The men of Company A, First United States Dragoons, were tired, dusty and bedraggled after a two-month march across the searing desert. Under the command of First Lieutenant Thomas F. Castor, they were invigorated by the cool breezes that met them when they finally reached the 4,500-foot high precipice of Grapevine Pass on August 10, 1854.
Lieutenant Castor wasted no time in laying out barracks, officers' quarters, storehouses and parade grounds at Fort Tejon. The founding was not without some element of mystery, for carved into an oak was the inscription, "Peter LaBeck, killed by an X bear, Oct. 17, 1837." Little is known about Peter LaBeck other than that he was a trapper; no one knows who cut the marker into the tree.
The military post was established to stop cattle rustling and to protect the Indians, and became the western terminus of a supply route using camels. Largely forgotten now, the saga of the Camel Corps is an interesting chronicle.
While exploring Death Valley with Kit Carson, Lieutenant Edward F. Beale got the idea of using camels in the trackless Southwest and suggested it to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. The secretary was toying with the notion of a line of relay balloons at the time, so camels did not sound so preposterous.
Colonel David D. Porter was dispatched to Egypt and Arabia with thirty thousand dollars to buy the beasts. On May 13, 1856, Porter landed at Indianola, Texas, with the first contingent of thirty-three; another forty-four followed. Some were sent to San Antonio, while twenty-five set out for the Colorado River, commanded by Beale, who was by this time a colonel.
A couple of experienced camel drivers came from Arabia: Hadji Ali (the soldiers quickly changed his name to "Hi Jolly") and a fellow known as "Greek" George Allen.
The Los Angeles Star reported on January 27, 1858 that "Colonel Beale and about fourteen camels stalked into town last Friday week and gave our streets quite an Oriental aspect."
In a letter to the Secretary of War, Beale was lavish in his praise:
"At times I thought it impossible they could stand the test to which they have been put, but they seem to have risen equal to every trial.... With heavy packs, they have crossed mountains, ascended and descended precipitous places [and] have traversed nearly double the distance passed over by our mules and wagons."
While Beale was enthusiastic, no one else seemed to be. The troopers learned, to their dismay, that camels could inflict nasty bites, spit with deadly accuracy, and be far more cantankerous that a Missouri mule. Horses and cows panicked at the sight and smell of the ungainly beasts, while their roar likened to that of a Bengal tiger kept man and animal awake half the night.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, supply lines across the Southwest were cut by the Confederacy, and the Camel Corps was put to pasture. They were used locally between Tejon and Los Angeles until the fort was abandoned on September 11, 1864. Some were sold to zoos, others were turned loose in the mountains. The last auction of camels was held at Camp Verde in 1866. For years afterward, there were rumors of camels wandering the Tehachapis or drinking deeply from the banks of the Santa Clara.
The final, sad act of the drama occurred on December 16, 1902, when seventy-four-year-old Hi Jolly was sitting in a saloon at Quartzsite, Arizona. A prospector stumbled in, telling of a huge, red camel wandering nearby. Jolly rushed outside and was never seen alive again.
According to local legend, his withered body was found weeks later in the remote desert. There he lay with lifeless arms wrapped around the neck of the last camel in the West.