Wednesday, August 17, 2016

History Keepers: California Centennial Transportation Plate

California Centennial Transportation Plate, 1949
Private Collection of Phyllis Hansen

They are Los Angeles’s history keepers. They research, organize, store, repair, and care for historical artifacts and make them available to us online, at exhibitions, through publications, or in their homes. This summer, from August 5 to August 27, the California Historical Society celebrates them with an exhibition at the historic El Pueblo National Monument.

A series of blogs brings our online visitors a sample of objects in the exhibition. Here we explore a unique object that commemorated Los Angeles’s centennial featuring a depiction of an unusual mode of transportation in the late nineteenth century.

California Centennial Transportation Plate, 1949
History Keeper: Phyllis Hansen

California Centennial Transportation Plate (detail of back), 1949
Private Collection of Phyllis Hansen

In 1949, California celebrated its centennial of statehood. Vernon Kilns, one of Los Angeles’s premier pottery companies at that time, produced a series of themed commemorative plates for the occasion. There were six in the series, all in brown on white.

The plates were a creative collaboration between Mrs. Armitage S. C. Forbes—the “Bell Lady” of El Camino Real and “Mother of the Campo de Cahuenga”—and California artist/historian Orpha Klinker, who did the renderings.

“Wedding Party Arriving Home in Carreta,” detail,
California Centennial Transportation Plate, 1949
Private Collection of Phyllis Hansen

The transportation-themed plate depicts a wedding party on an oxen driven, wooden wagon, also known as a carreta, an early method of transport during the mission period. Surrounding this central image are other depictions of historical modes of transportation unique to Southern California. Perhaps the most unique of all the depictions are the camels that arrived at the Drum Barracks in Wilmington in January 1858.

“Ship of the Desert”: The U.S. Camel Experiment, 1856–1866
As a mode of transportation, few would guess that camels in California would qualify. Yet, in 1857, due largely to the efforts of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, 75 camels were imported from Egypt to the United States as an experiment in serving the U.S. Army in the Southwest. One group of camels was selected to pack supplies from Los Angeles to Fort Tejon in California; others to transport military supplies to forts in Utah, Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico.

Gwynn H. Heap (illustrator), Loading the Camels for Transport to America, 1857
Published in Report of the Secretary of War, Communicating, in Compliance with a Resolution of the Senate of February 2, 1857, Information Respecting the Purchase of Camels for the Purposes of Military Transportation (Washington: A. O. P. Nicholson, printer, 1857)
Courtesy National Archives

“Camels Secured for a Gale, page 180 of Report of the Secretary of War (1857),” 1930
Published in A. A. Gray, Francis P. Farquhar, and William S. Lewis, Camels in Western America 
(San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1930)

In January 1858, the first train of pack camels arrived in Los Angeles. Their task was to carry supplies and provisions to Fort Tejon in the Tehachapi Mountains. As a 1902 historical record of Southern California noted, “For a year or more afterwards it was no uncommon sight to see a caravan of these hump-backed burden-bearers solemnly wending their way single file through the city.” 

Encampment with the Camels on the Descent towards Carson Valley, c. 1860
Vischer’s Pictorial of California (View No. 47)
California Historical Society

Camel at Drum Barracks, San Pedro, California, during the Civil War, c. 1863
Attributed to Rudolph D’Heureuse; courtesy of the Drum Barracks Garrison & Society

“Camels arrived in California in 1858 at Drum barracks, Wilmington, Calif.,” detail,
California Centennial Transportation Plate, 1949
Private Collection of Phyllis Hansen

The Camel Experiment ultimately failed. The camels’ eccentricities—unfamiliar and untrainable by its riders—and with their incompatibility with horses confined them to the forts in the Southwest. The onset of the Civil War led to the end of the Camel Corps, which disbanded in 1863.

In California, camels were brought to the military reservation at Benicia, where they were lodged and later auctioned off. Today the Camel Barns at the Arsenal house the Benicia Historical Museum. Still others were turned loose, to roam at will over the region. As the writers of the 1939 WPA Guide to California: The Golden State observed:

Within recent years a camel frisked about the neighborhood of Banning, making such a nuisance of himself that he was hunted down by a posse and shot. This was undoubtedly an aged survivor of the government caravans that cross the desert prior to the Civil War. . . . Some wild camels were sighted on the desert as late as 1980, and even now newcomers [to Banning] are solemnly assured they can expect to run into them at any moment.

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager


Jefferson Davis, Reports upon the Purchase, Importation, and Use of Camels and Dromedaries to Be Employed for Military Purposes (Department of War, 1857)

Francis P. Farquhar, “Camels in the Sketches of Edward Vischer,” California Historical Society Quarterly 9, no. 4 (Dec., 1930): 33235

Federal Writers’ Project, The WPA Guide to Los Angeles: The Golden State (San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 2013)

Walter L. Fleming, “Jefferson Davis’s Camel Experiment,” Popular Science Monthly, 174 (Feb. 1909): 141–52.

A.A. Gray, “Camels in California,” Quarterly of the California Historical Society IX, no. 4 (December 1930): 229–317

J. M. Guinn, “Camel Caravans of the American Deserts,” Publications of the Historical Society of Southern California and of the Pioneers of Los Angeles County, 5 (19001902): 14651
James Miller Guinn, Historical and Biographical Record of Southern California (Chicago; Chapman Publishing company, 1902)

Michael K. Sorenson, “A Most Curious Corps,” Military Images Magazine (March/April 2006)

An exhibition by the California Historical Society and LA as Subject
Presented in partnership with El Pueblo Historical Monument and the El Pueblo Park Association

El Tranquilo Gallery & Visitor Center
634 N. Main Street (entrance on Olvera Street, W-19)
El Pueblo de Los Ángeles Historical Monument, Los Angeles, California
Tuesday–Friday, 10:00 am–3:00 pm
Saturday and Sunday, 9:00 am–4:00 pm

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