In the local cemetery is a small pyramid with a copper camel on top, marking the grave of a mostly forgotten man named Hadji Ali.
Very little information about his background is known. He was born in 1828 in what was then called Greater Syria (today that includes Syria, Israel, Lebanon and Cyprus). His parents were likely Bedouins. He was Muslim.
What is known is that he played a central role in what's now a mostly forgotten (but well worth remembering) oddity of American and Canadian history.
The idea was first proposed in 1836, but wasn't taken seriously until 1848. Following the Mexican-American war, the United States found itself in control of a large desert, covering what's now New Mexico & Arizona, and parts of Texas, California, and several other states. The U.S. Army needed to establish bases and supply lines in the area, both for the border with Mexico and the continuing wars with Indian tribes.
The railroad system was in it's infancy, and there were no tracks through the area. It's part of the largest desert in North America. The only way across was to use horses. But horses, like humans, are heavily dependent on water. This made the area difficult to cross, and vulnerable to attacking Apaches.
And so in 1855 Jefferson Davis, then U.S. Secretary of War (later to become President of the Confederacy during the Civil War), put into action an idea proposed by several officers: buy camels to serve in the desert. Congress appropriated $30,000 for the endeavor, and officials were sent to Turkey to do just that.
Between 1856-1857 the U.S. Army bought 62-73 camels, transporting them from Smyrna, Turkey to Indianola, Texas. To handle them they brought over 8 camel drivers, with Hadji Ali in charge.
The camels worked remarkably well... To a point.
They were perfect for the environment. The huge southwest desert didn't faze them. They led supply trains all over, from Texas to California. With their low need for water, and bodies specially adapted to arid environments, they easily crossed areas where horses and other pack animals couldn't.*
But there were problems. The Americans had envisioned combined forces of camels and horses, each making up for the deficiencies of the other. But horses and donkeys are frightened of camels, making joint convoys difficult and requiring separate corrals. The army was also unprepared for their intrinsically difficult personalities- camels bite, spit, kick, and are short-tempered. Horses are comparatively easy to handle.
With the start of the American Civil War, the U.S. Army Camel Corps was disbanded. Troops and horses were needed on the east side of the country, while camels weren't. Most of them escaped into the desert, and thrived there for a while. In an attempt to preserve them, the Arizona territory actually outlawed camel hunting, a law that's often scoffed at by those who don't know the reason behind it.
But the camel story didn't end there. One of the soldiers, Frank Laumeister, saw business opportunities in Canada. He bought a herd, and in 1862 took them north to British Columbia. The Cariboo gold rush was in progress, and pack animals were needed.
Canadian prospectors and a friend.
The results in Canada were mixed. The camels were strong, and could carry twice as much as mules. But their broad feet, while perfect for the sand and dirt of the desert, were cut up by the rocky terrain of the Pacific Northwest. It became necessary to make special protective shoes for them (given their difficult nature, it's unfortunate that history hasn't recorded how they responded to having shoes put on them).
The Canadians, like the Americans, discovered they weren't easy to handle. The same problems of difficult disposition and spooking horses came up. In addition, they found camels would eat anything they found. Hats. Shoes. Clothes that were out drying. Even soap. And so, after a few years, the Canadians gave up on the experiment, too.
But they weren't forgotten. A mountain range in British Columbia is called the Camelsfoot. The town of Lillooet has "The Bridge of the 23 Camels". A geographical basin is called "The Camoo".
Some camels were sold to farms. Others escaped into the wild. One was mistaken for a grizzly bear (WTF?) and shot, ending up briefly on a local bar's menu.
The last reliable sighting of a wild camel in Canada was in British Columbia, in the 1930's. The last sighting in North America was in Douglas, Texas in 1941- 85 years after the first ones had landed.
Two fiction movies have been based on the North American camel experiences: "Southwest Passage" (1954) and "Hawmps!" (1976). There's even a folk song called "Hi Jolly!" about them.
And what became of Hadji Ali?
His American hosts had trouble with his name, and pronounced it as a greeting: Hi Jolly! After the camel business shut down he decided to stay here, becoming a citizen in 1880. He tried his hand at several business, and married a woman named Gertrudis Serna in Tucson. They had 2 children. At some point he changed his name to Philip Tedro, but "Hi Jolly" is the name that stuck with him, and is on his Quartzsite tomb.
Hadji Ali and Gertrudis Serna
He prospected around the southwest U.S., occasionally working for the U.S. Army. Once, when offended that he hadn't been invited to a friend's party in Los Angeles, he broke it up by repeatedly riding through it in a wagon pulled by 2 of his remaining camels.
He spent the last few years of his life in Quartzsite, Arizona, dying in 1902. His adventures had impacted 2 countries and covered 3 continents. It had been 51 years since he'd left his native Middle East on one of the oddest military missions on record.
*Technically, it should be noted that camels are originally from North America. Really. Their ancestors evolved in North America 23-40 million years ago, but left. One group went west into Asia (then down to Africa), several million years ago, over the Bering Strait Land Bridge, evolving into today's camels. The rest migrated to South America 3 million years ago when the Isthmus of Panama formed, and became llamas and alpacas.