‘ships of the desert’ collided on a narrow trail, as they always did when an opportunity offered, and tons of supplies were scattered over miles of plain and the unfortunate camel pilots had to gather up the flotsam of the wreck, it is not strange that the mariners of the arid wastes anathematized the whole camel race from the beast the prophet rode down to the smallest imp of Jefferson Davis ‘ importation.”

Greek George, who accompanied Lieutenant Beale in his wagon road expedition, and, with Hi Jolly, had charge of the camels, when the Civil War commenced, left Arizona, and settled in California, where he died only a few years ago. Hi Jolly made his home in Arizona, being employed in various capacities by the military, several times as scout. He made an unsuccessful attempt to obtain a pension from the United States Government, and died in poverty about the year 1902.

Notes About Book:

Source: History Of Arizona Volume 1, By Thomas Edwin Farish, 1915, Printed and Published by Direction of the Second Legislature of the State of Arizona, A. D.

Notes about Online Publication: This manuscript has been ocr’d and heavily edited. Many of the Native American words have been reproduced as clearly as online publication will allow us, but not all are exactly the way they were in the original work. The structure of this manuscript has been changed to allow better online presentation.

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