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Camels Return to the American Southwest: mid-1800s to early 1900s

Camels Return to the American Southwest: mid-1800s to early 1900s

The fossil record indicates that camel ancestors (the Camelid family) originated on the North American continent approximately 44 million years ago (mya). A variety of camel species emerged on the continent and thrived for several million years, living in a variety of landscapes. By 11,000 years ago, after roaming the continent and migrating to others for tens of millions of years, they died out in North America. Their surviving descendants live in South America (llamas, alpacas, vicunas and quanacos) and in Africa and Asia (the dromedaries and bactrians) (San Diego Natural History Museum n.d.).

The Return of the Camel to North America: 1856

Several dromedaries (one hump, long limbs) and bactrians (two humps, short limbs) returned to the motherland during the mid-1800s. Below is a brief synopsis (all gleaned from Nabhan 2008:9-28).

  • 1836: U.S. Army second lieutenant and quartermaster George M. Crosman pitched the idea of using camels for military purposes to bureaucrats during the Seminole Wars. He later realized the camels would need drovers. The idea didn’t catch.
  • 1848: Crosman got the idea to then United States Senator (Mississippi) Jefferson Davis through quartermaster Henry C. Wayne. Davis was then Chair of the Senate Committee of Military Affairs.
    • The United States (U.S.) gained southwestern territory through the Gadsen Purchase and Mexican-American War between 1848 and 1853.
    • The Quartermaster Department of the U.S. Government was having difficulty shipping provisions to the new western lands.
    • Promoter Gwin Heap helped sell the idea to Congress.
  • 1855: Senate appropriation for camels passed.
  • 1856: Heap, Wayne, and Navy lieutenant David Dixon Porter (later an Admiral) recruit three camel handlers who save the day (and several others who didn’t).
    • The three drovers who stood out were Yiorgos Caralambo, Mico Teodora, and Filippou Teodora.
    • Thirty four camels arrived by ship to Jamaica from the Aegean port of Smyrna in Spring.
    • They eventually reached Texas later in Spring, where they began their life on land.
    • Camels ran supplies between Texas and California.
  • early 1860s: By 1857, the leader of the army, who hated camels, discovered they were in his outfit. During the early 1860s, plans to use them were abandoned, and they were auctioned off or set free.
    • Filippou (who now went by Hadji Ali or Hi Jolly [Americanized version, I guess]) and Yiorgos rounded up camels who had escaped in the desert, and rescued others from unhappy owners.
  • 1860s: Other Bactrian herds were introduced through Sacramento (I don’t know their purpose).
  • 1866: The U.S. Army realized they were subsidizing the animals, and released both the camels and drovers from duty.
    • Yiorgos went to California and ran a stable.
    • Filippou used the camels to run supplies to mines all over the Southwest and Mexico.
  • 1872: Filippou helped unload 50 dromedaries from a steamer (I don’t know their purpose).
  • After 1880: Filippou now married and had children, and released his camels. Not long afterwards, however, Filippou left his family and spent the rest of his life rounding up camels in the desert.
  • 1946: The last camel was seen roaming wild in the North American desert, several decades after Filippou died.
Related Post
To learn more about Gary Paul Nabhan’s books (his Arab/American one was the source of the non-fossil camel information), click here.


Nabhan, Gary Paul

2008   Arab/American: Landscape, Culture, and Cuisine in Two Great Deserts. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

San Diego Natural History Museum

n.d.   Western Camel (Extinct). In Fossil Field Guide. In Fossil Mysteries. In San Diego Natural History Museum. Electronic document,, accessed January 15, 2012.

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Camels Return to the American Southwest: mid-1800s to early 1900s by Shari Maria Silverman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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