At the entrance to Old Camp Verde
North of Bandera Pass, the Texas hills soften, then flatten and spread into ranch land, orchards, and towns. Where the former Great Western Cattle Trail intersects Verde Creek Road, a turn to the east brings you to the parking lot of the Camp Verde General Store and Post Office: an establishment with a century and a half of history, an abundance of modern wares, and a significant commitment to retailing.
But if you turn west, away from the store, choosing instead to follow the narrow, two-lane road along the cypress-lined banks of Verde Creek itself, you’ll come to the ruins of the general store’s namesake: the original Camp Verde. Established in 1855 as headquarters for Jefferson Davis’s so-called “Great Camel Experiment,” the camp had a short but memorable run as the U.S. Army’s only North American caravansary.
Having been convinced of the camel’s potential value for military operations, and having convinced Congress to approve a budget for his venture, Secretary Davis needed only three things to prove the animals’ worth: the camels themselves, a place for them to live, and someone to oversee their introduction to American soldiers.
The living quarters came first. As reports of the camels’ arrival began to circulate around the country, the May 5, 1856 issue of The Richmond [Virginia] Dispatch advised its readers:
THE CAMELS ARE COMING — The U.S. store ship Supply was at Kingston, Jamaica, on the 15th ult., with the cargo of camels for the U.S. Government. Only one had died on the passage. There are some Arabs along to attend to them.
The cargo is to be landed at Indianola, Texas. The “Indianola Bulletin,” of the 12th inst., says workmen are now busy in erecting inclosures for the camels that are now daily expected at that port for service on the Western plains. The building is to be 200 feet long, by 90 feet in width, and the inclosure will cover 10 acres of ground. It is proposed to keep the animals at this place several months, to recruit them.
Once the camels arrived at Indianola, and Camp Verde had been designated their base of operations, plans were drawn up for a traditional caravansary: the assumption being, perhaps, that familiarity would breed comfort for the camels. Andrew Jackson Sowell, in his 1900 work titled Early Settlers and Indian Fighters of Southwest Texas, provides some details:
A sketch had been made of an eastern caravansary in Asia Minor, and was reproduced at Camp Verde in every minute particular. It was built in a rectangular shape, except the north wall, which made an angle, the distance from each corner to this angle being 150 feet.
This was sixteen feet high and made of concrete and timber, called “pise” work. The timber came from Pensacola, Fla., and it cost the government $125 per thousand to get it here. The south walls were not so high, and in front was an open court, in which was a well with the old-style Egyptian sweep.
After the abandonment of Camp Verde in 1869, the caravansary was the first of the buildings to fall. Sowell notes that, by 1898, the support timbers had been removed, carried to San Antonio, and sold. Without supports, the walls collapsed into an earthen heap, and slowly began eroding away.
On March 26, 1910, fire destroyed the camp headquarters. A second-generation owner, W.H. Bonnell, had given the place new life as a hostelry: a “place of quiet retreat for those wishing to avoid the turmoil of modern civilization.”
As the San Antonio Express reported:
Thomas Blair, aged 44 years, unmarried, a citizen of Hamilton, Ohio, was burned to death in a fire that detroyed the ranch home of W.H. Bonnell, eight miles west of [Center Point] at 3 o’clock this morning.
The origin of the fire is unknown, though the theory is that it started in Blair’s room. The Bonnell family was awakened just in time to escape with their lives… The house was destroyed, and later this morning charred parts of Blair’s body were found in the ruins. Blair had been accustomed for several years to spend his summers at the Bonnell home.
The place where the fire occurred is popularly known as the “Camp Verde Ranch.”
Camp Verde Barracks Today
But the fire still was in the future when, in order to secure camels for his project, Secretary Davis appointed Army Major Henry C. Wayne, an 1834 graduate of West Point, to oversee one of the best shopping trips ever: an exploration of the markets of Tunis, Malta, Smyrna, Constantinople, and Alexandria, with only two items on the list — camels and dromedaries. The people of Indianola, Texas, were particularly interested in the details of his trip, leading the Indianola Bulletin to publish some of the first details on Friday, June 15, 1855:
The “Washington Star” furnishes the following information in regard to the subject of obtaining these “Ships of the Desert” for purposes of military transportation, etc.
Major Wayne has been selected, very properly, to conduct the experiment. To that end, he is about to start for the East, traveling overland from Liverpool or Harve. He is to purchase about fifty camels in Persia, of the kind which has been in use in that quarter of Asia for military purposes for centuries…
The United States ship Supply, in which they are to be brought hither, is to leave a cargo of stores in the Mediterranean for our squadron stationed there, on her way out. After taking in her turn cargo of camels, she will probably make for Indianola, Texas, and there land them.
As he traveled from port to port, Major Wayne was accompanied by Naval Lieutenant David Dixon Porter and Porter’s brother-in-law, illustrator and naturalist Gwinn Harris Heap.
Heap had been raised in the Middle East, where his father served as American consul in Tunisia. Heap himself became acting consul to Tunis in 1839, remaining there until 1846.
Throughout his writing, his affection for and understanding of camels is clear. Following an expedition undertaken with California Superintendent of Indian Affairs E.F. Beale in 1853, Heap published an account of their travels titled Central Route to the Pacific: From the Valley of the Mississippi to California, including an appendix which catalogued the virtues of camels. In it, Heap highlighted their power to endure hunger and thirst; their strength, speed. and endurance; their longevity; and their docility and willing obedience.
Once they’d met the camels, more than a few soldiers, ranchers and cowboys took issue with Heap’s claim of docile obedience, but the animals did well enough on board ship: perhaps because of the attentiveness and ingenuity of those charged with shipping the “ships of the desert” to America.
One of those so charged, Lieutenant Porter, arrived at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in May, 1855, ready to supervise modification and provisioning of the store ship Supply for her unusual mission. The nature of the modifications, the procedures for boarding the camels, and the specific rules and regulations for overseeing them while at sea are described in detail in the 1857 report, “Information Respecting the Purchase of Camels for the Purposes of Military Transportation.”
The USS Supply (Click to enlarge; click here for ship’s history)
Many procedures outlined in the report, such as those for boarding camels onto the Supply, are fascinating:
Lieutenant Porter solved, with his customary intelligence, the problem of loading the camels into the ship. He built first a boat 20 feet long and 7 feet wide, flat-bottomed so that it would easily slide up on the beach.
He then constructed the “camel car,” very strongly made and bound with iron, with a door at each end, and shaped to fit snugly into the boat. The camel was coaxed into the car, or, if he withstood coaxing and refused to enter, ten sailors with a block and tackle forced him in. The car, mounted on trucks, was then rolled down the beach and into the boat.
The car weighed 1,000 pounds and by means of it the animals, averaging in weight 1,400 pounds, but going as high as 2,000 pounds, were loaded into the ship at the rate of one each half hour.
Once boarded, the camels were cared for according to Lieutenant Porter’s inviolable rules, which included this: “The least thing the matter with an animal must be reported to me at once by the person in charge, and no change whatever in the management of them to be made without my orders.”
Other camel deck regulations clearly put the needs of the animals first. They were to have covers in cold weather, and when it warmed, the ventilating windows were to be opened. Each was to be curried and brushed every day, and their knees oiled once a week. When they lay down, they were to have hay under their knees and haunches, and in a storm, their specially-designed harnesses were to be inspected regularly to prevent chafing.
Reading over the camel-tenders’ Daily Journal, the need for rough-weather protocols becomes clear. As described in the formal report:
It was an interesting voyage home. The staunch little sailing craft met the most tremendous gales in the Mediterranean and was buffeted by unusually heavy weather during most of her trip across the Atlantic.
It was often necessary, in order that they might not be injured by the tossing of the sea during the more violent storms, to tie the camels down in the position they assume when kneeling to receive their burdens, which posture they held for days at a time, eating and drinking much as usual and suffering no harm beyond a temporary stiffening of the joints.
Eventually, the voyage was over. The New Orleans Times-Picayune, on 17 May, 1856, reported the experience of a witness to the final leg of the journey:
With a clear sky, fresh breeze and fine weather, [the Fashion] left the Crescent City on Friday morning, May 19th [sic], and directed our course down the Mississippi river, our object this trip being to convey a load of camels to Matagorda…
Towards evening, the dreary mud banks of the mouth came in view, the land all the time sinking lower and lower. The camels were on board the United States store ship Supply, by the side of which we were soon fastened, and ready to receive the animals.
It being late, we did not transfer any of them that day. We went aboard the ship Supply, however, impelled by curiosity, to see the wonderful beasts. They were lodged below, well sheltered from the bad weather, and had three Arabs and two Turks to attend to their wants.
The next day the camels were installed on their new home; but not without some difficulty, for their natural timidity rendered them difficult to manage. The animals being all safely on board, and everything in perfect order, we bade adieu to the ship Supply. Both fired a salute, and our ponderous wheels striking the waters soon bore us out into the open seas, in full speed for Matagorda Bay.
We arrived at the bay of Matagorda on Monday evening, May 12. The next morning the animals were taken ashore, and at last regained their liberty.
Major Wayne, in a letter written from Indianola on May 14, confirms the animals’ safe arrival to Secretary of War Davis, adding some delightful details:
SIR: I have the honor to report my arrival here with “the camels.” The animals were safely landed, all, by 11:30 a.m., at Powder Horn. They are in good condition, considering their long confinement on shipboard, the tossing upon the sea that they have been subjected to, and with the exception of a few boils and swelled legs, are apparently in health.
On being landed, and feeling once again the “solid earth” beneath them, they became excited to an almost uncontrollable degree: rearing, kicking, crying out, breaking halters, tearing up pickets, and by other fantastic tricks demonstrating their enjoyment of “the liberty of the soil”…
Saddling them as soon as it could be done, they were gently led to this place, arranged in the stable put up for them by Captain Van Bokkelen, and secured.
“On a New Shore” by Brian Norwood ~ A tribute to the camels at Indianola, Texas
A second trip in 1856 procured 41 additional camels, bringing the total number at Camp Verde (after births and deaths) to 70 animals.
Additional camel handlers arrived as well. Major Wayne’s bold prediction that “Americans will be able to manage camels not only as well, but better than Arabs, as they will do it with more humanity and with far greater intelligence,” had been somewhat off the mark.
The men who arrived with the first shipment of camels — Yiorgos Caralambo (Greek George), Hadji Ali (Hi Jolly), Mimico Teodora (Mico), Hadjiatis Yannaco (Long Tom), Anastasio Coralli (Short Tom), Michelo Georgios, Yanni Illato and Giorgios Costi — clearly knew camels in a way impossible for most American soldiers. Together with the new handlers, they helped ensure the camels’ success over the next ten years, as they hauled supplies between Camp Verde and Army headquarters in San Antonio, and were tested in treks across the great American desert.
Today, the parade grounds are empty. The camels, their keepers, and the dreamers have gone. But the end of Camp Verde hardly meant the end of the story: not for the camels, and not for men like Greek George and Hi Jolly. From Austin to Arizona, from Alberta to Los Angeles, the Camp Verde camels spread out across the land: entertaining, aggravating, and haunting in turn. (To be continued…)
The Remains of Camp Verde