Camels at Fort Defiance
Fort Defiance marks the starting point of Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale’s 1857–1858 wagon road survey across the 35th parallel to the Colorado River, the very first deployment of the US Camel Corps. The government was eager to boost the efficiency of transport and trade between the East and California and furthermore wanted to survey the land acquired from the Mexican government after the Mexican–American War. Recommendations by military officials such as Major Henry C. Wayne eventually resulted in two shipments of camels, as well as camel handlers such as the Arizona-famous Hi Jolly, docking at Indianola, Texas, on May 14, 1856. From there they were moved to a fort near San Antonio. Lieutenant Beale, appointed by Major Wayne to use this Camel Corps for the wagon road survey, set out from San Antonio with twenty-eight camels on June 25, 1857.
Along the way to Fort Defiance, Lieutenant Beale was to meet up with a Colonel Loring, a general who had lost one arm in the Mexican War and would later go on to help train troops in Egypt. At this early date, however, he was unacquainted with camels, and Beale rather literally left him in the dust, as the camel Beale was riding easily outpaced Loring’s horse. They met back together some two days later and reached Fort Defiance together on August 25, 1857.
Colonel Edwin Vose Sumner established Fort Defiance to assert dominance over the Navajo population with a military presence. Lacking defensive fortifications, however, it took the form of a “military village,” with barracks, stables, storehouses, a civilian trading store, a hospital, and a structure for Navajos staying overnight, all arrayed around a parade ground. At this time, the fort held a tentative peace with the Native Americans of the region. They traded with the Zuni and the Navajo for food, but the fort occupied what had been grazing land, and occasional raids continued. While 1856–1857 was relatively quiet around the vicinity of the fort, Beale’s careful notes of any Native American sightings or interactions on his journey demonstrate the government’s uneasy relationship with the native inhabitants of the territory.
When he reached Fort Defiance, Beale wrote in his journal that “No one who has not commanded an expedition of this kind, where everything ahead is dim, uncertain, and unknown, except the dangers, can imagine the anxiety with which I start upon this journey.” Beale himself had already led an expedition such as this, charting a “Central Route” to California in 1853 from Missouri. Seeing the camels’ performance on this expedition from Fort Defiance left Beale with great admiration for their ability to carry enormous loads, travel great distances, and go long periods of time without water. He even developed a particular affinity for one camel named Seid. Even after the Camel Corps was officially disbanded, Beale kept a collection of camels at his ranch near Fort Tejon, California.