The Last Camel Charge: The Untold Story of America’s Desert Military Experiment by Forrest Bryant Johnson

Book cover of The Last Camel Charge
The Last Camel Charge: The Untold Story of America’s Desert Military Experiment by Forrest Bryant Johnson is a splendid recounting of the Army’s attempt to adapt dromedaries to the American desert. Johnson also features the events of the times, the Civil War, the Mormon War, the Indian Wars and the political upheaval as the young country moved resolutely westward in search of land and gold.

The author of Phantom Warrior follows the trail of the men who went to Europe in search of camels to test their suitability for the Southwest desert region. This forgotten piece of history is brought to life by Johnson’s attention to detail and his adept skill at bringing these historical characters to life.

In this narrative, readers see just how much disdain the older countries felt for the young upstart U.S.A. From the first shipment of “old diseased” creatures to the final receipt of camels which were hale, hardy and ready for the long journey to the American Southwest, Johnson reveals the personalities and men behind this little known experiment. Following the journey, The Last Camel Charge does not rely upon the “Journal of May Humphreys Stacey” as one would expect. It does deviate from existing reports and follows Lt. Beale’s trail blazing and his attachment to these foreign creatures.

Picture of camels being transported in Turkey
Camels being moved in Turkey. Photo from Fort Tejon Historical website.

Beale was not alone in his love affair with the two types of camels brought over for the Army’s use. Seemingly just about everyone who had any dealings with these creatures became lifelong fans. Even, Beale’s friend and “business” partner Samuel Bishop who lodged camels at his ranch and later, when the Army wanted the creatures back, was very reluctant to release their treasured charges. Bishop was a fan of the animals and it is he who rode the beasts, along with a few others, to attack the Mojave that were induced to misbehave in a horrific fashion against the non-Mormon settlers who were entering the area.

The book details the beginnings of the Civil War, which would ultimately cause the camel experiment to lose support, as well as the “Mormon” war. The Native American tribes of the area are also looked at as well as their affiliation with other tribes, the Mormons, new settlers, Beale, and the Army.

This is a fascinating look at all the players in the experiment, including a pretty in depth look at “Hi Jolly” whose immigration to America as a Camel Drover led to his working in many different trades and becoming a “local” legend in Arizona. The Last Camel Charge is a well researched and well written recounting of a time when the US was facing problems on all sides.

On top of the battles of “brother against brother” there were the “savages” who stood in the way of gold prospecting, settlers and expansion of young America’s “manifest destiny.” Mormon’s were another issue and the horrific massacre of innocents by this “new” religion caused an outcry to equal the Native American concern.

Published this year, the book is a fascinating read and one that any western history buff will find interesting and entertaining. A real 5 star effort from Forrest Bryant Johnson.

Life on the Real Desert: Snakes Alive

Snake crossing the road, @4ft
On the way to town today I came across a lady on the “main road” out of the estate. Standing by the side of the paved surface, clutching a hoe, she moved toward the center of the street and waited for me to approach on my bike.

“You could have crossed over,” I said, “It will take me ages to get to you.” This as I slowly moved toward the stationary gardener. It was my impression that she was heading to the desert on the other side of the road.

“Is that a rattler?”

The question caused me to turn, as I had passed her already, and head back to where she stood. “Careful, he’s right there,” she pointed to the rock and cactus frontage of the lot to my right. I looked but saw nothing that resembled any sort of desert creature. Stopping and dismounting I walked to where she was and turned to follow her pointing finger.

In the shadow of the property’s boundary fence, the long serpent was contentedly stretched out and occasional flicks of its tongue tested the air as it relaxed in the shade. It was well over four feet in length and unperturbed by all the attention. Whilst we discussed what sort of snake it was, the thing began to slowly move along in the shade.

Several attempts were made to photograph the placid creature but the shadows he, or she, stubbornly clung to, made it difficult. While we stood about taking snaps with mobile phones (cell phones) and deciding that the lack of rattles meant that it was not a rattlesnake, other folks from the area congregated to look at the traveler.

Snake in the shade
Do I look bovvered?

The calm snake, which a friend has guessed might be a Pacific gopher snake, moved into the hard pan after traversing a long stretch of fence line.

Snake in the shade.
The Snake-Fence.

This is the first live snake I’ve come across. The only other one was dead hit, apparently, by a car on the road running parallel to the highway. Red and grey and not rattles either, I still have no idea what sort of snake it was. The visitor also was the first creature that moved slow enough for me to take a picture of.

Yesterday I saw a kangaroo rat nimbly hopping across the vacant lot across the street from my home. It was huge and, for a rat of any kind, cute. Bold as brass, it ignored me completely and headed for a huge cactus with yellow “roses” on it. He, or she, disappeared as I got closer and despite standing there for a while it did not reappear.

Not counting the time spent living in Las Vegas, Nevada, the last time I lived in a desert setting was in 1980 – 1982 in Alamogordo, New Mexico. I cannot remember too much about colors of flowers or seeing too many creatures scurrying about, but I do recall falling in love with the desert itself. White Sands was just down the road from my trailer and my first wife, along with our son, went out a few times to that amazing gypsum land.

The entire time I lived in England, the question of returning stateside was continually cropping up. I said, at the time, that only if I could live in the desert…

Yellow flowers on huge prickly pear cactus.
It’s the yellow rose of…Arizona…

Well, here I am. Living in the great Southwestern desert. The land of Billy the Kid, Apache warriors, the Navaho and Mojave. Each time I ride my bike into town my imagination runs riot. Reading about days gone by in the state, and the local area, fuels my trips of fancy. Wild west outlaws, larger than life characters and prospectors searching for personal riches reside in my mind.

I have been talking to a neighbor about looking for gold and he has relayed some marvelous tales of robbery and mining. I will be sharing some of these stories soon. In the meantime, I shall be researching this land that features so heavily in literature and film.

23 April 2015

Michael Knox-Smith