The Ghosts of Camels Past: From Winsome to Weird

Doug Baum & Gobi check out El Paso’s “Tumbleweed Times”

I suspect Mary Shirkey would have enjoyed meeting Doug Baum, founder of the Texas Camel Corps. Clearly, she would have enjoyed meeting Doug’s sidekick, Gobi: especially if they met during the camel’s seasonal shedding, when Gobi’s fine, undercoat hair could be collected.

Mrs. Shirkey seems to have had entrepreneurial tendencies, combined with a decent amount of chutzpah. In a letter written to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis from San Antonio on August 12, 1856, Henry Wayne, the U.S. Army Major charged with overseeing Davis’s Great Camel Experiment, described the results of his encounter with Mrs. Shirkey as the camels traveled from Indianola to Camp Verde.

MY DEAR SIR: I have the honor to enclose herewith a pair of socks knit for [President Pierce] by Mrs. Mary A. Shirkey, of Victoria, Texas (lately of Virginia) from the pile of one of our camels.
In her letter to me accompanying the socks, Mrs. Shirkey says: “I have been much longer preparing the socks than I thought I should be when you left my house. I knit one, and found it too coarse. I then spun some finer, and knit the pair I have sent you.”
“If I had the machinery, I could have made you a better specimen of what the camel’s wool could do in Texas. I have spun the first thread and made the first article of clothing out of the wool in this country….”
Camel hair (?) socks from Turkmenistan (click image for more information)
The fleece from which these socks were knit consisted of the loose dead hair of the past year that I had clipped off on the 9th of June, to relieve the animal of its weight and heat. The fact of its being dead (not living) hair may have, perhaps, some influence upon the softness of the fabric woven from it.
The socks, at any rate, demonstrate the practical utility of the camel’s pile, and convey an idea of its probable value, should the animal live and thrive among us.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
HENRY C. WAYNE, Major, U.S. Army

For a generation after, when South Texans were asked about memorable events in their lives, even those who received no socks joined Mrs. Shirkey in remembering “when the herd of camels came into view and passed by my house.” Wherever Major Wayne and his entourage camped, people came to see the marvelous beasts: particularly the baby camel, which, as Chris Emmett said, “seemed to be having a very good time exploring in the New World.” 

But the camels weren’t meant to provide socks and circuses. After a second group of animals arrived at Indianola and made their way to Camp Verde, expeditions into the desert southwest were begun to test their endurance and suitability for military service.

The first major expedition, led by the same E.F. Beale whose earlier travels helped bring camels to America, stretched from Fort Defiance in western New Mexico to Fort Tejon, California, just north of Los Angeles. The route he surveyed, known initially as the 35th Parallel Wagon Road, today is celebrated in song and story as part of Route 66.

Beale expedition, Camp Verde, Texas to Tejon Pass, California, 1857-1858
(Map by W.D. Smithers. Click image to enlarge.)

After experiencing the trip with about two dozen Camp Verde camels, Beale sang their praises as pack-animals, even though he occasionally could be less sanguine about their habits and personalities:

They are the most docile, patient and easily managed creatures in the world, and infinitely more easily worked than mules. From personal observation of the camels I would rather undertake the management of twenty of them than of five mules.
We had them on this journey sometimes for twenty-six hours without water, exposed to a great degree of heat, the mercury standing at one hundred and four degrees, and when they came to water they seemed to be almost indifferent to it. Not all drank, and those that did, not with the famished eagerness of other animals when deprived of water for the same length of time. 
Camel Train in Nevada ~ Harper’s Weekly, June 30, 1877 (Click image for more detail)

Lieutenants Edward Hartz and William Echols of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, in their survey of the Trans-Pecos in 1859, confirmed Beale’s report that “[camels] will get fat where a jackass would starve to death.” Heading west from Fort Stockton into the Chihuahuan Desert, they provisioned for the horses and mules, but allowed the camels to fend for themselves. Writing for Texas Highways, Michael Marks notes that:

The camels seemed content to gnaw on the ocotillo, creosote, prickly pear, and catclaw they found along the trail. And although they hauled barrels of water for the expedition’s other mammals, the camels themselves usually only drank when they came across a stream or a creek.

Alexander Sweet and J. Armoy Knox, travelers who recorded their own impressions of Texas in a volume titled On A Mexican Mustang Through Texas, From the Gulf to the Rio Grande, added a humorous observation regarding the camels’ diet:

The Texas camel is a voracious feeder. His principal food is the prickly leaves of the cactus and the beans of the mesquite tree; but he does not confine himself altogether to a vegetable diet.
When opportunity offers, he will reach up after the glass insulators of a lightning rod or telegraph pole, and conceal them in his commissary, or he will stand by the hour meekly chewing up a wagon sheet, when he cannot get a chance to eat the well-rope or a wheelbarrow.

Over time, the camels proved their worth as pack animals. Able to bear up to a thousand pounds of cargo, they carried munitions, salt, dry goods, and water for the military; some carried the mail between Tucson and Los Angeles. Aways, they provided entertainment, as this Los Angeles newspaper account from 1858 makes clear:

 [Surveyor] General Beale and about fourteen camels stalked into town last Friday week, and gave our streets quite an Oriental aspect. It looks oddly enough to see, outside of a menagerie, a herd of huge, ungainly, awkward but docile animals, move about in our midst, with people riding them like horses.
They bring up weird and far-off associations to the Eastern traveller, whether by book or otherwise, of the lands of the mosque, crescent or turban, of the pilgrim mufti and dervish, with visions of the great shrines of the world, Mecca and Jerusalem, and the toiling throngs that have for centuries wended thither; of the burning sands of Arabia and Sahara, where the desert is boundless as the ocean and the camel is the ship thereof.
A metal sculpture of camels near Borrego Springs, California

Despite the animals’ obvious utility, the Great Camel Experiment eventually began to unravel. The outbreak of the Civil War; the reluctance of the U.S. government to continue a program associated with Jefferson Davis; the capture of the camels by the Confederacy and their subsequent return to the Union; the dislike of soldiers both Union and Confederate for the beasts; the coming of the railroads — all contributed to the program’s demise.

As the Army brought the experiment to an end, some camels were sold at auction. A few were purchased by Beale for his California ranch. Others escaped to wander the countryside, astonishing travelers in the process. Some were used as pack animals in Nevada, carrying salt and hay to the Comstock gold and silver mines before being sent on to Arizona, where they hauled ore from the Silver King mine to Yuma. Eventually, some were turned loose into the desert, near Maricopa Wells.

In March of 1866, after Unionists retook Camp Verde and began carrying out orders to sell the camels, a San Antonio lawyer named Bethel Coopwood joined in a partnership to purchase 61 camels.

[After offering] a winning bid of $31.00 a head, he sold some of the camels to a circus for $3,745, and used the proceeds and the remaining camels to start a freight and mail business from San Antonio to Mexico. Local Presbyterian minister Velie C. Ostrum joined him in the enterprise, and though successful for a time, the business eventually failed.
Coopwood found another partner, Dr. M.A. Taylor, who loaned him $10,000 to restart the freight business, but this venture failed too. Coopwood and his camels stayed a familiar sight in San Antonio for many years afterward. Local stories said the he had a favorite camel named “Kitchen,” and that, from time to time, he rode Kitchen the 70 miles from a home in Austin to his San Antonio law office.

Eventually, through a combination of circumstances, Dr. Taylor brought part of the herd to Austin. His daughter, Mrs. Howell Bunton, recalled:

It was during the time that Davis, or afterwards when Coke was governor of Texas — I don’t remember the exact date — that a small herd of camels was brought to Austin by my father, Dr. M. A. Taylor, and kept for a while on vacant lots adjoining our home…
In the herd that my father acquired was a very gentle camel. I remember “Old Kate,” as she was called. She was the joy of every child in the city. Every day, crowds of them would congregate on the vacant lots and their screams of laughter could be heard for blocks as they safely rode on her back.
The keeper was a very kind man and fond of children, and he seemed to get much pleasure out of their sport, for he was always ready to order Old Kate to lie down, and when she fell to her knees he would let any child that could scramble on her back, and then he would prod her with a stick, and with a hunch she was on her feet again.
Camels on parade in Austin, Texas, c. 1890 (Click image to enlarge)

For her patience and forebearance, Old Kate may have been allowed to attend Austin’s Mardi Gras. According to Coopwood’s descendants, thirty-two of the Camp Verde camels, or their offspring, took part in the parade: “pulling the King’s float while being led by costumed Negroes holding lighted torches.”

When they weren’t partying, the camels took their ease in lush, central Texas pastures. Travelers Sweet and Knox may have happened upon Taylor’s camels as they traveled through the Hill Country from Fredericksburg:

In a pasture near Austin, we saw about twenty camels. In our jouneyings through Texas we had seen many strange things, but nothing so strange and foreign as a camel rancho. To meet a camel in a menagerie is not surprising; but to come suddenly on a herd of camels, grazing quietly on an American prairie, is certainly startling.

As the camels went, of course, so went the camel-keepers. After quiet, anonymous lives, most faded away quietly, but three of their number, all Greek, still are remembered today.

Mimico Teodora (known as Mico) remained near Camp Verde and built an adobe house along the Bandera highway. He was buried near Verde Creek, along a smaller, south-flowing creek which still bears his name.

Yiorgos Caralambo (known as Greek George) joined the Beale expedition in order to care for the camels, then stayed on in California. After traveling with camels purchased by Samuel McLaughlin for salt-hauling, he was hired in the 1870s to oversee the cattle and horses of lawyer and rancher Major Henry Hancock, whose family came into possession of California’s Rancho La Brea and made a fortune from the sale of its tar, asphalt, and oil to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

In 1867, Greek George became a naturalized American citizen, taking the name George Allen. He lived in present day West Hollywood, in a home thought to have been near the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and King’s Road, and he was buried in southern California after his death in 1913.

Despite occasional references to Philip Tedro as “a little Arab,” he was born in Smyrna of half-Greek, half-Syrian parentage. After converting to Islam and making the pilgrimage to Mecca, he become a Hadji, and was known as Hadji Ali. The inability of his American counterparts to pronounce his name led to the nickname of “Hi Jolly,” by which he still is known today.

After serving with the French Army in Algiers, he signed on as a camel driver for the U.S. Army in 1856, came to Camp Verde, and traveled with Greek George in Beale’s expedition to map the 35th parallel.

Philip Tedro, known as Hi Jolly

After the end of the camel experiment, Tedro divided his time between hauling freight (sometimes with burros and sometimes with camels, as between Yuma and Tucson), prospecting, and serving the U.S. Cavalry as a scout.

He married Gertrude Serna of Tucson in 1880, and they remained in that city for some time: becoming parents of Amelia and Herminia. Details of the following years are sketchy. Eventually, Tedro popped up again: living in a cabin near Tyson’s Wells (Quartzsite) Arizona, and mining with a burro. When he died, walking the old desert road between the Colorado River and Wickenburg on December 16, 1902, he was 73 (or 74, or 75) years old.

His burial site in the Quartzsite Cemetery was a simple grave with a wooden placard. The mourners, it seems, were primarily other old prospectors. The site was untended until 1934, when James L. Edwards of the Arizona Highway Department arranged for a more fitting memorial: a ten foot tall, pyramidal monument constructed from native stones such a black malapai, petrified wood, and gold-bearing quartz.

Topped with a copper camel, the pyramid also contains a vault in the base which is said to hold old letters, government contracts for Jolly’s work as camel driver and scout, and roughly a dollar’s worth of change: his total wealth when he died.

The ashes of Topsy, his favorite camel and the last camel from the original herd, also have been added to the pyramid. Topsy outlived her friend by thirty-two years, dying at the age of 80 in 1934, at the Garfield Zoo in Los Angeles.

It would be easy to say those are the facts, but certain stories record the facts somewhat differently. One version, passed from person to person over the years and reprinted in the Arizona Capitol Times in 1995, is especially memorable:

The final, sad act of the drama occurred on December 16, 1902, when 75-year-old Hi Jolly was sitting in a saloon at Quartzite, Arizona. A prospector stumbled in, telling of a huge, red camel wandering nearby. Hi Jolly rushed outside, and was never seen alive again.
Legend states that his withered body was found weeks later in the remote desert. There he lay, with lifeless arms wrapped around the neck of the last camel in the West.

Another legend, recorded by Robert Froman in American Heritage Magazine in 1961, had Hi Jolly tied into the saddle of a camel called the Red Ghost, or el Fantasma Colorado. The pair usually appeared in the midst of dust storms, then disappeared without a trace.

The Red Ghost wasn’t precisely a ghost. Its end was fleshed out by Froman in his American Heritage account of events, and chronicled in the Mohave County Miner of Mineral Park, Arizona, on February 25, 1893:

[The Red Ghost] first appeared ten years ago, shortly after Geronimo’s disastrous raid through southern Arizona. A couple of Mexicans washing for gold…had their tent thrown down over them, and awoke in time to hear the tread of galloping hoofs and a terrible shriek. They got clear of the wreck in time to see something taller than two horses tear into the brush.
They told their story at Ore the next day, and people went out to investigate. They found strange tracks in the creek mud and saw where the brush had been broken down by the passage of some great beast. But the mysterious trail was lost among the rocky hills, and that was the last of the Red Ghost for some days.

The next appearance, some miles away at Eagle Creek, resulted in the death of a woman by trampling. After that, Si Hamlin, a hunter in the Salt River country, got a good look at it, recognized it as a camel, and thought that it was carrying a man.

Everyone thought he was hallucinating, until a couple of prospectors saw it and took their shots. When the camel jumped before taking off, something tumbled away. When the men went to inspect whatever had fallen, they “found a man’s head, dry and withered, but with flesh and hair still on it.” Eventually, a cowboy had his own encounter with the Fantasma Colorado, and confirmed that the “pack” it carried was, in fact, a man: albeit minus his head.

At that point, the huge, red camel became less ghostly than macabre. Still, it was of interest when Mizoo Hastings, who ranched above the gold camp on the San Francisco, woke one morning to see the camel browsing away in his turnip patch. At that point:

Mizoo took a dead rest over the window sill and blazed away. He got the camel. When he went out to examine the beast, he found him covered with a perfect network of knotted rawhide strips. They had been on him so long that some of the strips had cut their way into the flesh. The camel was all scarred up, and evidently had a very hard time.
Now everybody down in that country is wondering whether the man was tied on there Mazeppa fashion for deviltry or revenge, whether it was some lunatic’s hideous scheme of suicide, or merely an ugly piece of humor of somebody who had a camel and a corpse for which he had no use.

The Red Ghost aside, some say the last authentic sighting of a real camel in the American desert took place at the international boundary between Arizona and Mexico in 1901. Others believe that an Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe crew came across one near Wickenburg, Arizona, in 1913. A reported sighting came from east of the Salton Sea in 1941, and in 1957 Robert Froman met “a part-time prospector part-time guide, and all-round desert rat who, although he himself had never seen one, was sure that camels still ranged deep in the burnt hills of Sonora and Baja, California.”

Today, the Great Camel Experiment has ended, and the Red Ghost is gone. Anyone who happens to glimpse a camel and rider silhouetted against the hot, dusty, desert sunset probably can assume a logical explanation: perhaps Doug Baum and Gobi out for an evening ride.

On the other hand, the desert’s a big place. Camels clearly have staying power, and not everything in the history of the world is a re-enactment. Perhaps we should keep our eyes open.

For Part I of the story, with details about the Camp Verde Store and Post Office, please click here.

For Part II, with details about how the camels got to Camp Verde, click here.
Comments are welcome, always.

80 thoughts on “The Ghosts of Camels Past: From Winsome to Weird

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Janet. I did do a good bit of research, most of which never made it to these pages. What John Muir said about the natural world seems to apply to human life in general and history in particular: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

      As for your question about where I find this stuff? The answer’s probably in that ending line that you like! Go for a walk in the world, kick over some rocks, lift up a log or two, and see what you can see.

      1. Hi! Today I was at an estate sale in Austin, Texas. I purchase the “Camels on parade in Austin, Texas, c. 1890” print.

        Do you know much about the print? Or where I can find out more regarding the print? I am looking on Google and not having much luck.

        1. I suspect this might be the print you picked up. I’ve not found any source for this one, although there are several articles online that suggest the photo was taken during a Mardi Gras parade in Austin. If you do a search combining camels/Austin/Mardi Gras you might find more. I’ve got some books on my shelf about the camels, too. I’ll look through them, and if I find anything I’ll add it here today.

    1. Terry, I wasn’t sure anyone else would find this as interesting as I do, but I couldn’t help myself. Once I found old Camp Verde two years ago at Christmas, I had to write about it. I’m about “cameled-out” at this point, but there still could be posts about the camels in California, Montana, British Columbia, Utah… For just a few years, there was camel fever throughout the West. Interesting.

      Spellbound is good — I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  1. Yes, I agree with all readers, this was amazing and incredible story that you searched and wrote and share with us. I almost found myself in this story and watched the camels… how excited for them, but right now, if I see camels in here, it would be same for me too… Thank you dear Linda, Have a nice day and weekend, love, nia

    1. What’s especially interesting, Nia, is that some of the camels came from your part of the world. When the camel-buyers went shopping, they got as far as Istanbul. What a connection.

      It would be exciting to see camels, wouldn’t it? I think maybe you have a better chance than I do (unless I find Mr. Baum and Gobi, or go to a circus) but it’s still fun to think about them being among us.
      It’s even more fun to think about the reactions of people who came across them when they were roaming free. Thanks for reading along. ~ Linda

      1. You are amazing, I haven’t thought of this. But yes, this could be possible at that times… We have camels… but not in here, at least I don’t see them around me :) Camels are very special animals, they have an interesting relation between their owners… There should be stories… You are welcome dear Linda, I enjoy reading your stories, Thank you, love, nia

    1. I hadn’t even thought about it until I read about the socks, but I have a camel hair coat hanging in my closet. And of course, there were the camel hair blazers of an earlier decade, and camel hair socks for Father’s Day. Apparently some people with machines proved Mrs. Shirkey’s point: that it is possible to produce camel hair items that will be perfectly acceptable to human consumers.

      There always are more details. After I posted this last night, I happened across one more little detail: President Pierce couldn’t wear the socks (or didn’t) because they smelled too much like camel.

      1. I am sure someone in my family had a camel hair coat, too. If it smelled of anything it would have been mothballs.
        I once had a pair of handspun, hand-knitted woollen mittens. The wool hadn’t been washed within an inch of its life, so the mittens always smelled of sheep. It was a bearable smell but the experience makes me believe I could empathize with President Pierce over smelly camel socks.

  2. What a delight to meet Gobi and the Red Ghost. Australia is absolutely over-run with camels. They were imported many years ago to assist in opening up our outback and desert centre. Together with their Afghan camel handlers, they transported supplies, mail, building materials and other sundry items. When the railroads and surface roadways were built camels were turned loose to fend for themselves. This they achieved in perfect camel style, now roaming through the outback today by the hundreds.

    One interesting experience we encountered while visiting a Northern Territory restaurant, included sampling an entree consisting of four skewers. Threaded along these were samples of beautifully cooked: kangaroo, crocodile, emu and camel. I enjoyed the kangaroo most of all, found the emu and crocodile to be tough and stringy, while the camel meat was soft, fairly tasteless and very bland. We jokingly commented that we had finally eaten the Australian coat of arms.
    Next time I’ll settle for a piece of fish.

    1. Mary, the dynamic you describe in your first paragraph might as well have been written about our camels. It’s true that the complications of war contributed to the end of the program, and there were problems with the terrain and with human acceptance that made things difficult, but the railroads were the final blow here, too.

      Another difference I suspect is that your outback had far fewer humans around. Our ranchers and prospectors were move than willing to help “thin the herd” whenever a camel showed up: not so much for sport, as to prevent the camels from distressing their horses, mules and cattle.

      There’s a camel dairy in California, but I’ve never thought of eating camel meat: probably because it’s never been offered. Your evaluation of crocodile sounds very much like the things people say about alligator.

      And as long as we’re comparing notes, we may have had the Red Ghost, but you do have this fellow!

  3. That was an interesting series. Timing was so important. It the railroads had come later, camels might have been more of a standard for transport.

    There are many stories and places from the past that deserve to see the light of day once again. Not all are nearly as interesting as this one. Tales and legends abound where people have speculated about snippets of truth. Thanks for digging deeply and finding the gems to show us. That was fun.

    1. You’re right about the railroads, Jim — or so it seems to me. Even after the military scrapped their program post-Civil War, there were a good number of entrepreneurs who were willing to give the camels a try in order to cross those great distances. But, they were outpaced by the pony express for mail-carrying, and then the track was laid, and the rest, as they say, is history.

      It was tremendous fun to write this. For one thing, I’m as much a sucker for a good ghost story as the next person, and when it turns out to be grounded in reality and a darned good mystery to boot: what’s not to like?

    1. I listened to the New Christy Minstrels myself during the sixties, but I don’t remember Hi Jolly’s song, even though I had this album that included it.

      In fact, I didn’t come across it until I was writing this post. It was one of those neat details that I decided to leave out, but here it is. It’s good of you to have added it to the discussion.

      In the background information on the page you linked, I was happy to see they had almost every detail right, too. That doesn’t always happen..

  4. I knew about the camels in Texas, but I never thought to wonder what happened to them and their drivers after the experiment ended! It was very interesting to find out.
    At least until a few years ago, there were a couple of camels on a ranch between Marfa and Presidio – it was a special treat to be driving along and see them looking out across their fence.

    1. Those camels you saw — or their descendents, or perhaps some others — still are there. At least, they were in 2013. I found this blog from the Big Bend region that includes a bit about the camel experiment and a couple of lovely photos of camels there in the desert, and it’s dated 2013.

      It’s become almost common to see bison, axis, and even zebra on the exotic game ranches around Bandera and Uvalde, but it surely would be something to see a camel. Lucky you!

  5. You know, Linda, I’m still amazed that camels are described as being such peaceful animals, when I had the exact opposite impression. I don’t know where I got it, but I thought camels were ornery, stubborn, and had a nasty tendency to spit!

    Great conclusion to your tale here — does it surprise you that those camel-hair socks look so tiny?? (And itchy, ha!!)

    And I can’t help being fascinated by Hi Jolly’s burial site! Seems they thought of everything appropriate to include, and I imagine in that flat land, one can see the top camel for miles around.

    Glad you’re staying safe in that torrential rain!

    1. I don’t think it’s an either/or situation, Debbie. Some of the U.S. soldiers hated the camels, and didn’t get on well with them at all. There are descriptions of truly bad behavior by the camels (including that spitting), but just as many people say they’re like any other animal: if you learn how to handle them, like them, and treat them fairly, your chances of a good experience grow exponentially.

      The socks do seem small. It may be that they’re meant for a child. Or, perhaps people in Turkmenistan have small feet. Then again, it could just be the perspective of the photo. They look rougher than today’s camel hair coats, blazers, and such, don’t they?

      I didn’t delve much into Hi Jolly’s tomb, or why it was designed as it was. The town of Quartzsite certainly has made the most of it. Even in death, the man and his camel have kept on contributing to the local economy.

      We’ve had sunshine on and off all day. I hope your trip’s going well, and you get a chance to enjoy some good weather, too.

  6. A fascinating series Linda. I’ve been mulling it over from the first episode in Camp Verde, and I can’t say which was most interesting to me, but this last one may be it. Of course I loved Old Kate, namesake and after having ridden a camel in Morocco, I can appreciate the children’s fun in climbing aboard her. Hi Jolly was familiar from the New Christie Minstrels, though I had no idea who it was about. Having spun yarn from dog hair, I can appreciate spinning camel hair, though I can’t imagine why!

    The final paragraph is a profound thought to remember. Thank you so much for this. Love, Kayti (Old Kate)

    1. I think you and Old Kate would have been fast friends, especially since you have camel-riding skills!

      I’ve never tried spinning anything, except in the most casual way at a living history farm. However, I did read in the blog of a British woman that it was possible to felt cat hair. Of course I gave it a try, after collecting enough fur for a coaster. It worked, but don’t expect a felted-cat fur purse from me on your birthday.

      As I mentioned above, I enjoyed the New Christy Minstrels, but I surely don’t remember Hi Jolly’s song from my album. It was the same LP that had “The Drinkin’ Gourd” and “Green, Green” on it. I probably wore those out, and ignored the rest.

      That last paragraph? I’m glad it struck a chord with you. It’s just another of my subtle suggestions that it might be a good thing, to put down the devices and live a little.

    1. All things considered, Z, it’s very, very good to see you out roaming the cyber-neighborhood. I hope this means you were having a better evening.

      It is a great story. A story-teller with a campfire and a captive audience really could do something with it: especially some of the deliciously grisly details that accompanied certain re-tellings I found. What good is a campfire story, if it can’t fill the darkness beyond the fire ring with terrific, terrible characters?

      1. si.. peering into the darkness of a camp-firesetting, anyone with an active imagination would be jittery at every sound beyond the fringes of firelight!

        feeling ok as long as i don’t walk around too much… today there’s an area of sore muscles in my rib-cage.. perhaps a phantom camel gave me a sidekick in my dreams!

  7. Thanks for this. What a labor of love in it all! I find it surprising that the released camels came to naught – or so it seems. This is especially intriguing since, as noted earlier, that Australian story is so very different. Any ideas why?

    1. Well, I think there are several reasons the American and Australian experiences were different.

      Despite the importation of many more camels than those the military brought in (I’ve found records that suggest there might have been as many as three thousand), they were dispersed around the country.

      As people grew tired of them, or found them inadequate for their purposes, not all were released. Many were sold to circuses small and large, or to zoos/menageries. If they were released, the desert Southwest wasn’t as isolated as the Outback. Many who roamed the desert were shot on sight by ranchers, cattlemen, and prospectors who were fed up with the way they spooked the other animals.

      And in at least one case, a camel suffered the same fate as the buffalo you told me about. Remember Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump? A civilian camel driver near Camp Verde apparently used the same technique. Legend has it he became frustrated with one older, slow moving camel. When they came to a cliff, he stabbed or shot the camel and drove it over a cliff. There’s a photo online that purports to show the very place. The next time I’m in the area, I’m going to make some inquiries.

      Note that even the Army Camel Experiment is on Facebook.

      1. We saw Camelback Mountain when we spent three days in Phoenix this past fall, but I don’t believe I photographed it. In contrast, in the early 1970s I spent some time in northern New Mexico and did photograph the Camel Rock there on several occasions, which is why I was aware of it.

  8. Camel pile? Interesting…I only knew of pile as in carpet or occasionally a fabric.
    Great tale in three spellbinding acts, Linda. I, along with so many others here, have enjoyed the telling with all your fine research. I am not sure if it is a shame that camels did not become a permanent fixture in the west but their disappearance does seem rather sad.
    I inherited a camel hair overcoat from my father-in-law…it did not look anything like those socks. :-)

    1. Steve, I’ve never heard “pile” used in precisely that sense, either. When I looked in the Webster’s Unabridged (1913 + 1828), the first definition is

      “A hair; hence, the fiber of wool, cotton, and the like; also, the nap when thick or heavy, as of carpeting and velvet.
      2. (Zoöl.) A covering of hair or fur. ”

      Our common use (a pile of things) was mentioned only at the end.

      Given what’s happened to Australia (and what tends to happen with introduced species generally), I think I’m just as happy we don’t have camels to contend with. On the other hand, since both camels and javelinas seem to find prickly pear cactus tasty, it could have set up some interesting conflicts out there in the scrub land. I’m not sure which I’d take for a winner.

      I still have my camel hair coat, and it certainly doesn’t look like those socks. I’m keeping it in case I have to make a winter trip to the North. Dallas, maybe.

  9. Lat year they had a pair of camels at the local Jackson County Fair. Our grandsons Cody and Ethan just had to go for a ride, which they did. As did Peggy. I’d give a lot to find a camel wandering around in the desert. Fun post, Linda. Thanks for all of your research!


    1. If there’s anyone in the country who might experience in real time a camel poking its nose under the tent, it would be you, Curt. But… if Cody, Ethan and Peggy rode, surely you did, too? Perhaps you were the designated photographer for the day.

      If you head back to the Big Bend area, particularly around Marfa and Presidio, keep your eyes open. There are resident camels there, as well as Doug Baum’s excursions. The odds of seeing one certainly exist.

      1. Well, Linda, riding a camel in a circle at the local county fair isn’t quite my idea of grand adventure, but it sure worked for the kids. As for Peggy, she is up for almost anything at any time. :) I remember, BTW, riding the ponies at the local county fair when I was a kid. Now there was an adventure for you! And I’ll keep my eyes open next time I am in Texas. Stranger things happen there, for sure. (grin) –Curt

  10. Came by to check on you, post Bill, and to read episode three of your camel story. Glad to see you survived TS Bill, and the sun is shining again. As everyone else has said – brilliantly researched and put together, a most wonderful read.
    According to one Flickr member, camels are a UK wildlife species. He keeps posting his camel photo, taken in a zoo, into the group pool, even though I have told him, as politely as possible, that camels are not native to the UK! lol

    1. We do have sunshine, Sandi. There were showers again yesterday afternoon, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some this morning, but we’re heading in the right direction.

      Ah, yes. Those native UIK camels. I’m sure you can catch some wonderful photos of them in the Yorkshire hills. That woud be a lovely destination, right after you stop by the waterhole to check on the rhinos and zebras!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the series. It’s no wonder people write books about such things — it’s hard to fit even a piece of it into post like this. Still, it’s well worth the effort. I had terrific fun doing it.

  11. A remarkable story, from start to finish, and brilliantly told. Of course I loved the non-vegetable repast camels resorted to (something of the sort is said to happen in our part of the world when the deer are hungry in winter).

    I loved the monument to Hi Jolly, too–and it is amazing, as others have noted, how much detail you ferreted out. Can a film of this story be far behind? I’d certainly line up to see it!

    1. In truth, there already has been a movie made of all this. It was titled “Hawmps,” which should give you some indication of the track the screenwriters were on. If it doesn’t, this 1976 NY Times review ought to provide the necessary, depressing details.

      Honestly, the story is wonderful as it stands. I can’t figure out why the screenwriters had to fill it with so much unnecessary exaggeration and untruth. It’s not like it wasn’t dramatic enough, or that there weren’t enough characters already present to hold peoples’ interest. Even the title they chose is terrible. We ought to be able to come up with something better in about half a glass of a nice Cabernet. (I hear it goes nicely with insulators and wheelbarrows!)

    1. That’s the trick, isn’t it? Then, if we take one more step and think about what we’ve seen, maybe we’ll be ready to take one more step and tell other people about what we’ve seen — so they can see it, too!

  12. I have a theory that these historical re-enactors, “historical facilitators” and other such affiliates of the SCA are responding to the familiarity of having lived a past life in the historical era of which they are so enamored — and gives rise to their feeling of “belonging” in that era. An unprovable theory, but a source of interesting speculation nonetheless.

    As I mentioned previously, I’m glad the camels didn’t take to the Southwest like they did to Australia where they are wreaking ecological havoc. ( ) I had to laugh about the lady who spun their fur and knitted socks from it. The Mongolian species’ hair and underwool is turned into felt from which yurts were made. As for the hair being “dead,” all hair is dead, although the unshed remnants of a winter coat become deader the longer they remain unshed.

    1. It is interesting. From what I’ve observed, it’s true that re-enactors tend to focus in one area. Civil War buffs don’t generally make a switch to the Revolutionary War, for example.

      On the other hand, things may develop in the opposite way. Someone begins researching the Civil War because of a family member’s involvement, and one thing leads to another. Pretty soon, it’s clear that they’ve disappeared down the rabbit hole. (Not unlike historical or genealogical research, I might add.) As the focus narrows, other possibilities for involvement fall away.

      I can’t help but think of the couple who run the Trail Days Cafe and Museum in Council Grove, Kansas. From the restoration of the house, to the historical research, to the running of the restaurant in costume and serving up of historically-accurate meals, they do tend to give off that aura of being from another time.

      I was waiting for you to see the socks.Clearly, camel hair has more uses than I realized. And today’s yarn is clearly an improvement on Mrs. Shirkey’s. You even can get it in nice colors, if you were so inclined.

  13. These three articles have been a fascinating read and so well researched and illustrated, Linda. Have you thought of getting this little bit of history published and on sale in the store you mentioned.

    1. I’m not sure the store would appreciate the gentle swipe I took at them in the first section. On the other hand, I suppose a little “post-processing” could take care of that. It might be worth pondering.

      I’m just grateful one of my readers put me onto one of the best of the camel experiment books. I’d been going to the Camp Verde store for years without having a clue about the history. Sometimes places like that are so well known by the locals, they don’t think to mention it. There weren’t any camel logos back then, or historical plaques, to draw attention. Now, you can’t miss them.

      I’m really glad you enjoyed the story.

  14. Love it, especially the story of the Red Ghost! What an awesome name for a camel. I kind of want to believe the larger-than-life legends over the one that is likely truth, but it’s kind of cool to think of a camel surving to 80. Quite the feat for the four-legged mammal!

    1. The Red Ghost came to an unfortunate end, but it wasn’t at the hands of the fellow who put him out of his misery with that single shot. His suffering was due to the idiot (sadist, psychopath, all of the above: choose one) who tied the corpse onto him.

      On the other hand, I think it’s wonderful that people made sure Topsy was cared for. Life in a zoo may not be the best life in the world, but it surely beat going back out into the desert. The fact that her (his?) ashes ended up with Hi Jolly is a pretty good indication that people understood the tie between them.

      And they made it happen, after all those years!

  15. What a fascinating series of posts, I enjoyed the conclusion too, especially the tales of the Red Ghost, a headless corpse eh??? Struth!
    I have also learnt a lot about camels, I had no idea they could be so long lived, that they eat anything and one can, if desperate enough, have a pair of camel socks!
    I was smiling about the comment of the camels stalking into town, long legs do give a haughty appearance for sure.
    I would wager on the fact that a camel or ten is still at large…

    1. The tale of the Red Ghost is quite a tale, isn’t it, snowbird? It reminded me of our Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but I found there are many versions of headless horsemen or carriagemen over in your part of the world, too.

      Of course, in the case of the Red Ghost the headlessness only came at the end, and of natural causes. Still, it’s a bit creepy.

      The other thing that intrigued me was the use of the phrase “mazeppa style.” Lo and behold, “Mazeppa” was a dramatic poem written in 1819 by Lord Byron. The fact that the reference was so easily included in the newspaper account suggests the writer assumed his readers would understand it. Now, we get quotations from Saturday night comedy shows.

      “Haughty” is a perfect word. On the other hand, I learned that camel-drivers get their charges to kneel by stroking them across the knees. That makes me smile, too.

      Keep your eyes open. There’s at least one London photog on Flickr who’s convinced camels are native to England!

  16. A camel that lived to the age of 80 years old in a California zoo and many others that were killed by a bullet. Seems those poor animals met with a ghastly destiny and that’s a shame.

    This is quite a story with some very interesting facts. You have provided a wealth of information from a great deal of research.

    From my own little perspective, I see the camel experiment as a debacle and that’s for a lack of better wording. Man has a way of running afoul with nature, animals and, the environment, when all things concerned are not carefully considered.

    1. I’m a little more sanguine about the camel experiment, Yvonne. As I mentioned just above, things actually worked out pretty well for Topsy (the zoo camel) and even for the Red Ghost, who finally was released from his misery. What amazes me more than anything is that people took the time after Topsy’s death to make sure camel and friend were reunited. That’s special — and even though she spent her last years in a zoo, she was being cared for, not simply left to wander the desert and die alone.

      I don’t fault the people involved with the experiment, either. Every variable they knew to consider, they did: from the specially constructed caravansary to help the camels feel at home, to the selection of the site, to a willingness to bring people along who knew how to care for the animals.

      The variable no one planned for was the Civil War. When the Confederates captured the camels, they didn’t know what to do with them, and didn’t really care for them properly. Then, when the war was over and the remaining camels went back to the Union Army, things had changed radically. The men who had been the movers and shakers had gone over to the Confederate side, and the Army had no one to take their place.

      But sometimes that happens with experiments. Some succeed, and some fail. Clearly, the answer to the question, “Can the camels be useful?” was a provisional yes, but by the time things settled down, the railroads began developing, and the need for a new sort of animal transportation became irrelevant.

      There’s one other aspect to this I didn’t deal with, and that was the importation of camels by private individuals. The Army was responsible in their actions, but not everyone was. One woman used shipments of camels as a cover for bringing slaves into Galveston. When it was discovered, the camels were turned loose on land, and the woman and her ships were sent on their way. THAT was a debacle — the Great Camel Experiment did much better. I guess that’s how history is, though — always a mixed bag.

        1. Well, live and learn, as they say. Don’t forget — this happened 150 years ago, and there were a lot of lessons to be learned in that time. Our attitudes today have been shaped by experiences like the one with the camels — or so it seems to me.

  17. Fascinating work! Thanks for the interesting read! I recently saw the movie “Tracks” and even though I live in Australia where the feral camels are causing a lot of damage, was amazed at the ease with which they move through such dry country…some respect is due them despite their bad habits!

    The story of The Red Ghost reminded of this podcast I heard on the topic last year (link in case you are not quite “camelled out”):

    1. They are fascinating creatures, for sure. And thanks for your mention of “Tracks.” Others have said it was a fascinating film about an equally remarkable story, and now it’s on my viewing list.

      I found the Missed in History website while working on this post. Thanks so much for the link. I’m looking forward to listening to it, as well as exploring the site itself. I seem to have recovered from my temporary bout of being “camelled out”) and am ready to take on a bit more of this marvelous history.

      Thanks so much for stopping by, mummytops, and thanks especially for the link. You’re always welcome.


  18. what a terrific series, Linda. I certainly never knew this about our country before — it would make a fascinating film. Loved that Mary S. was knitting with the fleece! And that Jolly was buried with his favorite camel’s ashes. The sculpture and illustrations were great, too.

    I couldn’t help thinking that the Red Ghost and the facts, as you mentioned, have variations. But really, doesn’t all of history? Especially oral history. The Bible comes first to mind in that category — stories passed down for dozens of generations before people were able to write and even then, textured through personal experience, embellishment and what makes a better story. Then add to it “Official” and edited editions! I am so glad that the people in this instance had cameras and film and good press and letters with which to record their stories and opinions. And if one or two might be embellished or perhaps even fanciful, well, that’s what makes it all the more fun!

    1. There was a film made, Jeanie. Look at my comment to Susan Scheid, up above (June 20, 2015 at 5:56 pm). There are a few comments about it there, and a link to a review from the NY Times. The title of the movie was “Hawmps.” That’s got a vaguely B-movie feel to it, don’t you think? I’d love to find a copy and see how well they told the story. (Not very factually, that’s for sure.) ADD: I just found this Roger Ebert review. Even Ebert falls into some of the same errors as others who wrote about this. There never, ever was a “camel corps.” That’s a true misnomer. Ah, well.

      Actually, people were able to write much earlier than Biblical texts: even the Old Testament. But, yes: many of those stories were passed about orally before being recorded. That’s what makes a comparison of John’s Gospel with Matthew, Mark, and Luke so interesting. John was later, and drew on different sources. Some say Mark was the earliest, and actually served as a source for Matthew and Luke.

      One of the fascinating tidbits I found is a photo of a camel in California that is claimed to be the only such photo. You’ll find a very few photographs of the camels used over and over in books and online articles, because they’re the only photos that exist. Newspaper accounts? That’s different. There are many, and talk about embellishment! In a day with no radio and tv, those people writing for the papers offered a lot more than “just the facts, ma’am.” They were informing, of course, but they intended to entertain, too, and they often did a very good job of it.

  19. OMG –
    Where and/or how do you find such interesting topics?

    Linda — you never fail to amaze me with the uniqueness and thoroughness of your stories — I never know what I will find when I visit, but always am pulled into your story and leave quite delighted! Well done!! :)

    1. Let me put it this way, Becca. Yesterday I was listening to the “news” on radio, and hardly could believe that they were reporting the trending topics on Twitter.

      There’s not much “new,” idiosyncratic or unusual there. A trending topic only means that a gazillion people are reading the same thing at the same time. A “news feed” means that we read what we’re fed by someone else. Looking around on our own, there’s no telling what we’ll find. Camels, for instance!

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for the kind words!

  20. An amazing series, Linda. I read as if reading a piece of fiction, carried away in history and geography. Will these essays be published some day as a book? I love your voice, and I’m sure many would buy your book just to be read to by you, in their heads.

    1. Damyanti, I’m finding that I truly do love what I think is being defined these days as creative non-fiction. I strive for accuracy in my facts, but I enjoy putting them together in such a way that they can be read as story. I’m glad you enjoyed this little tale. It certainly was an interesting chapter in our history.

      Publication as a book? I don’t know. I keep thinking maybe-yes-maybe-no-maybe. But I’m honored that you think it a worthy idea. I’m sure I’ll keep thinking.

  21. I think you do very well with the approach and writing creative non-fiction. I have thoroughly enjoyed the writings of the camels. You make it fun to read about things I didn’t think I needed to know anything about. :-)

    1. Now that’s a true compliment, Otto — one of the best. Thank you so much. Honestly, I think there’s too little fun in the world, and (at least in this country) the educational system has taken much of the pleasure out of learning. Helping to get those juices flowing again is as important as communicating information!

    1. “Docile” is worth a grin. I can’t help but wonder if some of the camels’ friends weren’t trying to soften their image a bit.

      I smiled when I found out that Greek George ended up in your part of the world. And who knows? Maybe one day you’ll be in San Diego and decide to visit the Camel Dairy. If you do, we’ll want pictures, of course!

  22. Gobi looks like a real character….I guess the different camel breeds have different personalities. The ones in Morocco were irritable and nasty tempered. That Gobi looks like a friendly pet – almost a TV show character.
    Now that the buffalo are running free again, maybe the TX needs to reintroduce a camel herd?…I know the parks people would say camels aren’t native, but they are history! How much fun to round the corner and see a herd of camels.
    Isn;t it interesting how people “taming the west” were experimenting – and not such a bad idea. What if the Civil War hadn’t broken out…railroads had been slower to build…
    Great series. All your research and your storytelling talent made it a wonderful read.

    1. I think Gobi is a friendly pet. He and Mr. Baum have been together for some time. As for those Moroccan camels — maybe they just were tired of tourists. You know how people around here can get near the end of the season: irritable and nasty-tempered.

      I think we’re probably better off letting the private sector tend to whatever camels are around. They can be found: in the Panhandle, Big Bend, and so on, and the people who have them know how to care for them.After listening for months to discussions of what TPWD is doing to the sport fishermen, I’d be a little cautious about that.

      And you’re right. There was a lot of experimentation, and a good bit of it fell victim to circumstance. Sometimes I’m tempted to ponder what people a century and a half from now will think of us, and our experiments.

  23. Well, thanks to Alex Hurst I have found a wonderful, new (to me) blog. The camel historical narrative was so beautifully written. I am a storyteller with a love of ghost stories, and I have never heard of the Red Ghost. I will be keeping my eyes open even wider now, you can bet.

    1. In the midst of holiday travel and celebrations, I missed your comment. In the spirit of better late than never? Thanks so much for stopping by, and adding another Ghost to your wish-I-could-sees. I hope you’ve seen wondrous things in the meantime. If you ever find the Red Ghost, be sure and let us know! ~ Linda

  24. After seeing Hi Jolly’s monument in Quartzsite and photographing it, I especially enjoyed reading about him here in your post. :-) And I know my history loving hubby will find your post interesting as well.

    1. The back story’s always fascinating, whatever the details. You’re going to have to tell your sister and brother-in-law to keep their eyes out for the Red Ghost. You just never know!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.