The first camel race in the United States was held in Sacramento, California, on April 7, 1864. The dromedaries belonged to Samuel McLeneghan who had paid $1,495 for 35 of them at an auction in Benicia, California. The camels had a curious history, one that began with an American military expedition to northern African nations along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The idea of the expedition and the importing of camels belonged to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (this is of course the Jefferson Davis who later led the Confederacy, which had no camels that we know of). Davis convinced Congress to go along with this scheme and his vision of a Camel Corps that would carry military supplies across the country from east to west, it being reasoned that camels could carry heavier loads than horses on less food and water (sort of the same idea behind today’s guest worker programs for foreigners).

Unfortunately, the Camel Corps looked better on paper than in reality. The camels did not get along with their fellow animals or people: they stampeded horses and mules, attacked and bit pedestrians and chewed laundry off clotheslines. Camel caravans were only allowed to pass through some towns at night. With the Civil War getting underway (and Jefferson Davis going to the other side), interest in the project flagged and the Camel Corps disbanded. Of the camels that didn’t go to the races with McLeneghan, some joined the circus; some were employed by private companies. Eventually, many were abandoned in the desert. And for years afterward, prospectors and drifters might come rushing into a bar, raving about the strange apparition they had seen in the desert.

 

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