Thursday, May 12, 2016

When Camels Roamed the Old West by Sherry Alexander

Did you know the U.S. government once experimented with using camels in the old west? It's a case where truth is stranger than fiction--and provides fertile soil for historical fiction. Today I invited writer, author, blogger, and child advocate Sherry Alexander to tell us about her research, books, and articles about camels in the old west. 

When Camels Roamed the Old West 

Three years ago while doing research on the California Gold Rush of 1849, I came across a newspaper article from 1857 that announced the arrival of camels in Texas. I’ve always loved American history, but until that moment I had no idea that camels were part of the Old West. That article was only six sentences long, but it started me on a journey that led to the writing of two books for middle grade and up—one non-fiction and one fiction.

In 1836, the Seminole War was under way in Florida. U.S. Army Captain George Grossman asked Congress to import camels to use as transportation over the rough Florida terrain. Congress denied that request. However, the idea did not die. Twelve years later, the request made its way to Congress once again. This time it was to use camels in the newly acquired southwest which included Texas, Nevada, and Utah, most of Arizona and New Mexico, and parts of both Colorado and Wyoming. Once Mexican territory, this 525,000 square miles became part of the United States with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. Congress said no to the request, but, then Senator, Jefferson Davis was listening. When he became U.S. Secretary of War in 1853, he asked for the camels again. Congress was reluctant, but they finally agreed to a test. In 1856, thirty-two camels from the Middle East arrived in Indianola, Texas, and another forty-one landed nine months later.

The experiment lasted until the Civil War, and while the camels proved their worth time and time again, they lost favor. After the war, the Army auctioned some to circuses and entrepreneurs and turned loose others to fend for themselves in the deserts. My non-fiction book, The Great Camel Experiment of the Old West, chronicles their journey, but the incident that drove me to write my first middle grade novel occurred long after the Civil War.

For more than forty years, stories about wild camels, or ghost camels, were the stuff of legends throughout the southwest. The animals harassed miners, cowboys, and ranchers, and spooked horses and mules. Apaches even corralled them to sell to local butchers who passed the meat off as beef to the silver miners in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. However, one particular camel sparked my imagination and its very own legend.

It was a large, male Bactrian, or two-hump, camel. Those who actually saw it described it to local newspapers as reddish in color, shaggy, and mean. One of the last sightings of this red ghost before its death in 1886 was on a creek in southeastern Arizona three years earlier. It was a time when bands of Apache who left the reservation with Geronimo were attacking small Arizona ranches. A ranch woman encountered the camel at the creek near her home, and was killed. The witnesses said it stomped her to death.

I couldn’t get that incident out of my mind. I kept wondering, “What if?”
What if she had a son who didn’t see the animal that killed his mother, but found unusual tracks and long red hair? What if that son wanted revenge for his mother? What if the boy’s father was an army scout ordered back to the fort to hunt down the renegade Apache? There were so many what ifs that I couldn’t stop thinking about the story, so I wrote it.
Search for the Red Ghost is a middle-grade action/adventure and coming of age story that pits thirteen-year-old Jake Thrasher against the inherent dangers of the desert in 1883 Arizona. His Army Scout father refuses to hunt the animal responsible, so Jake takes matters into his own hands. He leaves the safety of his small ranch and follows a sparse trail through an inhospitable desert filled with snakes, wolves, grizzlies, renegade Apache, and the ever-present threat of death. Will he find his red ghost? You'll have to read the book to find out.

Sherry Alexander's stories and articles have appeared in Red Squirrel Magazine and Guardian Angel Kids. She lives in Southwest Washington with her husband of 47 years, two dogs, two horses, a gaggle of grand kids, and the occasional pack of coyotes. Search for the Red Ghost is her first MG novel, and is available both as an ebook and in print from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, MuseitUp Publishing, and all ebook retailers.

Her blog for kids

Her web site

Her author's page on Amazon

Her Goodreads page

Here is a link to an online non-fiction article "Camels in the Old West" in the February 2015 issue of Guardian Angel.


  1. Thank you, Michele, for allowing me to share the camel's journey into the old west.

  2. Thanks, Sherry and Michele! Jake's story sounds adventurous! People who came across the wild camels--and weren't familiar with them--must have thought they were seeing things.

    Deb Watley