Camels and Commerce
A Keepsake for the Fall 6015 Joint Doins
Queho Posse #1919
Billy Holcomb #1069
E Clampus Vitus
Prepared, propounded, prevaricated, prepackaged, prefaced, preconceived, precipitated,
prejudged, prescribed and presented by
Mark "The Expert" Hall-Patton, XNGH, DS-3,
And rendered into print by that most ignoble of publishers
The Obfuscationist Press
The great desert of the western United States beckoned explorers, exploiters, and settlers throughout the nineteenth century. One recurring issue, beginning in the Spanish period, was the need for efficient transportation. The vast mineral wealth of the area was of little value, unless the supplies needed by the miners could get to the mines, and the ore from the mines to the smelters efficiently.
In the 1850s, the US government decided to try an experiment and import camels for use in the west. Camels had been widely described, and had their proponents in the American government. The efforts of such supporters as Jefferson Davis and Lt. Edward Beale have been well documented in publication and plaque. However, their efforts, and that of the government, spanned only a few years, approximately 1855 to 1864, at which time all camels still in the possession of the US military were sold. The coming of the Civil War in 1861 ended most experimentation, and the possibilities of camels as long distance freight hauling animals paled in comparison to the horrendous slaughter which took place in that war.
The possible value of camels in the west was outlined in an article in the Smithsonian Institution Annual Report in 1854, under the title of Camels. The article was a reprint of a lecture given at the Smithsonian Institution by George Marsh, and stressed the value of the camel in transportation of goods. One paragraph noted,
"…the ordinary day's journey of the loaded Bactrian camel [is] forty miles, and without burden at from fifty to sixty-five miles; and my correspondents in Bessarabia and the Crimea agree in stating that upon a good dry road a pair of Bactrians will draw a load of 3,000 to 4,000 pounds a distance of fifty miles without eating, drinking, or halting."
Given such accounts, camels also caught the imagination of a number of entrepreneurs in the west as well. The two shipments of camels for governmental use landed at Indianola, Texas in May of 1856 and February 1857. These shipments were used by the government in a number of experiments, most notable the laying out of what became known as Beale's Road, the route later followed by Highway 66 across northern Arizona. In addition, they were used to haul mail and three helped with the California Nevada Border Survey in 1861.
Entrepreneurs in Texas found the idea of importing camels a good one, and in 1858 two further shipments of camels were brought into Texas. As they were imported from the Canary Islands on English vessels, they were given into the care of a Mrs. Watson, and English immigrant who ran a stock ranch near Houston. Watson was not particularly interested in having the camels and refused to pay for them. They were moved to a ranch owned by F. R. Lubbock, and offered for sale, but with little success. Eventually they were released to fend for themselves in the countryside.
Mrs. Watson's role seems a bit odd, but rumors at the time claimed that the importation in this case was a cover for smuggling new slaves into the state. The importation of slaves was outlawed in the United States in 1808, long before slavery itself was ended by the Civil War and the subsequent passage of the 13th Amendment to our Constitution.
Camels, and their interest to entrepreneurs in the far west, fared much better. As early as 1859, Otto Esche, a merchant and importer in San Francisco saw an opportunity in their importation. He watched the need for salt in the mines, especially in the Comstock, and the cost of shipping it. Since most of it was being brought to the mines by mule train, it was quite expensive. A camel could carry significantly more than a mule, as much as 1,000 pounds vs. 400 pounds. It could forage on desert plants no other animal would eat, and could go long periods without water. With freight costs running $120 per pound, Esche saw a decided opportunity for profit.
Esche, working with some partners, left for the Orient in 1860. His trip was long, but upon arrival in Siberia, he started out overland to buy camels. He was able to buy thirty-two camels, of which fifteen survived the trip to the Siberian coast, to be loaded on the Caroline E. Foote for transport to San Francisco.
These were Bactrian, or two hump, camels, as opposed to Arabian, or one hump. They were then shipped back to San Francisco, as Esche went back out to buy more. The trip over the Pacific was not easy, but all fifteen survived to be off-loaded in San Francisco in July of 1860.
After they arrived in San Francisco, they were allowed to regain their strength, being corralled near Mission Dolores. Camels were quite a sight in 1860 San Francisco, and in October a showing and sale of the camels was arranged. The advertisements appeared as far south as Los Angeles. They noted that 13 camels,all of the Bactrian type, would be displayed and sold to the highest bidder on October 10, 1860.
The sale, though well advertised, was disappointing, and the prices led the auctioneers to stop the sale early. The two camels which actually sold brought less than $500 each, well under the cost of obtaining them in the east and transporting then to California.
Esche continued his buying in the east, however, and eventually put together a herd of sixty in a corral in Siberia. He hired some camel drivers to handle and care for the animals, and contracted with two ships to take them to San Francisco.
This second voyage was not the success of the first trip. Esche contracted with a second ship, the Dollart, under the command of Captain Muggenborg, in addition to the Caroline E. Foote. Muggenborg did not prove as capable as Captain Worth of the Caroline E. Foote. It was the Foote which had brought the first shipment to California, and Worth was able to get this second shipment through, which consisted of ten camels this time. The Dollart, a larger ship, carried forty-four, of which twenty-four died during the crossing.
This meant a considerable financial loss for Esche and his partners. Esche sued Captain Muggenborg in U. S. District Court in San Franciso. Esche proved negligence on the part of Muggenborg, and won a settlement of $260 for each camel lost, a total of $6,240. To pay the settlement, the Dollart was seized and sold at auction.
Esche still had a considerable investment in camels in California. Before he had docked in San Francisco, though, Julius Bandmann, one of his partners, had taken nine of the original fifteen camels into the mountains in a caravan for Virginia City and the Washoe Mines in Nevada. Taking the Big Trees route over Ebbetts Pass. The caravan showed the Bactrians could make the trek over the 8,730 foot pass. Bandmann then began shipping salt from the Columbus Salt Marsh to Virginia City, making a profit of over $200 on each trip.
Bandmann showed a profit could be made, and returned to San Francisco after selling the camels he had. There he found ten more waiting for him, and began to get them into shape for use. Within a short time the surviving twenty camels from the Dollart shipment also arrived, and he went to work on those as well.
Esche, who had also been injured during the voyage on the Dollart, was happy with the $2,000 Bandmann was able to give him from the sale of the first nine camels. Bandmann was the man to know to get camels in San Francisco, so when John Callbreath of Victoria, British Columbia came calling, Bandmann was the man he sought out.
Callbreath worked for Frank Laumeister, who was a merchant in British Columbia. He thought camels sounded like just the ticket for hauling supplies to the remote Fraser River gold fields. Finding that there were now thirty camels available, after the sale of the nine, Callbreath bought twenty-three. These were transported to Canada, where they were used in an express company venture headed by Laumeister. Esche, after Bandmann sold the camels to Laumeister, faded from the scene, having participated in one of the most unusual transportation chapters in the history of the west. He did not make money on his venture, but the camels he imported continued to figure in the history of the west.
Laumeister's camels were used in the Fraser River mines from 1862 until 1865. By that time, other forms of transportation made the camels less important, and many of the twenty-one Laumeister had imported to Canada were moved to the territories of Montana, Idaho, and Washington, where he again ran his Dromedary Express. This lasted until 1867, when they were again moved to Nevada, and let loose to fend for themselves.
One of the reasons camels were useful as beasts of burden was their willingness to eat plants no other pack animal would eat. As far back as 1856, when the first government camels were brought into Texas, this ability was discovered. Because of a lack of wood, a corral had been built of cactus which would hold any of the regular pack animals. The camels, it was soon discovered, found the cactus quite edible, eating most of the corral and making it necessary for another of less tasty materials to be constructed.
Because of this, as different camel ventures were dissolved, the animals themselves were often let loose in the desert to fend for themselves. They found this to their liking, apparently, as they did slowly multiply, becoming a known sight to prospectors and others who frequented the deserts.
By 1864, the United States government's experiment with camels was at an end. The coming of the Civil War in 1861 led one of the major proponents of the experiment, Jefferson Davis, into renouncing his commission, and becoming the president of a breakaway country known as the Confederate States of America. While they felt they had a legitimate grievance against the United States, they did not in the long run prove capable of sustaining their efforts, and ended up on the losing side of the most horrific of conflicts in American history.
The camels which had been imported by the government were eventually sold at auction in 1864. The joined those which had been privately imported as a part of western entrepreneurial efforts.
The nine camels which had been sold by Bandmann in Virginia City had continued to be used to haul supplies in Nevada. As early as 1863, camels were being used as pack animals bringing salt into the mines in the Walker River area. They were few in number but successful, and continued in service. A March 14, 1863, article in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise noted
"THE CAMELS: The 'ships of the desert' just arrived from the Walker River visited by many curious and wondering bipeds. The venerable patriarch of the band did not seem to relish much the close attention of his visitors, and gave vent to his indignation and contempt by spitting at all who ventured near him. A coquettish old marshes, with a cargo of salt for the Central Mill, held a levee in this place and were female who reclined at full length on the ground, screamed pettishly when some forward youngster attempted to toy with her shaggy locks. The camels seemed to be in good order."
Camels continued in use in the Virginia City area for a number of years. Other caravans went to Star City (a ghost town today but the only city between Virginia City and Boise City in the 1860s), Austin, Ely, Dayton, Carson City, and Salt Lake City. Newspaper accounts often noted their ability to carry huge loads, much larger than any other animals available at the time.
They also noted that camels seemed to scare other animals, like horses and mules. The smelled bad, and had a tendency to force others off of public roads. Both the Arabs and others brought from their homelands and local mainly white and Mexican hands claimed that the camels were often not the cause of the problems. Whatever the case, teamsters did not like the one or two humped beasts, and often complained about their use.
By the 1870s, Frank Laumeister had come back to Nevada, and was running camels into Elko and surrounding areas, and as far south as Pioche. In 1872, he led a train south through what was then Lincoln County, to Alamo and then along the Old Spanish Trail past the Las Vegas Ranch, where he headed south. There were opportunities in the Arizona mines, and he was ready to take advantage of them. Heading south, he traveled past the mines in Eldorado Canyon to Fort Mojave, where the camels were loaded onto flat-bottomed steam boats for the trip to Yuma.
Laumeister was looking to take advantage of a new opportunity, but there may have been other concerns. His were not the only camels in Nevada. Two Frenchmen, brothers named Chevalier, also ran camel caravans. Between the two groups, the effect of camels on teamster led pack animals were well known and not liked.
Laumeister eventually returned to Nevada a year later, but the ferment about camels upsetting other pack animals continued. This eventually led to one of the more unusual laws in the history of Nevada. In 1875, the Nevada State Legislature, took on the thorny problem of camels on the public roads. A letter in the February 4, 1875, Reece River Reveille noted;
"The Senate devoted a large portion of the morning session to a little fun over the Assembly bill to prohibit camels from traveling public roads and highways in this state. A motion was made for its reference to the Committee on Public Morals, to which an amendment was offered that it be to the Committee on Indian Affairs. A discussion ensued, in which some jokes were cracked about humps in general, and, finally a substitute that the bill be referred to the Lyon and Churchill delegation."
In spite of the revelry noted in the letter, the following law was passed on February 9th, 1875;
An act to prohibit camels and dromedaries from running at large on or about the public highways of the State of Nevada. The People of Nevada represented in Senate and Assembly, do enact as follows: Section 1. From and after the passage of this Act it shall be unlawful for the owner or owners of any camel or camels, dromedary or dromedaries, to permit them to run at large on or about the public roads or highways of this State. Section 2. If any owner or owners of any camel or camels, dromedary or dromedaries, shall, knowingly or willfully permit any violation of this Act, he or they shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be arrested, on complaint of any person feeling aggrieved; and when convicted, before any Justice of the Peace, he or they shall be punished by a fine of note less than twenty-five (25) or more than one hundred (100) dollars, or by imprisonment of not less than ten or more than thirty days, or by both such fine and imprisonment.
The roads of Nevada were now safe from camels.
The law was first used in September, 1875, against a caravan in Dayton. In a tongue-in-cheek account in the Reece River Reveille, a reporter noted,
"… Nothing is safe from these voracious critters, as they will bolt down a Murphy wagon, four rods of rail fence, a Yankee stone boat or anything else at a single meal. As pack animals for use across a desert waste they can't be beat, but when it comes to a bump of destructiveness they have one as big as a Brooklyn preacher"
The 1870s were the heyday of camel use in Nevada. By the later part of the decade, caravans were being taken to Arizona, for use in the mines there, and to Mexico, for use in mines there as well. A second caravan of camels came through the southern Nevada area (where now resides such communities as Laughlin) in 1876, when the Chevalier brothers rounded up thirty head which were roaming free in the Nevada desert. They were taken south, with four dying along the way. The remaining twenty-four were eventually taken to Arizona, but the arrival of the railroad in the area they were being used, led to them being released near the Gila River, where they again survived on their own.
As late as 1905 there were still free-ranging groups of camels in Nevada. A notice in the Goldfield News stated that there were reports in other newspapers that another express firm might be formed to use the animals. The News thought this unlikely, and stated that the report "…probably originated in the fertile imagination of a 'space filler'". The last major sighting of camels in Nevada was in the September 8, 1905 Goldfield News as well, quoting the Silver Bow Standard, which noted that some prospectors had stumbled on a herd of sixteen outside Silver Bow, but were unable to overtake them.
It is a question, since the camel was well suited to the desert, and could eat much that other animals could not, why did they disappear. There have been a number of suggestions, from teamsters using them for target practice whenever they were spotted in the wild, to old age. Many were captured and sold to circuses and zoos throughout the United States. Others probably died of old age, but it seems their ultimate demise can be traced to the fact that both whites and certain Indian tribes found them edible.
The last of the known U. S. Government imported camels finally died in Los Angeles in 1934. It was on display at Griffith, and was put down after being stricken with paralysis in the small zoo area there.
As to the last of the many camels (about 200) brought to the United States by Otto Esche or the Texas civilian importations, who can say? There were still many rumors into the 1940s about camels being seen in the desert wastes. It is most likely they are all gone today, having been eaten, shot, captured, or perhaps just dead of old age. However, after a few libations, who knows what a redshirt or two might see in the wee hours of the morning?
A Bibliography, for those readers who do not feel their entire need for knowledge of the subject has been exhausted by this keepsake
American Guide Series, Arizona; A State Guide, 1941, Hastings House
Fowler, Harlan D., Camels to California; A Chapter in Western Transportation, 1950, Stanford University Press
Fowler, Harlan D., Three Caravans to Yuma; The Untold Story of Bactrian Camels in Western America , 1980, Arthur H. Clark Company
Guinn, J. M., Camel Caravans of the American Deserts, in Pioneers of Los Angeles County Register, Vol 5, pp. 146-151, 1900-1901, np
Johnson, Jean & LeRoy, Dr. J. R. N. Owen; Frontier Doctor and Leader of Death Valley's Camel Caravan, 1996, Death Valley 49ers, Keepsake #36
Lingenfelter, Richard E., Death Valley & the Amargosa; A Land of Illusion, 1986, University of California Press
Marsh, George P., The Camel, in Ninth Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution, 1855, Smithsonian Institution
Martin, Douglas D., Yuma Crossing, 1954, University of New Mexico Press
Stammerjohan, George, U. S. Government Camel Experiment, in California HISTORIAN, Vol 40, #3, March 1994, Conference of California Historical Societies
Thompson, Richard D. and Kathryn L., Pioneer of the Mojave; The Life and Times of Aaron G. Lane, 1995, Desert Knolls Press
Wallace, Edward S., The Great Reconnaissance; Soldiers, Artists and Scientists on the Frontier 1848-1861, 1955, Little, Brown & Co.
Woodward, Arthur, Camels and Surveyors in Death Valley; The Nevada-California Border Survey of 1861, 1961, Death Valley 49ers
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