Our New Mexico Heritage: Beale’s camels could have changed the way the West was won

Rendering of Beale’s brigade of camels crossing New Mexico and Arizona.
Rendering of Beale’s brigade of camels crossing New Mexico and Arizona.
Visit El Moro National Monument near Grants and you’ll find the name P. Gilmer Breckinridge carved in Inscription Rock. Except for its remarkable typography, there’s nothing unusual about the inscription; the soft, sandstone cliff has hundreds of petroglyphs and names carved in it, including Juan de Oñate.

Breckenridge traveled with Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale, in charge of twenty-five camels accompanying the Beale party that was upgrading a wagon road from Santa Fe to California.

You’ll also find Beale’s name carved in the cliff face. This is his story.

From 1846 to 1848, the Mexican-American War was fought to determine who controlled the Southwest. Beale was with General Stephen Kearny battling Californio lancers. American Dragoons had engaged the Californios in the Battle of San Pasqual and had been soundly beaten. Now, encamped atop Mule Hill with his wounded and exhausted troops, Kearny realized they would be decimated if they were attacked again. His only recourse was to send men on foot through the ranks of the enemy to San Diego, where Commodore Robert Stockton had reinforcements.

Beale, along with Kit Carson and a Dieguerno Indian, volunteered to attempt the fifteen-mile journey. Hampton Sides tells the story in his book, Blood and Thunder. The three men slid down the scree of Mule Hill. Because their boots made so much noise, they took them off and hooked them under their belts. The left their clanking canteens behind, too.

Beale and Carson had lost their boots in the dark. Now their feet were lacerated by rocks and punctured by cactus spines. Still they pushed on, for three days, taking separate routes to ensure one of them would get through. When Beale reached Stockton, he was dehydrated and so exhausted he was delirious, but he reported Kearny’s dilemma.

A decade after the American victory, Edward Beale — having resigned his Naval commission — was contracted by John B. Floyd, Secretary of War for President Buchanan, to improve the 35th Parallel wagon road. The road originally had been blazed by the Mormon Battalion, organized by Gen. Kearney during the war. Beale was assigned the task of building a road from New Mexico to California. Unbeknownst to him, the contract required him to take part of the
camel herd with him.

Camels in the American Southwest seemed like a good idea. The region’s punishing climate and terrain took a terrible toll on horses and mules upon which the Army had always depended. Proponents of camels said they they were stronger, patient in loading and unloading, and tolerant of little food, water, or rest. Their feet were well suited for grassy or sandy plains, as well as rough, rocky and hilly paths, and they required no shoeing.

P. Gilmer Breckenridge inscription at El Morro National Monument. Photo by Bud Russo.
P. Gilmer Breckenridge inscription at El Morro National Monument. Photo by Bud Russo.
The argument convinced the U.S. Congress to appropriate $30,000 [more than $800,000 in today’s currency] to obtain Egyptian and Tunisian camels for an experiment to learn how they fared as pack animals. That was in 1855 and, within a year, Major Henry Wayne had arrived at Camp Verde outside San Antonio, Texas, with thirty-two dromedary and two Bactrian camels. A second herd brought the number of animals to seventy.

Although he was not in favor of the idea of herding camels, Beale accepted responsibility of twenty-five of them. His road-building expedition left Fort Defiance in New Mexico Territory and headed west toward the Colorado River.

Imagine the reaction of Indians to their first sighting of a camel. Beale had dispatched a patrol to find water, and it had not returned when expected. Camel drivel Hadji Ali on his camel went in search of them and found the troopers under attack. With no time to go for help, Ali drew his scimitar and charged, screaming, “Allahu akbar.” Facing an olive-brown Arab in traditional clothing, shouting in a language none could understand, the Indians fled in terror from the “desert devil.” We can only wonder what stories they told in their lodges afterwards.

Along his journey, Beale opinion of the camels changed. He found them superior to mules in the desert country. They could go a week without water and foraged on prickly pear and other desert plants along the way. Each camel could carry a load of up to a thousand pounds, hundreds more than a mule, and, because they remained quietly on their knees, were infinitely easier to pack. Mules didn’t like the camels and, therefore, the muleskinners didn’t like them either, saying they were foul-smelling, ugly, and evil tempered. In some accounts, you might think the muleskinners were referring to the camel drivers and not their charges.

In his report to the Secretary of War, Beale wrote, “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. In fact the camel gives no trouble whatever.”

Despite the lack of camaraderie among the animals and their caretakers, Beale’s crew surveyed and constructed the ten-foot-wide wagon road. He reached the Colorado River at today’s Arizona/California border on October 26, 1857.

Beale wrote of the construction, “It is the shortest route from our western frontier by three hundred miles, being nearly directly west. … It crosses the great desert, which must be crossed by any road to California, at its narrowest point.” It was the most popular road among immigrants in the 1870s and was the foundation for the Santa Fe Railroad and U.S. Route 66. It’s still in use today as Interstate 40 running alongside the rails of the BNSF.

So why is there no camel corps in the U.S. Army today?

Although the camel experiment and Beale’s use of them proved successful, history eclipsed the results. Four years after he arrived in California, on the opposite side of the continent, secessionists from South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter. America began expending its blood and treasure in a Civil War that dearly tested the will of the people to remain bound as a single nation.

Early in the war, an attempt was made to use the camels to carry mail between Fort Mojave, New Mexico Territory, on the Colorado River and New San Pedro, California, but the attempt was unsuccessful after commanders of both posts objected. Camels were not the type of animals the military could tolerate, especially since the U.S. Army was a horse and mule organization, whose soldiers did not have the skills to control camels.

In 1864, the Army, which had no further interest in the animals, sold them at auction to California ranchers, most probably as a novelty. Beale bought some himself for his Tajon Ranch near Bakersfield.

Though some escaped into the wild, the camels were simply forgotten. The last of the animals was reportedly seen in Arizona in 1891. Perhaps. For years afterwards, astonished travelers would spy what appeared to be a wild camel on the horizon.