In Quartzsite, Arizona, an odd monument stands just off Highway 95. Erected in 1935, it is inscribed as “the last camp of Hi Jolly.” This marker, crowned with a copper camel, seems out of place in the desert of western Arizona. It stands as a testament to the bizarre experience of a group of strangers brought to the American west in the mid-19th century. These foreign imports, both men and beast, served American expansionism for a time, and then were rejected as something too exotic to be included in the exclusive American frontier.
Hadji Ali, the individual that the monument is meant to honor, arrived in Indianola, Texas, on March 14th, 1856, with six other Ottoman subjects and 33 dromedary camels. They were brought to the United States by an army officer, Major Henry Wayne, to be used in the exploration of the arid American southwest.
The arrival of Hadji Ali and his companions in Texas in 1856 was the culmination of a proposal introduced by then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. Efforts to span the deserts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California had been largely unsuccessful using horse and mule transports, but communication and transportation were crucial to controlling the region. In March of 1855, funds were approved to outfit a camel corps, which, it was hoped, could be the solution for transportation and control of the American southwest, and within a year, the men and animals that were to put that plan into action arrived in the Texas port. Another shipment of 44 camels would arrive the next year.
From their port of arrival, the camels and their Arab and Turkish drivers were transferred to Camp Verde, outside San Antonio. Here, the foreign handlers worked to train the camels and the soldiers who would accompany the caravan on its first undertaking. Lieutenant Edward Beale had been assigned to lead the camels on a scouting expedition to survey a route that would run from Fort Defiance, New Mexico across the desert to California. Hadji Ali, serving as the main cameleer, worked with the cavalrymen in the handling of these strange animals. Unwilling or unable to pronounce his name correctly, the Americans gave Ali a corrupted nickname. The moniker stuck, and throughout the rest of his life, the displaced cameleer was known simply as “Hi Jolly.”
Beginning their trek in late June 1857, Beale, Hi Jolly, and the “camel corps” crossed the southwest without mishap. Beale’s report from the expedition indicated the great advantages of camel travel. The camels, he noted, did not need grass but could eat all forms of desert brush and managed for days without water. He reported that “they are the most docile, patient, and easily managed creatures in the world,” even in the trying conditions of the harsh American southwest. Anticipating the arrival of Beale’s expedition in California, the San Francisco Herald boasted these new beasts of burden were “capable of travelling over 100 miles per day–known to live to a green old age, as long as 70 or 80 years–to go without eating or drinking for four or five days–to be able to carry twice the load of our largest and most hardy mules.” While a bit outlandish, the claims of the Herald reflect the generally good reports that the exotic troupe enjoyed with its early success.
The camels’ reception in the west soon cooled, however. As early as 1857, the inability for mules, horses, and camels to work in harmony was an issue, and as the years progressed, camels became more disdained by teamsters and mule handlers. The coming of the Civil War brought the end of government support for the camel corps, and when Camp Verde was captured by Confederates, many of the camels were released into the wild where they established feral populations. The cameleers, including Hi Jolly, found work as mule handlers or prospectors as their talents became irrelevant. By the mid 1860s, both camels and cameleers became scattered throughout the west, and in 1866, the U.S. government sold off the remainder of the camel corps to zoos, circuses, and freighting companies for $31 a head.
Camels continued to be used sporadically throughout the west into the 1870s. Otto Esche used camels as pack animals for his salt transportation company in Nevada through the 1860s and some were used as far north as British Columbia during the Cariboo Goldrush. Distaste for the animals grew over time as teamsters, used to mules and horses, balked at the camels’ aggressive behavior, smell, and tendency to spit. Horses often bolted when they crossed paths with feral camel populations, and on several instances in the 1870s, mule trains crossing the desert dispersed in panic as camels approached. This was such an issue, Nevada passed a law in 1875 making it illegal for camels to be on public roads. It was not uncommon for men to shoot camels on sight. In 1893, a rancher in southern Arizona found a camel grazing in his vegetable patch and dispatched it with one shot from his rifle. By 1905, when one of the last wild herds of camels was spotted near Silver Bow, Nevada, these displaced dromedaries had become a reviled pest, unwelcomed in the western world.
Their handler, Hi Jolly, experienced a similarly sad fate. Wandering between army work, mule handling, and prospecting for much of his later life, Hi Jolly lamented the loss of his camels. He spent time in California and Arizona, married, divorced, and eventually settled in Quartzsite, Arizona. He was regarded strangely by his neighbors for his habits of “kneeling and fasting.” These practices, undoubtedly elements of his Muslim faith, struck the Arizona residents as strange and foreign. He was denied a pension from the U.S. Army because of his status as a foreign subject and survived his later years through begging and handouts. He died penniless on December 16th, 1902. He lies under a monument marked with a nickname given to him by those who could not bother to learn his name or accept him into their culture. His last surviving camel died at a Los Angeles zoo in 1934. Reports of feral camels persisted into the 1940s, but all descendants of Hi Jolly’s camels are now believed to be extirpated from the American desert. They, and their master, were regarded as simply too foreign, too strange, and too exotic to be incorporated into the lasting narrative of the American west.
Read more about the American West here, with Sundance’s take on a Kansas cattle town.
Interested in other foreign species in America? Learn about an avian invader and other immigrants here.
Odie B. Faulk, The US. Camel Corps: An Army Experiment, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Lewis Burt Lesley, Uncle Sam’s Camels: The Journal of May Humphreys Stacey Supplemented by the Report of Edward Fitzgerald Beale (1857-1858), Glorieta, New Mexico: Rio Grande Press, 1970 (reprint).
Eva Jolene Boyd, Noble Brutes: Camels on the American Frontier, Piano: Republic of Texas Press, 1995.
Harland D. Fowler, Three Caravans to Yuma: The Untold Story of Bactrian Camels in Western America. Glendale, California: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1980.