Backwards Glance: An Endearing Story That Gave The “Camel Barns” Its Name

Photo courtesy Benicia Historical Museum
1856 illustration of a camel en route to California

At the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1848, it became clear that the newly won Western territory landmass was unsuitable for the army’s pack animals, horses and mules, due to the harshness of the terrain, temperature extremes and the difficulties in locating water and indigenous pasture materials.

The Camel Experiment

Jefferson Davis, the Secretary of War under President Pierce, was granted Congressional funding in 1857 to purchase 34 camels from Middle Eastern countries. Navy Lieutenant Edward Beale and assorted military personnel conducted a camel caravan from the camel’s port of entry at Indianola, Texas, to California—surveying and mapping the territory along the way—they were also used as cavalry mounts during several skirmishes with Native American tribes.

Upon the army’s controversial decision to end the “camel experiment,” those animals still in California were sold at auction February 26, 1864, at the Benicia Depot of the Benicia Arsenal where they were corralled behind the very sandstone buildings which house the Benicia Historical Museum, hence the nickname “Camel Barn Museum.”

Benicia Historical Museum’s Camel Collection

Unfortunately, there are no live camels roaming the Museum premises today, but we do house hundreds of camel-related objects, the majority of which come from the Philly Dake estate. My research here has only increased my admiration and affection for the genus camelus and species dromedarius (one hump) and bactrianus (two humps)—they are remarkable creatures and supply a fascinating chapter to our local history.

Categories: Arts + Culture, Check it out, History

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