For a brief period in the 1860s, camels imported from North Africa were used as pack animals in the gold camps of western Montana.
The camels proved useful, according to Ellen Baumler, an author and interpretive historian at the Montana Historical Society, but they fell out of favor for one simple reason.
“Camels and mules do not get along,” she said. “Mules will smell camels on the wind and bolt every time.”
Baumler will relate the little-known history of the Montana camels during the 2015 Mullan Road Conference in Fort Benton, set for May 22-24. Other speakers will talk about Fort Whoop-Up, the Blackfeet Nation in 1860, the survival of heirloom grains from the fur-trade era and more.
The annual conference explores—in presentations and field trips—the Mullan Military Wagon Road, a 644-mile trail from Fort Benton, the head of navigation on the Missouri River, to Fort Walla Walla, on the Columbia River in Washington. The road was built by an expedition of 230 soldiers and civilians under the leadership of U.S. Army 1st Lt. John Mullan in 1859-60.
The conference, held at various points along the trail each year, also deals more generally with the Upper Missouri and the Northwest during the 1850s.
Baumler said she stumbled on references to camels on the Mullan Road years ago and ended up writing about them for Montana: The Magazine of Western History. Historians used to dismiss tales of the camels as mere fables, but Baumler has found solid eyewitness accounts, including that of Granville Stuart, a prominent Montana pioneer who mentioned, in his memoirs, seeing camels pastured in Deer Lodge. Another pioneer, Mary Ronan, wrote of seeing goods unloaded from camels in Helena.
Baumler, whose talk is titled “Ships of the Desert on the Mullan Road,” said the first camels brought to the United States were imported from Egypt and Turkey in in 1856. The Army, under the misperception that the far West was the Great American Desert, intended to use the camels to carry mail and supplies.
The animals were first used during the construction of a road from New Mexico to California, Baumler said, and they did well. But with the coming of the Civil War in 1860, the project was abandoned and many camels were simply turned loose. She said some of them wandered the hills of New Mexico, Arizona and Texas for decades after that.
Based on that earlier success, the American Camel Co. was formed to use camels to carry goods on the Mullan Road from Walla Walla to the gold camps of Montana in 1865 and 1866. They were also used to shuttle supplies between the camps, including Helena and Virginia City.
“They apparently did make a number of runs,” Baumler said. “I think they performed admirably.” The camels supposedly could carry 1,000 pounds and were used to transport flour, kegs of nails and loads of gold. Legend has it that camels carried the first gold away from Henry Edgar’s mine in Virginia City.
“That’s what the old-timers claim,” Baumler said. Baumler also said she will have lots of images to show during her presentation.
Ken Robison, a historian at the Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton and a board member of the Rivers and Plains Society, which is hosting the Mullan Road conference, said the annual meeting has gotten more academically oriented since its inception 20-some years ago.
Presentations used to consist mostly of anecdotal stories from amateur historians or Mullan Road fans, but in recent years it has featured scholars from all over the country.
“It is truly kind of a national conference and it has grown in academic quality,” Robison said.
The keynote speaker on Saturday, May 23, will be Paul McDermott of Winchester, Virginia, a longtime conference attendee and co-editor of “The Mullan Road: Carving a Passage Through the Frontier Northwest, 1859 to 1862.” The first copies of the book, published by Mountain Press of Missoula, will be available on the evening of McDermott’s talk.
“That’s going to be a marvelous book,” Robison said. McDermott and other historians started talking about publishing a collection of Mullan Road essays four years ago during a Mullan Road conference. It includes contributions from several other people who will speak at the conference this year, including Robison.
Robison said the Mullan Road has never gotten the attention it deserved, partly because of a lack of comprehensive biographies of Mullan and histories of the road he built. That situation is changing, he said, as evidenced by McDermott’s new book and a biography of Mullan published last year by Keith Petersen, the Idaho state historian.
Petersen will be speaking in Fort Benton on “Mullan’s Other Road,” about a project in a different part of Idaho. “You have to come to the conference to find out what road that was,” Robison said.
Other speakers include Richard Scheuerman, with Seattle Pacific University, talking about “Northwest Frontier-era Heirloom Grains and Farming.” Robison said Scheuerman has the oldest grain ever raised in the region, as well some old White Sonora, the original Northwest Indian frybread grain.
Robison, for his part, will be talking about a lecture on Lewis and Clark that Mullan delivered at Fort Owen in the Bitterroot Valley in 1861. Robison said he’d seen references to the lecture before, then found the whole lecture published in three issues of the New North-west, a Deer Lodge newspaper, in 1870.
Mullan was essentially building the road that Lewis and Clark identified as being needed to connect the Northwest with the rest of the United States, Robison said, so to have Mullan speaking on the great explorers “is just a marvelous combination.”
On Sunday, the third day of the conference, attendees will board a bus for a field trip that will go from Fort Benton to the Sun River Valley, taking in Birdtail Rock, St. Peter’s Mission and Fort Shaw. Talks at the fort will take place in an adobe officers quarters built in 1867.
The conference, by the way, will feature some unique goodies. Robison’s wife was given some of Scheuerman’s White Sonora grain and will be baking muffins with it.
“So we’re all going to have fur-trade muffins,” Robison said.
Details: People planning to attend the May 22-24 Mullan Road conference in Fort Benton are asked to register by May 15. To register, or to read more about the conference, click here.