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Camels at Fort Defiance

The US government brought camels to the Southwest to use them in the short-lived US Camel Corps, formed in 1857 and lasting until 1863, which experimented with the pack animals for military use. Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale used them to survey a wagon route from Fort Defiance to the Colorado River, charting the “dim, uncertain, and unknown.”

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.


Camel camp
Camel camp An illustration of what one of Beale’s camps may have looked like as he trekked from through the southwest with his contingent of camels. Source:

“[Camel Camp].” 1857. Marfa, Diversity in the Desert collection. Courtesy of the University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History.

Fort Defiance
Fort Defiance A painting by Seth Eastman of Fort Defiance in 1875, eighteen years after Beale had made his way here to begin his expedition. It represents Fort Defiance as it was when the US government transformed it into an Indian agency. Source:

 “Fort Defiance, New Mexico.” Seth Eastman, 1873. Courtesy of the Senate Catalogue of Fine Art.

Creator: Seth Eastman
Lieutenant Beale
Lieutenant Beale Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale, decked out in a uniform from his service in the Mexican American War. In his report on his 1853 survey of a route from Missouri to California, Beale had included an addendum recommending camels for use in further expeditions in the southwest. He became the first to try it, using dromedaries imported from the Mediterranean to survey a route from Fort Defiance to the Colorado River from 1857-1858. Source:

“Midshipman Beale.” Photograph of Engraved portrait published in John C. Fremont: Memoirs of My Life, Vol. 1. Chicago and New York: Belford, Clarke, and Company, 1887, 580. Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.

American Camel Company
American Camel Company The charter for the unfulfilled American Camel Company, established 1854 in anticipation of the money to be made using camels in transportation to California across the newly acquired Mexico Territory. Source:

Gray, Arthur Amos, Francis Peloubet, and William S. Lewis. Camels in Western America. San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1930.

Camel mural
Camel mural A mural by Kevin Varty, Jim Savoy, and Kathy Fiero in Barstow, California representing Beale’s camel expedition, which surveyed a wagon route from Fort Defiance, New Mexico Territory to the Colorado River from 1857–1858. Beale lingers on in California memory in part because the ranch he and his camels retired to, Fort Tejon, is located there. Source:

Varty, Kevin, Jim Savoy, and Kathy Fierro. Camels. 2000. Mural located at 200 N. 2nd Ave, Barstow, California, Image from “Beale’s Wagon Road From Arkansas to California.” Legends of America. Last updated May 2021.

Creator: Kevin Varty, Jim Savoy, and Kathy Fiero



Emily Moore, Northern Arizona University, “Camels at Fort Defiance,” Intermountain Histories, accessed May 20, 2024,