Tag Archives: United States

Camels And North America

Photo by Kyaw Tun on Unsplash

A (Brief) History Of Camels In North America

Much to everyone’s surprise, Camels were once native to the North American continent. Eleven thousand years ago these Camelops roamed the western United States and, though modern relatives live in Africa and Asia, relatives of the species as a whole may have spread across to Asia from Alaska via the Bering Strait. As with many land bridge hypotheses, this one has its holes, such as how our updated understanding of evolution and human migration patterns have impacted other species such as Equuis scotti.

By the time Europeans came west the North American camel had long since disappeared. The Texas Camel Corps is excited to educate everyone about the role of camels in United States history. It wasn’t until 1701 that its first relatives returned to the continent as an import to the Virginia Colony by a slave trader, most likely for use as work animals. In contrast, a wealthy Massachusetts ship captain named Crowninshield imported a pair of show camels for his personal menagerie. Later, in 1748 Arthur Dobbs, landowner, and governor of North Carolina, imported a pair of camels to work his land. No records exist to suggest he ever sold individuals that may have resulted from a breeding pair.

Camels remained an exotic novelty until 1856 when President Franklin Pierce was in office and the country experienced the unique election of President James Buchanan. President Franklin Pierce was an expansionist excited to encourage and sign policies that pushed for the exploration and utilization of the Southwest. What is  a better way to explore an area assumed to be an arid wasteland than with animals everyone assumes are made for arid wasteland? And so the Texas Camel Corps and its association with the United States Calvary began. Responsible for at least 60 Arabian and 15 Bactrian camels, the Ottoman Pasha of Cairo sent his generous gifts to the United States military in the May of 1856 and February of 1857. Once James Buchanan took office only 40 additional camels came to Texas on a suspected slave ship in October of 1858 and were the only cargo allowed to be unloaded for a Mrs. M.J. Watson, assumed to be the wife of the manifest’s Thomas Watson. These camels were accepted at that time by the governor of Texas and kept on a ranch near Houston, Texas. Texas’s camels were mostly used for the transportation of military supplies to and from San Antonio, Texas up until the Civil War.

Photo by Zachary Spears on Unsplash

As an exception, in 1859 an expedition following the route that would become Route 66 (Modern Interstate 40) used the camels to traverse the western deserts of America. Eventually, during the Civil War these camels would be put to work hauling cotton and salt to attempt to keep up with British trade demands at critical Confederate ports not blockaded by the Union Navy. One individual used sixty-six camels to maintain a freight trade route from Texas to Mexico City.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a few import events from Africa, Russia, and Australia of hundreds of individuals from Arizona to British Columbia (though Canada sent them back!) mean that as of today we have a little over two thousand Arabian camels and around five hundred Bactrian camels distributed between zoos, viruses, breeders, and privately-held collections. Unfortunately, there is no official camel registry for individuals managed by the USDA, and their presence in the United States is poorly regulated. While there have been multiple import events of specific species of camels that could be differentiated with genetic evidence should studies be done on current populations, my question remains: are there currently feral camels in North America? If so, where are they and where did they come from?

Photo by Julius Yls on Unsplash

Feral Camels

While the import of camels for various purposes by the United States and the Confederacy provided a utilitarian purpose for the human support of domesticated populations, sightings of feral camel populations have dated back to at least the 1860s when they were used for the construction of the railroad across the American Southwest, with that population’s release location being Maricopa Wells, Arizona. These feral camels received the nickname “red ghost” or “el diablo” for their aggression as documented by their tendency to stop children and animals to death even though camels are better known for being docile and gentle. This individual was later killed when caught grazing on a farmer’s tomatoes according to one newspaper account according to Smithsonian magazine. But other stories claim witnesses saw “red ghost” killed by a grizzly bear. And yet more stories about feral camel sightings and their eventual demise in the wild or at the hands of humans.

One day a curious and frightening animal with a blobbish head, long and curving neck, and shambling legs, moseyed around the garrison…. the animal was one of the old army camels.”

Douglas MacArthur, 1885 (age 5)

One documented sighting of a feral camel comes from the childhood stories of the famous General MacArthur who was only five at the time in 1885. The records at the National Zoo suggest that feral camels were known to roam Texas until at least the 1890s. You can even visit the gravesite of a late camel driver that died while out in the desert hunting for the loose animals in Arizona. Several more sightings persisted through the early 20th century, particularly in the desert of Southern California and around the Salton Sea. Up until the 1970s, there were individuals insistent that camels still roamed the deserts of the American Southwest.

Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash

It’s not unreasonable to assume that feral camel populations still exist in the deserts of the North American continent, especially when considering the history of how the feral populations of camels in Australia became established. These are very durable animals that can withstand temperature extremes and internal body temperature fluctuations that could easily kill other mammals. There are even those that actively argue for the camel to make a comeback as an agricultural animal that needs to be re-established in the United States. And they aren’t alone – there are conservationists that agree. There are some that argue if feral populations do not currently exist they should perhaps be re-established as part of the efforts to revive the environment of the American Southwest that has been devastated by poor agricultural practices and specifically soil salinization. Arabian camels have a high salt tolerance in their diets and can help distribute salt that has been concentrated across a landscape. The biggest hurdle? Making the camels go feral in the first place.

But would the reintroduction of a related species be considered an invasive species? Would camels be considered an invasive species? Researchers have asked this too. Genetic evidence suggests that there may not be too big of a difference between the camels of today we could import and release versus the camels of tens of thousands of years ago. Vegetarian and omnivorous megafauna play a niche role in any ecosystem, especially one in which there used to, but no longer exist animals to take up that role. Some have suggested that camels could help fill that role in the United States.

Before we go out looking to bring more camels into the United States, we must first conduct a full survey of the population and determine how many individuals are here, whether or not they are feral versus domesticated, what diseases they are currently harboring, the state of their population genetics, and whether or not there exists a preexisting breeding population of feral camels that spans across the desert of Northern Mexico and the American Southwest. These individuals would likely be hybrids of the Arabian and Bactrian camels with primarily Arabian genetic lineage, with the potential for incorporating other individuals from other later import events, such as pie-bald breeding populations from Australia and Morocco. This could be done via aerial surveys, much like how there’s already aerial population monitoring of caribou and other megafauna in remote locations.

A current barrier to this is that the USDA currently regulated camels as exotic animals. The USDA’s regulations around exotic animals, and therefore all breeding, sales, and research are done under the same laws that govern all other exotic animals such as those kept in zoos. On the USDA’s website, in their FAQ on the subject, this is their response to the needs for owning an exotic “pet” for breeding, viewing, or research. These regulations prevent the USDA from regulating camels as livestock and this actually interferes with their ability to establish animal welfare standards. PETA helped shut down a camel ride operation this past August due to insufficient access to veterinary care for the animals used at the “park.” While I am someone that would normally point you toward numerous issues with PETA’s hypocrisy, in this case they are right. There is insufficient access to veterinary care for camels in the United States due to a lack of demand and lack of access to training and no regulation around what their health requirements are. The majority of workshops for veterinarians to attend to learn about treating camels are entirely funded by the private owners. If we were to implement a release program it would have to be done after major changes in regulation and improvements in wildlife veterinary medicine training included camels in the curriculum to ensure proper monitoring for their populations and health.

What are your thoughts? Should we reintroduce the camel to deal with soil salinization? Should we seek out potential feral camel populations? How much more research do we need?


Thank you for taking the time to read this article on feral camels in North America! What’s your opinion? There are no wrong answers here.

Do You Know This Woman?

The Mystery Of Hattie Reams Vande Riet – Part 1

What we know

“Hattie” Reams Vande Riet sat still in an ornate wicker chair at New York Art Gallery at 305 E. Broad St. in Richmond VA approximately one hundred years ago. This posed cabinet card captured her green, light hazel, or dark blue eyes and brown hair rolled into an ornate nest Gibson Girl above her head. Her neck scarf collar and broach with necklace and pinky ring are all carefully selected indications of her class. She was stunning and when I found her at Luxor in 2010 and fell in love.

What I know so far is that Hattie is a nickname for Harriet, Henrietta, Henriette, Helen, or many other traditional female names. Based on the type of cabinet card, photography chemicals used (gelatin bromide over Baryta I think – cannot confirm without damaging the photograph), and the style of attire, the photograph is from the 1890s – 1910s. Hattie appears to be at least 16, placing her year of birth to be in the 1880s – 1900s if she is exceptionally young looking and in her 20s. Given her lack of pierced ears, her jewelry, and her ring placement, she is educated and affluent or hoping to appear as such. It is unclear whether the photograph is pre or during World War I given the hairstyle, though the Gibson Girl fell out of fashion after World War I and during the Influenza Epidemic placing the photograph as no later than the 1910s.

One possible option I tracked down is here. There is some conflicting information between the name on the card and the name listed here. The cursive on the back of the card lacks the spaces and capitalization. So far this is my best lead, but unfortunately, all of the relatives listed on this family tree are deceased.

Based on the year of marriage listed to John Van De Riet, could this have been her bridal/bachelorette portrait? The hairstyle and dress are accurate to Virginia in November of 1906.

Do any of those names look familiar to you? Are they your parents, great grandparents, or great great grandparents? Is Hattie your family member?

Why?

I collect cabinet cards, but Hattie is special. Whenever I obtain a cabinet card with more information than a face, I can’t help but try to find out who these pictures captured. Early photography was a synergistic art form between timing, chemistry, and the capturing of minutes as opposed to hours in time in a way that was lifelike and included human flaws, and thus souls in the opinions of some, unlike portrait painting where commissioned manipulations by the upper-classes were more common (a study of the portraits of Queen Elizabeth I is one of the most famous on this topic).

Hattie is someone’s relative and because I have her name I want to reconnect her though this archiving. So this is where our story begins with the first cabinet card I hope to digitize and reconnect with her descendants.

At the time I purchased her photograph, I also found one of an unnamed blond-haired post-mortem (the 1860s – 1880s based on photography method) toddler boy forever alone in his Christening clothes and forgotten by the family that knew him so briefly. I find it important that he never be alone again. I will never digitize his photo for ethical reasons. (I have a love of Hidden Mother Photography and other early child portrait methods. They fill me with warm fuzzies. I will go into these in another post dedicated to early child portrait photography.)

The Cabinet Card Descendants Project

The first cabinet card that is part of this project is Hattie. She was the first cabinet card I purchased with this level of detailed information and therefore I will focus on her first.

Very few cabinet cards have enough information to connect them with their families once they’re separated. My mom’s family is lucky enough that every cabinet card we’ve ever had taken is still in our family’s possession (that we know of) – including the (sometimes broken) glass negatives. Photography became related to spirituality in the South, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as family members died farther and farther away from home without the constant love and contact they once had. Families dispersed across the United States, mailing cabinet cards through the United States Postal Service to loved ones back home with the superstition that each one of these cards contained a small piece of their soul – a gift to be cherished. This bit of superstition was one relayed to me through family legend and is not one I can put much stock in (hope you enjoy the pun there), but many did at the time the photos were created.

I do not fault families for giving these away. Superstitions die over time and are entirely relative to where you are from. The belief in a soul and the afterlife is questionable in the face of modern skepticism. That said, I am making an effort to digitize every cabinet card I get that has names associated with the faces. I will then provide research to attempt to reconnect to the original portrait studios to see if I can start adding names to the other cabinet cards. This way they can be digitized and added to other genealogy websites.

A Note On Cultural Differences

For readers in the UK, please note there are cultural and chemical differences in cabinet card photography between our continents. I have run into the issue previously with discussing old photographs where readers from the UK (and for some reason only the UK) try to impose assumptions on antique photographs from the US based on cultural history and expectations associated with the Edwardian and Victorian eras elsewhere in the world and argue this without doing their research and fact checking. Please do not do this. This is not how history works. At all. Seriously.

The United States experienced a massive social upheaval from the 1840s through the 1940s in a very different way than that of the UK and rest of the world. Every culture and even subgroup has its unique history that can be contributed and needs to be exposed as opposed to erased. This project is about exposing what is objective. I cannot work based on incorrect cultural assumptions here and I need to be able to make corrections so I can reconnect individuals. Some of the unique experiences in the United States had to do with the size of our country and how its population spread out with the rise of the railroad and westward expansion. The rise of the Spiritualism movement (very different from Spiritualism in the UK) also had a role to play in photography at the time, but likely had to less to do with this particular photograph.

How You Can Help

If you have information that can help track down Hattie’s living family members, either by knowing someone that shares a name or if you recognize her face as a relative of yours, please feel free to share any leads you may have. I will take my time to check out each one and provide updates on this website. If anyone wants, I may even start a YouTube series dedicated to this project and tracking down the descendants so they can meet their long lost great grandparents through photographs.

You can send tips to lopotterwrites at gmail dot com. You can also help by liking, sharing, and talking about Hattie! Let’s help find Hattie together.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this today. I look forward to helping Hattie find her family and moving on to the next cabinet card in my collection with information and will continue to post information on cabinet cards and the history of portrait photography and how it relates to superstition and spirituality in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries.