From October 1858 to June 1861, the only experimental American Camel Corps (with a total of 77 camels) could be seen in the neighboring Fort Tejon region. After reading a book about camels, General Edward Beale thought these animals could be used in reaching the nearly inaccessible military posts located deep in the desert. He envisioned a “camel express,” which would transport packages and mail across the landscape and proposed his ideas to Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis. Davis decided to propose Beale’s “American Camel Corps” to Congress in 1855, who invested $30,000 in camels for the experiment.
From 1856 to 1857, camels landed at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Full of enthusiasm, General Beale and his men set out from New Orleans to Los Angeles. Parts of the group separated in the San Bernardino area, crossing the Cajon Pass and trekking through the Antelope Valley area, including Palmdale and Elizabeth Lake to Fort Tejon. Other groups arrived in Los Angeles and continued to Fort Tejon from Saugus and Elizabeth Lake.
The camels were stationed at the fort for four months, corralling with the horses. Later, the camels were taken to Beale’s property at Tejon Ranch where he put the camels through different experiments and tests. On one occasion, fifteen camels escaped the fort and wandered away; only six of them were found near Elizabeth Lake. Although the camels were not used extensively, they were also not well received. One of the main problems associated with the American Camel Corps was finding men that knew how to handle them, as camels were somewhat ill-suited for the environment.
At the end of 1859, a civilian contractor turned over 28 camels to the Army at Fort Tejon, where the post quartermaster cared for the herd until 1861; they were then was transferred to the Los Angeles Depot. Eventually, the United States Army ordered the remaining camels to be sold at an auction, where some of the animals were sold to Beale, along with a circus. When the circus went bankrupt in the 1870s, however, it released its camels and other wild animals into the surrounding desert near Fort Yuma, and for several years people reported seeing camels wandering the desert. General Beale brought several camels back to his Tejon Ranch, and could often be seen taking them to Los Angeles for supplies.
“Topsy,” the last of Beale’s camels, died at Tejon Ranch in April of 1937.
Photo courtesy of GoSanAngelo