The Camel Expeditions in Big Bend

A black and white photos shows a group of 7 camels and 3 horses resting in a field with men standing next to their unpacked loads.
The Camel Corps having a rest
When you think of Big Bend, do you envision camels? Probably not, but at one time there were in fact camels in the park, or at least what would later become the park. No, these were not native camels, but ones that were brought to Texas in 1856 at the behest of the Secretary of War, one Senator Jefferson Davis, to determine their use for military and other purposes. What follows is their story:

On March 25, 1859, after a grueling four-month evaluation period concerning the use of camels, the new Secretary of War, John B Floyd, directs a reconnaissance of the harsh and inhospitable area between the Pecos River and the Rio Grande. This action is taken not only to locate appropriate areas to establish forts along the Rio Grande, but also to determine the camels’ feasibility for use in restocking outposts in the brutal Southwest. Brevet Second Lieutenant William E Echols of the Army Topographical Engineer Corps is chosen to conduct the reconnaissance, while Second Lieutenant Edward L Hartz commands the escort.

On July 11, 1859, Lieutenants Echols and Hartz begin their expedition from Camp Stockton (now Fort Stockton) to San Vicente, Texas, following what is known as The Comanche Trail. This route takes the party due south through Persimmon Gap and down to Tornillo Creek, where they then head southeast toward the San Vicente crossing on the Rio Grande. Following a week-long exploration and mapping of the area between Boquillas and Mariscal canyons, the expedition returns northward to make a report. Despite a glowing report on the camels’ behalf, Hartz’s superiors are not at all satisfied with the results presented. What is glaringly absent are recommendations for a fort along the Rio Grande, the very thing the expedition was sent out there for. Colonel Robert E Lee, then in command of the Texas Department, decides to order yet another reconnaissance expedition to West Texas, to be conducted the following year.

This second expedition, headed solely by Lieutenant Echols, departs Camp Hudson on the Devil’s River on June 24, 1860, with his camels and thirty-six soldiers. This time around, Echols takes a much different route, heading west to Fort Davis before angling the caravan southwest to Presidio del Norte. Once there, he heads his train east until he reaches Lajitas. Echols then selects a route parallel to the Rio Grande and follows it to the mouth of majestic Santa Elena Canyon, where he decides to set up camp in the area now known as Castolon.

After a brief rest, Echols resumes his easterly course and follows the Rio Grande to its meeting with Alamo Creek. It is here that Echols finds what he is searching for – the ideal place on the river upon which to build a fort. Echols’ troops set about surveying and mapping the entire area, satisfied that they had fully achieved their goal at last. Echols and his crew then return to Fort Davis to file a report on his findings with his superiors.

Even though the first expedition may not have garnered the optimum results the War Department was looking for, both expeditions proved the worthiness of these “ships of the desert” in hauling men and freight under the most grueling conditions imaginable. In long marches that had men, horses, and mules completely distressed, the camels easily marched on over rough, rocky ground with little or no water or vegetation. Had it not been for the outbreak of the Civil War, further expeditions would have no doubt followed but, due to the hostilities, plans for these were cancelled. The camels were thus retired to their base camp at beautiful Camp Verde, near the present-day town of Kerrville, where they were eventually sold off to ranchers or traveling circuses.

Last updated: August 17, 2020

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