U.S. Camel Corps remembered in Quartzsite

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By Chuck Woodbury
ROADSIDE JOURNAL
One of the most interesting military experiments of the American West involved 77 camels and a Syrian named Hi Jolly. His real name was Hadji Ali, and he’s remembered today at a pyramid-shaped monument in the Quartzsite, Arizona, cemetery.

The story of Hi Jolly began in 1855 when Secretary of War Jefferson Davis was told of an innovative plan to import camels to help build and supply a Western wagon route from Texas to California. It was a dry, hot and otherwise hostile region, not unlike the camel’s natural terrain in the Middle East.

Davis, convinced of the idea, proposed a Camel Military Corps to Congress. “For military purposes, and for reconnaissances, it is believed the dromedary would supply a want now seriously felt in our service,” he explained.

Congress agreed and appropriated $30,000.

Major Henry Wayne was sent to the Middle East where he bought 33 of the animals. With much difficulty, they were loaded onto a Navy ship (with part of its deck modified to accommodate the large creatures) and transported to Texas. There Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale took over. Forty-four more camels arrived later.

Hi Jolly and the U.S. Camel Corps are remembered at Hi Jolly’s grave in the Quartzsite cemetery.

Hadji Ali and another foreigner were hired to teach the soldiers how to pack the animals. The Americans had a hard time pronouncing Ali’s name so they nicknamed him Hi Jolly.

Beale left on a Western expedition in June, 1857, with Hi Jolly along as chief camel driver. Camels were loaded with 600 to 800 pounds each and traveled 25 to 30 miles a day. If the animals fared well, a series of Army posts could be set up later along the route to relay mail and supplies across the Southwest.

After reaching California the expedition returned to Texas, a success — at least to Beale.

“The harder the test they (the camels) are put to, the more fully they seem to justify all that can be said of them,” Beale wrote. “They pack water for days under a hot sun and never get a drop; they pack heavy burdens of corn and oats for months and never get a grain; and on the bitter greasewood and other worthless shrubs, not only subsist, but keep fat.”

He concluded, “I look forward to the day when every mail route across the continent will be conducted and worked altogether with this economical and noble brute.”

But perhaps he was too optimistic. What he didn’t say was that the camels didn’t take to the West’s rocky soil. And prospectors’ burros and mules — and even Army mules — were afraid of the odd-looking creatures and would sometimes panic at their sight.

Still, in 1858, then-Secretary of War John Floyd told Congress, “The entire adaptation of camels to military operations on the Plains may now be taken as demonstrated.”

He urged Congress to authorize the purchase of 1,000 more camels.

Congress didn’t act, however, as it was preoccupied with trouble brewing between the North and South.

WITH THE FIRST SHOTS of the Civil War, the Camel Military Corps was as good as dead. Most of the animals were auctioned off, although a few escaped into the desert where most were shot by prospectors and hunters as pests.

Hi Jolly kept a few and started a freighting business between the Colorado River ports and mining camps to the east. The business failed, however, and Jolly released his last camel in the desert near Gila Bend. Years later, after marrying a Tucson woman and fathering two children, Hi Jolly moved to Quartzsite, where he mined with a burro. He died in 1902 at age 73 and was buried in the Quartzsite Cemetery.

To his dying day, Hi Jolly believed that a few of the camels still roamed the desert. Some people think the ghosts of some still do.

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Kern Stafford
6 months ago

Talk about camels: back in 1905 to 1915, My dad grew up in Kelso, CA, where his dad was stationmaster and telegrapher at the Kelso station. The family found and tamed some burros the miners had left, this was between 1905 and 1915. He was about 13 or 14 years old, had a burro pack train to the miners. During one journey up to the mines, he actually saw a camel, the burros would not move from the cave where he and they had set up camp that night until the camel finally left. He did not know what it was, never saw one before. In his tapes to us, he told of when he took Old Babe and her 3 colts to “Jules” mine and saw the camel. Turned out the tapes were not just stories. but history of his early years in Kelso, and the Indians. We had them made into cd’s with pictures. We did find an old prospector a few years ago who knew exactly where the mine was that Dad talked about in his tapes. Nice legacy for our family, Dad! Thanks.

Steve S.
6 months ago

This is a great story and is complete, in and of itself.

But, as Paul Harvey would say “Here’s the rest of the story”.
Camp Verde in Texas is the other half of this story.
https://texashillcountry.com/camp-verde-texas/

From the web page:
Camp Verde started out as a United States Army post in 1855. This post was where researchers looked into the feasibility of camels in the United States. Researchers noticed that other animals panicked at the smell of camels. So, They decided against using camels and released them from the facility to roam around as they please. Residents, at this time, described that there were several beasts roaming the area. These “beasts” they referred to was the Army post’s camels. In 1861, Confederate Forces captured Camp Verde. Egyptian handlers took the camels and used them to haul cotton to Mexico. Soon after, the camels were sold to different zoos and circuses.

Kathy McMahon
6 months ago

My husband lived in Australia and they tried to do the same thing there. Now there are herds of wild camels in the Australia.

Donald N Wright
6 months ago

Ahh, “Bigfoot” has something to ride on, from sighting to sighting. Maybe they mated with the Devil Bull near Bluff Fort.