We all know tales about the Wild West: Cowboys and Native Americans fought, adventurous settlers fanned out into the frontier, prospectors struck gold. But where do camels fit into that chaotic American landscape? As it turns out, Arabian camels were a big - yet forgotten - part of the settlement of the Southwest and the foundation of a classic Arizona campfire story.
The camels were initially imported to Texas for use as Army pack animals, due to their suitability to the desert climate. Their story was full of twists and turns that led some to traveling circuses, some to glory as war heroes, and others to become treasured riding animals long after the Army's "Camel Experiment" was over.
Many of those camels ended up loose in the desert, with camel sightings occasionally reported throughout the region. So why did the camels disappear from the United States, and who was the Red Ghost? The answers prove fact can sometimes really be stranger than fiction.
The legend of the Red Ghost began in Arizona in 1883, when a woman discovered the trampled body of her neighbor after hearing a bloodcurdling scream. She found a tuft of red fur near the body. Soon other settlers claimed to have seen a red-furred, horselike beast roaming nearby.
For 10 years, the Red Ghost terrorized the residents of the Arizona desert. Sightings were reported by frontier families, miners, teamsters, and ranchers. At least one report claimed the creature was a camel, but most people simply knew the Red Ghost as a huge beast with long red hair, cloven hooves, and a skeletal rider.
Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the Red Ghost story is what people reported seeing strapped to the camel's back: a headless human body. But whose body was it?
Some believe it was a young soldier from the Camel Corps days, who was afraid of the camels and strapped onto one so he could overcome his fear. But the camel got loose and escaped, dooming him to die of dehydration in the desert without a way to cut himself down. Terrified settlers supposedly found the man's skull after startling the Red Ghost one day.
The camel was finally shot and killed in 1893. The rider's body was gone, but the camel wore a saddle and bore scars supposedly showing where the strips of rawhide tied the man down.
In the mid-1800s, the idea of using camels to expand into the more arid regions of the Southwest was met with enthusiasm by many military officials and politicians. After they petitioned for the funds, Congress set aside $30,000 to purchase 50 camels and hire 10 camel drivers. In 1856 the first group arrived in Texas. A herd of dromedary camels was established in Camp Verde, TX, in 1857, when a second shipment brought their number to 75.
In the 1830s surveyors of the American West noticed the territory was similar to the land in the Middle East and Northern Africa - the home of the camel. The country's borders were expanding rapidly, and explorers needed pack animals that were hardier than the traditional horses, burros, and mules.
Camels consumed much less water and food than the other animals, and they were faster, too. They were incredibly well-suited to both the terrain and the climate, and soon proved their usefulness on surveying and supply trips.