Christmas Camel Back at Mount Vernon

Photo courtesy of
‘Mount Vernon – Aladdin – 12-26-08’
courtesy of ‘mosley.brian’

Now through Jan. 6, Mount Vernon is having a special holiday celebration with historical chocolate-making demonstrations, 18th century dancing, and a Christmas Camel named Alladin.

Yes, that’s right, a camel, back by popular demand. It seems our founding father had a penchant for exotic animals, and in 1787 he paid 18 shillings to bring in a camel at Christmastime to entertain his guests. Hmm, do you think they were surprised? (And is that little “Alice the Camel” ditty now playing in your head?)

This year’s stand-in comes from the Full Moon Ranch Home in Berryville, VA, and is said to be very friendly, though of dubious help in a snowpocalypse. More on our man GW and his camel after the jump.

Here’s some interesting background on Washington’s unusual pets, thanks to the helpful folks at Mount Vernon:

“By the man who brot. a Camel from Alexa. for a show…”

These few words are the only documentation of a visit to Mount Vernon by a very rare exotic animal for 18th century America. Attempts to find references in period newspapers to this particular camel have been unsuccessful. According to one source, however, it was probably the third camel to reach North America: the Boston Gazette for October 2, 9, and 23, 1721, noted the exhibition of a camel in that city, while 18 years later, on November 19, 1739, the New York Gazette recorded that a camel was then being shown there. The only other 18th-century camel to make the American newspapers was in the June 10, 1796, edition of the York [Pennsylvania] Gazette.

From a variety of sources, we know that George Washington had quite an interest in animals, both domestic and rare, and often paid to see them. Over the years, George Washington and various members of his household were able to learn something about the world outside Virginia from the itinerant entertainers who traveled along the eastern seaboard and would have been drawn to large gatherings of people at events such as fairs.

Many of these individuals seem to have worked with exotic or specially trained animals. They worked alone, or perhaps with a servant acting as handler, acquired one single animal and hoped to make their fortune through charging admission to see it. For example, in some of the earliest references to this sort of thing, Washington recorded paying 10 shillings to see a “Lyoness” and 3 shillings and 1 1/2 pence to see a “Tyger.” Washington definitely saw a “Cugar” in Philadelphia during his presidency, as well as a “Sea Leopard,” a type of sea lion. At least twice in his life, he paid to see an elk and during the presidency, he spent $1.75 “for to see Elephant” and took the whole family several months later.

The Washington family was also interested in animals exhibiting special qualities or training. During the presidency, they gave $3.00 to a “man who had a very sagacious Dog,” so that they could see “his performance.” This was very likely a dog brought from Europe by a man named Gabriel Salenka; the canine is said to have been able to “beat any person at playing at cards.”

An area resident since 1997, Donna C. is a DC outsider. When she’s not running her writing and Web business, she’s running around the city, exploring the great outdoors, or trying to figure out how best to go green. See why she loves DC.

3 thoughts on “Christmas Camel Back at Mount Vernon

  1. “Washington definitely saw a “Cugar””…. :OP

    Aladdin was great last year! Very friendly and affectionate; in no way the “mean, spitting camel” sterotype. I’m so happy they brought him back!

  2. Brian, I was wondering if anyone else would catch the “Cugar” reference – so thanks! Hope you get a chance to see Aladdin again this year.

    And Carl, I’m thinking you weren’t a Girl Scout. Just a hunch.