The Return of a Native

The Return of a Native

After sixty million years of evolution in North America, the camel crossed into Asia via the Bering land bridge during the last Ice Age, and became extinct in its homeland. When the U.S. Army reintroduced them into America, who can deny that for the camels it was the return of a native?

At the urging of Jefferson Davis, secretary of war in 1853, Congress appropriated $30,000 for importation of camels to be used as beasts of burden in the arid American Southwest. In 1856 thirty—four camels and a number of Arab drovers were imported into this country. The voyage across the sea was long and for the Arabs, who had never been aboard a ship before, torturous. They became so seasick that upon arrival in the United States all but two deserted. The fate of the deserters is unknown. It is doubtful that they would ever undergo life aboard a ship again, even to return to their homeland.

The two Arabs who remained became part of the army and were issued regular army rations. This led to an embarrassing situation. While on a short journey the army officer in charge noticed the camels swayed, zigzagged, and were generally unsteady. Something was definitely wrong with their gait. Upon investigation he easily discovered the camels problem. They were drunk!

The Arabs, being complete teetotalers, didn't know what to do with their daily beer ration, so they poured it into the camels' water pails. The army handlers who observed this practice thought it was part of the camels' regular menu, so they supplied the desert animals with large amounts of beer. The camels lapped up the new beverage, then staggered around for the remainder of the day. The inquiring officer quickly put an end to the crocked camel problem.

In time a new Camel Corps was added to the U.S. Army. The animals were used as beasts of burden, carrying army supplies across the southwestern deserts. Regular caravans of camels from Fort Tejon, California, entered the city of Los Angeles, plodding down the dusty streets to the heart of the city, where the army maintained a large camel stable. This headquarters for the Camel Corps was in an area that is now the site of the Los Angeles Times building complex.

The project was finally abandoned at the onset of the Civil War. Many of the camels were sold to circuses or to private owners. Herding of the camels still in army service became quite lax, and many of the imported animals escaped into the desert and ran wild. They had no trouble adapting to their ancestral homeland, and they thrived, especially along the Gila River in Arizona. In the years to come they were frequently rounded up near the river and sold to traveling shows.

Indians soon discovered that camel meat was a tasty and hearty dish and hunted camels like buffalo. With the continuous onslaught their numbers rapidly decreased. The last camel hunt took place in 1899 near Yuma. In the years that followed there were persistent rumors of camel sightings. As recently as 1941, fresh, discernible camel tracks were seen in the sands near Douglas, Arizona. In the last half century rumors have surfaced, but none have been substantiated. One may still speculate that in untraveled wild regions of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona and Mexico a few roving wild camels still exist.

Just before the turn of the century the lore of the American camel was enriched by an incident that had the makings of a Hitchcock thriller. The major difference was that this story was true.

A rancher's wife living on Eagle Creek Ranch, Arizona, was stomped to death by a creature that witnesses described as a "Red Demon with a man on its back." Just two nights later the same red demon wrecked a prospector's campsite near Chase's Creek. The man, frightened out of his wits, ran off screaming incoherently about the wild demon. During the weeks that followed reports continued to come in from other eyewitnesses who had encountered the red ghost.

The mystery was solved in February 1893, when a farmer, Mizoo Hastings, spotted a large intruder in his turnip patch. He trained a buffalo gun out of a window in his ranch house and fired. The rampage of the red demon was brought to an abrupt end as the creature fell dead.

The red demon was discovered to be a huge camel that had a human skeleton tied on its back with leather thongs. The human had been bound so tightly that the thongs cut into the camel's hide. The constant pain that resulted must have deranged the unfortunate animal and could account for its hostile behavior.

Only then did the old—timers recall a story passed among early settlers in Arizona. At last the story could be believed. A few years before, the Navajo Indians had killed a Mexican shepherd, lashed his body tightly to the back of a wild camel, and chased the animal far out into the desert. Their purpose was to warn intruders to stay off their land. Unfortunately, the results were only temporary!

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth