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Desert Diary
History/Army Camels


Camels had most of their evolutionary history in North America, and fossil remains of extinct camels are common in the Chihuahuan Desert. Emigrants to South America became the ancestors of the llamas. Others, moving to the Old World, led to the modern day Bactrian and Dromedary camels. We had lost all of ours by around 11,000 years ago. Thus the memory of these ungainly creatures had long since passed from the human mind when a caravan of camels entered New Mexico near El Paso in 1857.

Could camels outdo horses and mules in the desert climate? It was Lieutenant Edward Beale's duty to find out. The immediate aim was to survey a road westward to California. As the Lieutenant enthusiastically reported, the camels packed heavy loads and happily foraged off the land. Nevertheless, soldiers disliked handling the ill-tempered beasts, and by the end of the Civil War, the idea was abandoned—as were at least some of the camels, occasionally to be seen roaming the land of their ancestors until they, too, departed from this mortal coil.
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Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.



Faulk, O. B. 1976. The U.S. Camel Corps: an army experiment. Oxford University Press, New York.

Fowler, H. D. 1950. Camels to California; a chapter in western transportation. Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Yancey, D. 1995. Camels for Uncle Sam. Hendrick-Long Publishing Co., Dallas.

Web Resources

Army Camels