Chris Emmett was probably on of those youngsters who stumbled across a camel picture or heard others talk about the great camel experiment in Texas in the 1860s. Emmett grew up in Energy, Texas, a farming and cattle raising community near Brownwood. His early curiosity about the camels of Texas had really never been satisfied. He never heard the real story about their importance to Texas and to United States military history. But a chance deer hunting venture in 1929 brought him to Camp Verde in Kerr County.
On this hunting trip, Chris stumbled upon the very spot that enabled him to find the mother lode of information about the camels of Texas. The result was to become an important book in a string of fascinating publications that would win Chris numerous honors and awards. Texas Camel Tales, originally published in 1932 and reprinted in 1969, is the definitive work on the subject. Both editions have long been out of print.
In April of 1856 ships loaded with camels began landing at the Port of Indianola in Lavaca County. The ships belonged to the U S Government which was undertaking a transportation experiment overseen by Jefferson Davis, the U S Secretary of War who suggested the project.
For years the vast desert-like lands in West Texas and the Panhandle caused gigantic hardships. Whether it was migrants, the pony express, stagecoaches, military movements, or gold rushers, these vast, waterless territories were treacherous and often fatal. As if the weather and long distances without water werent enough, there were also hostile Indians and American outlaws that had to be dealt with. The southern routes throughout the American West simply had to be opened and made safer.
Secretary Davis and his military advisers concluded that if camels were the answer to the caravans of the deserts of the Sahara and other continents, why not in the arid semitropical regions of Texas, and the far west of America? Thus Congress passed one of its most curious legislative proposals, The Camel Appropriation Bill. It would be the task of the US Navy to get the camels from the far off continents to Texas; and the US Army to carry out the experiment.
Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee was dispatched to Texas and stationed at Fort Mason in 1856. While making his priority the protection of the ever growing Texas population from the Indians, Lee was also to see that the camels would be protected, too.
The officers who went to Tunisia to buy the thirty-three camels from that countrys Pasha had quite a time of coping and tending to the camels aboard ship. It seems that th4 camels became virulently seasick and were even more disgusting in this regard than humans. But as soon as they arrived at the Port of Indianola and their feet felt the solid Texas soil their attitude adjusted immediately.
Wire reports based on articles of the Indianola Bulletin of April 12, 1856, reported that workmen there were busy building ten acre enclosures for the camels, which were to be trained for immediate service on the western plains. The camels were saddled with backpacks to accustom them to heavy loads and the new terrain. Their handlers reported that after the first month or so the camels could easily transport up to 1,500 pounds on their backs.
Charge dAffaire, Major Henry C. Wayne, gave the order on June 6, 1856 that the Texas Camel Drive from Indianola to San Antonio was officially on. In this report to Davis, Wayne was ecstatic at the reaction his camels had to the lush grasslands, luxuriating and improving in appearance from Lavaca Bay on up to Victoria.
For a generation afterwards, when South Texans were asked what was the most memorable moment, the most typical answer was when the herd of camels came into view and passed by my house. Wherever Wayne decided to camp, the people of the area came to see the camels for themselves. The big hit of this free circus was usually the one lone baby camel which seemed to be having a very good time exploring in the New World.
Emmett interviewed an elderly witness, Miss Pauline Shirley near Victoria, who told him, We invited Major Wayne over to our house for supper. He invited me to come and take a ride on one of the camels. He also gave my mother enough clipped hair form the camels which she knitted into a pair of socks she sent to the President of the United States, Franklin Pierce. The cocks stank so, that she first had some of our Negroes put the socks in the sun and wash time after time .
The camel caravan arrived in San Antonio near the headwaters of San Pedro Creek on June 18, 1856. Wayne reported to Washington that the utility and the cooperation of the camels was excellent; and the Indians had made no attempt to steal or injure any of the animals.
Taking Waynes report into consideration, the quartermaster-general informed him from Washington that his next step was to find a permanent camp for the camels and quarters for the personnel. Wayne say that directive as an opportunity to assess the greater question that of breeding herds of Texas camels.
In mid-July of 1856 Wayne left the flat land below San Antonio and made his way through Comanche Springs and Sisterdale to Fort Martin Scott, the federal garrison just outside of Fredericksburg. Fort Martin Scott was established on a branch creek of the Pedernales River. The purpose of the fort was to challenge any serious Indian threat from the Comanche to the north.
Wayne then obliged a request to inspect a site between San Antonio and Kerrville called Green Valley or Verde Creek. Green Valley was situated twixt and between numerous streams and a strong, beautiful river, the Guadalupe. The fine grazing land of Green Valley would be preferable to the rather rocky Pedernales area around Fort Martin Scott.
On August 30, he named the site as Camp Verde. The camels now had a permanent home. The camp was to be a US Cavalry post under the direction of Colonel Robert E Lee, who was located alternately at Form Mason and at the departmental headquarters in San Antonio.
Records show that the personnel had to forego the cowboy terms, such as corral, for Kahn, a term common to the camels native land. The camels stalls or sheds were known as a Pise which were built in exactly the same size and shape as they were across the sea.
Wayne began the experiments straightaway. He had the camels carrying supplies to and from Camp Verde to San Antonio and other points. Camels with their packs were always accompanied by horse (or mule) and wagons. Wayne claimed in his official reports that if only camels had been utilized, the trip to San Antonio would have taken two days instead of the usual three the horses need for water slowed them down.
Another report maintained that six camels were able to transport, over the same ground and the same distance, the weights of two six-mule wagons; and the camels gained forty-two and one half hours in time compared to the mules. Then, the camels were put to the big test: heavy sacks of oats were loaded on the camels and they were taken across mountain ranges that were impassable for wagons. A heavy rainstorm made the test exceptionally difficult, but the camels arrived at their destination in a time that surprised everyone.
It was now 1857 and everyone in the US Army knew that secession was imminent. Way was recalled to Washington because of his sympathies to the Confederate cause and assigned elsewhere. He did not get to oversee the second shipload of forty-one camels that arrived at Port Indianola, in January of 1857.
In the late 1850s responding to the publicity that camels were desired in Texas, ship loads arrived at Texas ports. Emmetts research indicates that these camels were the perfect cover to deflect attention of other commodities to Texas ports, namely African slaves. Texans were growing more and more wary of accepting slaves as Federal Law prohibited their importations.
After awhile the demand for camels was filled and many were turned loose and became the dread of cattlemen. When horses sniffed the presence of camels the horses bolted as if they were frightened by rattlesnakes.
Just as Fort Martin Scott boosted the welfare of Fredericksburg, and Fort Mason generated the town of Mason, Camp Verde attracted a storekeeper, a doctor named Nowlin, who set up his office halfway between Comfort and Kerrville in what is now called Center Point.
One evening, Indians raided Dr. Nowlins stables and took with them four horses and two camels. The cavalry and some civilians found a fresh Indian trail that led all the way to the Concho River near present day San Angelo, where they battled it out with a different band of Indians with stolen horses and other items. The never did recover the camels or Dr. Nowlins horses.
Around this time, the officials in Washington were getting virulent complaints from pioneers who found travel in the Northwest, West and into California extremely perilous. Thinking the camels would help solve the problem, Lieutenant Beale was instructed to lead a wagon train with camels from Camp Verde to California. The Beale expedition, and camels, made the return trip back to Camp Verde. But nine of the camels remained in California with their progeny, out in the wilds. They were seen as late as 1890.
In 1859 orders were received for a contingent at Camp Verde to ready twenty-four camels to explore the unknown territory of the Big Bend region of Texas. The absence of sufficient water had defeated many an expedition into the desolate and arid land. The camels seemed to have an uncanny ability to find water at just the right time. On one stretch the caravan traveled 110 miles in almost four days without water much to the astonishment of the military superiors.
In 1860, the rumblings and maneuvering of impending conflict between abolitionist states and slave states were accelerating. Everyone was not only having to choose sides, but they had to worry about what would happen to their livelihoods, property and funds.
On February 4, 1861, Lee was relieved of duty and ordered to report back to Washington. Lee refused to fight against his home state, and joined the Confederacy. On the 28th of the same month Texas Confederates from San Antonio marched into Camp Verde. The Unionists at the camp were placed in the Prison Canyon outside of San Antonio.
At Camp Verde, the Confederates were in urgent need of salt. Texas seaports were blockaded, so the Confederates would load bales of cotton on the camels in exchange for salt obtained at the Salt Lakes near Kingsville.
In early 1865, it was clear that the South would not win the war, and Confederates not living in Texas began to leave so as to make their way home. Ranchers near Camp Verde had their eyes on the Confederate land, the quartermastery and the camels. In March of 1866, the Unionists retook Camp Verde and began carrying out orders from their superiors to sell the camels. They found buyers for the circus for a few.
Bethel Coopwood and his partners were the highest bidder and became the proud new owners of the remaining sixty-six camels. The Coopwood brothers were Confederate sympathizers who made their home in Hermanas, Mexico during the war; although they made frequent visits to their families in San Antonio. After the was, Bethel took the state law exam and passed it easily.
Between Camp Verde to San a few camels escaped. Rewards were offered and in short order people began bringing them to Coopwood. Now, Coopwood had a problem for he had not the slightest idea what he intended to do with his camels. Learning abut the camels, the Ringling Brothers Circus came to San Antonio and bought five of them from the Coopwood brothers. The US Post Office then contracted with Bethel Coopwood to carry the mail from San Antonio to Mexico City by camel. Gradually, thieves menaced the mail caravan, and the losses robbed the Coopwoods and their partners of their anticipated profits.
The Coopwoods decided to cancel their contract with the US Post Office and divide up the camels. To make matters worse for the Coopwood venture, the US Government claimed Coopwoods camels (at least those he bought into Texas from Mexico after the war) were stolen goods and the Government seized these camels and led them into Arizona where they were turned loose.
Finally, Bethel Coopwood moved from Mexico to a farm in southern Travis County and brought with him his remaining camels. Coopwood remained a lawyer and a camel breeder. What a sight it must have been to see Coopwood ride into Austin; or ride from his farm all the way into San Antonio and back in no more than five hours.
According to Coopwoods descendants the camels were once the hit of Austins Mardi Gras parade. The King of the Carnivals float was drawn by thirty-two camels, each camel was lead by a costumed Negro holding a lighted torch. Emmett concludes in his own marvelous story: The camel experiments had come to a close. There was many a childish heart broken and buckets of tears shed when the camel herd, and [the favorite camel] Old Katie, gaily bedecked by the loving hands of her childish friends, was driven away. The herd was sold to a circus.
After Wayne was released from a Union prison he received the First Class Medal of Honor from the Societe Imperiale Zoologique aAcclimination de Paris for is find efforts and achievements with the camels.