Today, an ecological experiment leaves hardly a
trace. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Long before Jefferson Davis became president
of the Confederacy, he served in the
Mexican-American War. He knew how daunting the dry
Southwest can be, when your only vehicle is a
In 1853, as Secretary of War, Davis proposed that
dromedary camels might replace horses in the
American desert. The idea wasn't original. George Perkins Marsh had suggested
it in 1847.
Marsh was a brilliant figure in American politics
and letters. He fathered our environmental
movement. He served in Congress and as our minister
to Italy. Almost incidentally, he started the field
of structural linguistics, as well.
In 1848, Marsh and Davis served on the Smithsonian
Institution's Executive Committee. Two years later
Marsh traveled Egypt and the Holy Land on camels.
He almost died of disease, but he came back surer
than ever that camels could serve the military.
Finally, in 1855, Marsh gave a Smithsonian lecture
on the camel. He had Congress's attention. The next
year Davis got his camels. Thirty-three of them
arrived at Indianola, Texas, on April 29, 1856.
Forty-one more showed up a year later.
Marsh had written accurately about the camel. He
really had predicted the course of the experiment.
They could carry greater loads than horses. They
had far better endurance. They were also smelly,
disagreeable beasts. They didn't domesticate well.
They'd do just fine in the Wild West. But you
wouldn't want them around once you'd created
We set up our camel cavalry at Camp Verde in the
Texas Hill Country. At first the soldiers hated the
camels. Some actually killed them in anger. They
terrified horses. Indians stole some. Others just
wandered off. But the soldiers got the hang of
Camels could travel 90 miles a day. They fit into
the Texas frontier. Then, during the Civil War, the
South captured the camels. They used them to haul
cotton into Mexico.
Afterward, railroads and settlements came to Texas.
Camels became an inconvenient curiosity. The Army
finally sold them off to a large circus. For years
after, stray camels turned up here and there in the
I couldn't find out how close Jefferson Davis and
Marsh had been before the Civil War. But when it
was over, Marsh advocated two things. One was that
Davis be hanged. The other was that freed slaves
should be given the vote immediately.
But for a season their camels had delighted
children and terrified horses. They'd given the
army a whole new face. Then they vanished utterly.
And today those great lurching beasts seem as far
from our life in Texas as some myth about dragons.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Lowenthal, D., George Perkins Marsh: Versatile
Vermonter. New York: Columbia University,
Emmett, C., Texas Camel Tales. San
Antonio, TX: Naylor Printing Co., 1933.
Marsh, G.P., The Camel -- his Organization
Habits and Uses. Boston: Gould and Lincoln,
1856, (for material on importing the camel to
America, see Chapters XVII, XVIII, and Appendix D).
Marsh, G.P., Man and Nature.
Cambridge: The Harvard University Press, 1965.
(This is an annotated reprint of the original 1864
Marsh, G.P., The Earth as Modified by Human
Action: A Last Revision of Man and Nature.
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1885.
Marsh, G.P., Lectures on the English
Language. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons,
1859, 1884, 1887.
Indianola, Texas, is a town just inside the
southern tip of Matagorda Peninsula -- half way
between Corpus Christi and Galveston on the Gulf
Image courtesy of Special
Collections, University of Houston Library
A camel from an 1855 U.S. War Department
The Purchase, Importation, and Use of Camels
Dromedaries to be Employed for Military
From the 1877 Harper's Weekly
Camels in Nevada delivering military supplies from
San Antonio to Los Angeles in 1857
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Episode | Search Episodes |