The Roaming Ghosts of the West

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When camels come to mind, people most likely think of camels roaming the deserts of the Middle East and transporting trade across the sun stained sand. The early American West was in many ways as barren as the Middle East. Many prominent American politicians thought that camels were the answer to crossing the vast deserts that covered the West. The American Government hoped that camels would provide easier access to the foreign range of the West; however, because of the animals’ unreliable nature compared to horses and mules, they became the ghost of the American West eventually roaming unhindered by humans.

During the mid-1800s, the ever-expanding American Republic gained access to the previously minimally explored West. The vast and barren deserts posed a challenge for the expansion of settlements because horses and mules could not cross them due to their demand for water. To counteract this, Jefferson Davis came up with the idea for the American Government to use camels to help settle the West.[1] Camels had already been used by other countries when they too were trying to conquer the West, such as the French and Spanish.[2] Camels can go much longer without water than horses or mules, which made them ideal for trekking across the expansive desert of the West. American settlers needed to find ways to travel without the fear of being left in the desert without transportation, so they adopted the Spanish idea of using camels them for mining to bring back their goods.[3] Now the Americans could cross these expansive deserts more easily than they had before.

Camels were emerging all over the world, and the US Army was eager to take advantage of this new weapon. Jefferson Davis originally proposed the use of camels after seeing how effective they were in Middle Eastern deserts, and he wanted to send camels to Texas to strengthen the armies there so that they could easily defend themselves against the Mexican threats. A few hundred camels were sent to Camp Verde Texas to attempt to create a new branch of the American Army in the West. These camels would become powerful tools of transportation and a cavalry corps for the United States Army.[4]

However, the establishment of new systems does not always go as planned. Because camels had been so effective in Middle Eastern deserts, Americans assumed that their camels would bring similar success to the deserts of the West. People assumed that deserts in the east were the exact same as the deserts in the west; unfortunately, this was not the case. The camels were soon seen as unreliable and became too much of a hassle because they were unresponsive and did not react to orders the way that mules and horses did. They were too hard to control, and with the Civil War beginning, there was not time to fix or successfully “tame” these new animals of the West. Ultimately, the camels were disbanded and sold to an independent contractor who hoped to use them for transportation for the Southern Armies. Once again, the camels proved to be too much of a challenge, so the independent contractor turned the mystical beasts of the West into a sideshow attraction so people could see these mysterious animals that they had never seen before.[5]

Eventually, the caretaker of the camels decided to release the animals because he could not control them and they were not bringing in enough revenue. They were released to wander the deserts of the West as feral animals with no masters. As they roamed the deserts in places that no human would go, they soon were lost in memory and became only tales amongst the people settling in the West. The camels were considered ghosts who roamed the deserts unhindered by human interaction, so whenever they were seen, it was as if the person had seen a werewolf or a yeti. A newspaper in Arizona described these elusive animals in a way that only characterized their eeriness even more, stating, “Down in the southwest corners of Arizona, well away from common farings of miners and teamsters, lies a desert tract of land all but inaccessible, and certainly uninviting.”[6] This description portrays the areas where camels reside as well as the level of mystery surrounding them. These camels were seen as such legends that they became mythical to the common man, and this legendary aspect is characterized by the story of the Red Ghost.

The Red Ghost was a camel that traversed throughout the deserts of Arizona terrorizing the public. Stories about the camel killing and eating a grizzly bear and killing farmers with its hooves spread rapidly and intimidated the western settlers. Though this sounds terrifying, these were only the stories that were associated with it. Many even claimed that the beast was thirty feet tall and could trample entire wagons. The characterization of the beast was truly the scariest of all because the Red Ghost was described as a blood stained camel with a skeleton riding it, similar to the rider of death in the book of Revelation.[7] This frightening description of the Red Ghost was enough to terrorize the people of Arizona. The camel was eventually killed by Mizoo Hastings, a local Arizona farmer, finally putting to rest the myth that was this terrifying beast. Upon further investigation the camel was just a regular camel with a man who was strapped on the camel who presumably died in the desert while riding the Red Ghost. [8]

Although this legend exaggerated the reality of camels, it reflected the settlers’ attitudes towards the animals. The idea of implementing camels was a great idea on paper and seemed to be the key to discovering the West. Ultimately, the camels proved to be unusable in the expansion of the West. In the end, the only things that the camels provided the West were fear and myth, and this contributed to the uncertainty around the American West.

-James Weatherholtz

[1] Camels in Texas. (1933, Aug 30). The Washington Post (1923-1954) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/150334505?accountid=28148

[2] Jefferson Davis’s Camel Experiment – PopSciM 74:141-152.” Jefferson Davis’s Camel Experiment – PopSciM 74:141-152. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Oct. 2015.

[3] Jefferson Davis’s Camel Experiment – PopSciM 74:141-152.” Jefferson Davis’s Camel Experiment – PopSciM 74:141-152. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Oct. 2015.

[4] The Short Life of the Camel Corps.” Opinionator The Short Life of the Camel Corps Comments. N.p., 27 Dec. 2012. Web. 09 Oct. 2015.

[5] THE CAMELS IN TEXAS. (1885, Sep 13). New York Times (1857-1922) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/94339575?accountid=28148

[6] Ballinger, L. (1900, 09). A CAMEL HUNT IN ARIZONA. Outing, an Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Recreation (1885-1906), 36, 656. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/137497756?accountid=28148

[7] History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian.” History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Oct. 2015.

[8] The Red Ghost of Arizona”- Creepy Little Book.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.

Picture:

“The Red Ghost: U.S. Camel Corps.” Strange History.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

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