Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve history lesson

Quartzsite, Arizona is a small town along U.S. Interstate 10, and many just stop there for food and gas on the way to other places.

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.


Bb said...

This is one of my favorite oddities of American history. Thanks for writing about it!

Sandra said...

OMG! Wow. I am totally amazed that you wrote about Hi Jolly. I live in Arizona and have found his story fascinating. Until I moved here, I did not know that we had ever had camels in this country.

Just down the street from my house is a Hi Jolly gift shop.

At first I thought it was different from the usual ship stories that you post, but then I realized that camels are known and the "ship of the desert."

This was an awesome post. I hope you will add it to your history lectures! (And keep posting the hsitory stories. I LOVE them!)

The Mother said...

I loved the "technically" footnote.

You always here about Hannibal and his elephants (that didn't actually work as planned, either), but you never hear of the US Army and their camels.

Lo said...

What a fascinating and bizarre story.......I loved it. Thank you SO much.

Anonymous said...

Great history lesson! Living in Texas, was aware of the camels arriving...but, knew little of the rest of the story.
Always enlightening Dr. G.!

ERP said...

They should bring back Camel Polo.

Kat's Kats said...

Excellent!! I get a 'daddy story' a day early!! ::big grin:: You have to understand that my dad is a historian who knows everything everything about everything. As in, "Hey dad! Do you know anything about [insert obscure historical fact/figure here]?" and you get a gleeful "You mean you don't know about [insert obscure historical fact/figure here]?! Oh! Well!..." and an hour or two later you're still fascinated having missed the fact that you needed to be somewhere half an hour ago.

Which reminds me, we'll be discussing Vietnam tomorrow. My son has a question.

pharmacy chick said...

Excellent history lesson Grumps!

Sharon said...

Love your history posts but "The huge southwest desert didn't phase them"

It didn't faze them either.

Brenda Helverson said...

Long time listener, first time complainer.

The Southern Arizona desert probably did not cause the camels to actually change phase, but faze is probably more accurate.

There is no Douglas, Texas, but there is a Douglas, Arizona, right close by.

The US Camel Corps also is a part of the history of Del Rio, Val Verde County, Texas, which is about 150 miles west of San Antonio on the Rio Grande and at the end of the easy part of the El Paso Road.

bobbie said...

Fabulous (and fascinating)post!

Polly said...

Hee! That's great!

I bet the person who shot the camel thinking it was a grizzly was the sort to just shoot anything large and furry on the presumption that it must be a grizzly. It's lucky he didn't nail a large chap in a fur coat (as far as we know, anyway).

B. Perky said...

There is also another place they are remembered. Fort Tejon in California is one place they were kept. You can visit there and learn about their story.

Cal said...

Thank you for this tidbit.

Anonymous said...

thank you grumpy. thank you b perky. now i will go to quartzite and lebec. is there a map or record of the camel trail through the mojave for this lazy boy?

Erica G said...

Wow! I know the song (by heart) from an old New Christy Minstrels album my parents had and that I appropriated. That album was one of my first experiences with folk music and I loved it; still do (folk music, too). I knew only a little of the story, mostly from the tiny bit of info about the song in the liner notes. I wish I had known about the memorial when we toured Arizona a couple of years ago. Oh, well. Thanks for the great story; I love all your posts, both medical and historical, and have sent many people your way. May you never be stuck in the desert without a camel!

Kat's Kats said...

I mentioned this post when we were at Christmas Breakfast (got there half an hour late at 1230) at my parent's house. My dad immediately went, "Oh yes! Of course you know..."

Most of the conversation of the day seemed to be about the education system of the United States though.

ablests - hmmmm, given what dad was saying, maybe we'd better not go there.

Anonymous said...

I am a big fan of your site, and have enjoyed your rants and especially your historical stuff for over a year. Now, here is something I bet you didn't know about Hi Jolly. As a child I was reading a lot of books, and one author I stumbled across was a guy named Jim Kjelgaard. He just so happened to write a young adult fiction book about the very same Hi Jolly you posted about. You can even buy a used copy from if you want to give it to your kids to read, I really enjoyed it when I was 8.

Anyways, nice post, keep up the cool historical posts, many of us really enjoy them.

Nectarine said...

What a great story. I can't believe I've never heard of this before!

Larissa said...

Digging through your archives while I should be listening to a physics lecture and I was startled to lear the source of one of the more random but entertaining camp songs I sang as a camper and counselor in my younger days! Thank you Dr. Grumpy!

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