The USS Supply was a navy stores ship. It usually carried the likes of food, drink and ammunition; basically anything the navy needed to move from A to B. However, before setting out from New York in June 1855, the commander, Lieutenant David Dixon Porter, had spent the previous few weeks modifying the ship for its planned cargo. He had created stable areas, special hatches and slings to make the shipping of live camels as easy as possible – for both the animals and his crew.
The man who had been tasked with acquiring the camels, Major Henry Wayne, was impressed with Porter’s work. Wayne was one of the main supporters of the US Army using camels for transport. Eight years earlier Wayne had sent a report to the War Department and Congress which recommended using camels in the Western deserts of the United States. Both horses and mules struggled in these deserts and finding sufficient water for both animals and the men was always a concern. Camels, with their legendary ability to travel long distances with large loads and no water, seemed to be a possible solution.
Wayne’s report did not get anywhere, but it did impress Senator Jefferson Davis, and when he became Secretary of War in 1853 he revived the idea. Eventually $30,000 was set aside to create a ‘US Camel Corp’ to test the concept.
First stop for the Supply was London, where Wayne went to the zoo to find out more about camels. This was probably also the first time he would have seen one in the flesh. There do not appear to have been any in the USA at this time and the National Zoo in Washington was not founded until 1889. Wayne then went over to Paris to find out what the French knew about using camels whilst the USS Supply sailed to the Mediterranean. Wayne and Porter met up again in Italy and then armed with a new found knowledge of camels sailed to Tunisia and purchased their first three camels. The Tunisians must have seen them coming, as they later realised that two of the camels were infected with the “itch” – a skin disease similar to mange. Luckily, at this point they were joined by Gwynne Heap, who was the son of a former US Consul in Tunis. Heap was used both to camels and to the intricacies of negotiating the purchase of healthy animals for a fair price.
The Supply spent five months traveling around the Mediterranean until eventually 33 camels had been purchased. There were 19 females and 14 males and a mixture of breeds – Bactrian, Dromedary and Arabian. Wayne and Porter had also recruited five Arabs and Turks to go to the US to act as keepers and herders. Bad weather meant that the return journey to the USA took three months. It’s a tribute to Porter’s and Wayne’s preparations and care that they arrived with 34 healthy camels. One camel had died but two calves had arrived during the voyage.
The camels were unloaded onto American soil on 14th May 1856 and, as there was still over half of the allocated money unused, the USS Supply and Porter soon left for Egypt again. They returned the following year with another 41 camels.
The camels were involved in a number of trials over the next few years. Most notably they were used to carry supplies for an expedition lead by Edward Beale to survey a route for a new road towards the West coast. The road would eventually become part of the famous ‘Route 66’.
Beale was impressed by the camels’ performance and his reports certainly didn’t support the theory that camels are bad tempered.
“Sometimes we forget they are with us. Certainly there never was anything so patient or enduring and so little troublesome as this noble animal. They pack their heavy load of corn, of which they never taste a grain; put up with any food offered them without complaint, and are always up with the wagons, and, withal, so perfectly docile and quiet that they are the admiration of the whole camp.”
When the expedition reached the Colorado River, Beale was worried that the camels would be unable to swim across; but the first camel was led into the water with no complaint and crossed whilst still fully loaded. All the other camels followed suit. In contrast, two horses and ten mules drowned.
Beale used camels again, with similar success, in 1858 when surveying another route. At the end of that year John Floyd, the new Secretary of War asked Congress to authorise the purchase of 1,000 camels stating: “The entire adaptation of camels to military operations on the plains may now be taken as demonstrated.”
Congress was unconvinced and further requests in 1859 and 1860 to buy more camels were also turned down. Then the outbreak of the Civil War meant that the camels and their successful trials were all but forgotten. Henry Wayne and David Porter who had worked together so well found themselves fighting on opposite sides. As the war wore on the camels came to be considered just an inconvenient burden on the army and they were eventually sold at auction in 1864 and 1866.
The camels ended up giving rides to children, running in novelty races, working in circuses and as pack animals for prospectors and miners. It was a sad end for animals that had proved themselves worthy of better treatment. Eventually some were turned loose to live in the wild and the most recent recorded sighting of a feral camel in the USA was in 1941. The last of the original camels was reported to have died in Los Angeles in 1934. This would have made it 80 years old and it is rare for a camel to live much past 50 years. So it was more likely a descendant of those who voyaged across the Atlantic.
The fate of the American camels is in stark contrast to Australia. The first camels were taken there across the Indian Ocean in 1860 – again to support exploration of the desert areas. Between 1870 and 1900 at least another 15,000 were imported. They were used mainly as pack animals, and many of them were turned loose in the nineteen twenties and thirties as motor vehicles took over. They thrived in the outback and by 2008 the feral population was estimated to be over one million. A cull began in 2009, but Australia is still home to at least 300,000 camels. There is also a thriving trade exporting camel meat from Australia to Saudi Arabia.
So if the American Civil war had not intervened the iconic image of the cowboy on a horse may have been very different indeed.