Camel racing comes to America – just not exactly sure how

April 7, 1864

On this day, the nation’s first camel races were held in Sacramento, California – maybe.

The Smithsonian Institution’s always reliable researchers say that indeed an entrepreneurial Californian, Samuel McLaughlin, bought one entire herd of camels from the government in 1864.   The animals were being sold off more or less as Army surplus after the military gave up on the idea of a new world camel corps.

Early image of Virginia City, Nevada

McLaughlin apparently planned to ship a number of the animals to Virginia City, Nevada, as pack animals for mining supplies.  To finance the trip he sold tickets to camel races, a unique fundraiser that was apparently wildly successful.  More than a thousand people reportedly paid up to watch the event.  Story number one.

But wait.  Story number two.  Other sources claim that camel racing  may have begun as a 20th century hoax predicated by Bob Richards, editor of Virginia City’ s Territorial Enterprise.  He’d been publishing bogus camel racing stories for three years beginning in 1957.   It was 1960 before any actual camel races were held.  However it started, it has seemed to last.  The International Camel & Ostrich Races are still held annually.  

A coda to one of the most peculiar episodes on the frontier, the whole idea almost sounded like a hoax back in the 1850s.  The government had long sought to improve transportation in the Southwest.  Former Naval officer, Edward Fitzgerald “Ned” Beale gets the credit or blame as its creator. 

A well-connected grandson of an admiral and son of the Navy’s paymaster, young Ned (right) apparently knew everybody who was anybody in the day.  Camels in the American West occurred to him, he revealed, while exploring Death Valley with Kit Carson.  He’d become familiar with the West as secretary to Commodore Robert Stockton, the man who delivered California to the Americans during the war with Mexico.  

Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, also promoted camels for military purposes, convincing Congress to appropriate some $30,000 for a Camel Corps.  Major Henry Wayne, (left) along with Lieutenant David Dixon Porter (below) were dispatched to the Middle East. Both were men on the way up, seeming to signal the government’s faith in the project.  Wayne was the son of Supreme Court Justice, James Moore Wayne; Porter the son of David Porter, a naval hero during the War of 1812,    

But both had close ties to the South.  Wayne resigned his commission with Lincoln’s election and joined the Confederacy.  Porter’s loyalty was also questioned.  He served honorably for the Union,however, becoming superintendent of the Naval Academy following the war and achieving the rank of admiral. 

The  impressive pair returned to Indianola, Texas, in May of 1856, successfully transporting 19 male and 14 female camels, pack saddles and five camel drivers.  Most of the animals arrived in good health after the long sea journey.  Calling the venture a success, a second group of 41 was brought back in 1857.

The Camel Corps in Texas

The Army organized a number of reconnaissance missions over the next few years, pitting the camel’s endurance against horses and mules under desert conditions.  The camels nearly always won on strength and endurance but the repetitious experiments cost the government a number of horses, a fair number of mules along with several camels.  Besides, the Army rank and file hated the camels. They kicked, spit and smelled foul,  the horse soldiers complained.

While the Army fiddled, the Union burned.  The start of the Civil War and Jefferson Davis’s defection to the Confederacy effectively killed the camel corps.  

By then, Ned Beale, (right) now 42, had moved on, serving as California’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs.  Still a tireless camel advocate, he toyed with the idea of founding a Southwestern mail service, a la Pony Express.  

But the government had lost interest, the project tainted by the support it had received from Davis.  Their  promising fleet of “ships of the desert” was decommissioned, moved to California’s Tejon Ranch and eventually auctioned off.  Most were purchased by zoos, circuses, mining companies and by the likes of the entrepreneurial Mr. McLaughlin.

Ned Beale went on to serve as ambassador to Austria/Hungary in 1876 and 1877, entertaining lavishly, becoming a favorite of Emperor Franz Joseph.   While never achieving great rank in the Navy, he nevertheless still seemed to know everybody who was anybody.  When he died in 1893 at the age of 71 his last will and testament was witnessed by President Grover Cleveland and Buffalo Bill Cody. 

 America’s  short-lived camel corps has remained an object of permanent fascination.  A 1957 episode of TV’s “Death Valley Days” entitled “Camel Trail” featured the corps’ history.  It received less serious treatment in the 1976 slapstick movie “Hawmps” starring James Hampton (right) of “F Troop” fame.   

Some people insist there are still camels out there.  Over the years, a number of the wily animals managed to escape or were set loose, prompting a variety of real and imagined sightings.  Rumors of “ghost” camels roaming the Southwest landscape persist today.

But Virginia City’s International Camel & Ostrich Races are not a mirage.  The 60th annual event is on the calender for high noon Sunday, September 8, 2019.  Tickets on sale now.  

Fort Tejon State Park, 4201 Fort Tejon Road, is 38 miles north of Bakersfield. Joining the ranks of America’s historic sites in 1971, the fort was abandoned in 1864 after a decade in operation.  The original barracks building, a reconstructed officer’s quarters, and a number of other other structures stand as reminders of Fort Tejon’s military history. 

The park features picnic areas, guided tours and a variety of interpretive exhibits. It’s pet friendly but all pets must be on a leash. Grounds are open daily sunrise to sunset.  The Visitor Center and historic buildings are open daily 9 to 4, closed only Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. Day use fees are $3 for adults, $1 for youth 7 to 17, 6 and under are free. For more information go to or call (661) 248-6692.  

© Text Only – 2019 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.