Friday, November 28, 2014

Black Friday reruns

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) episode 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, along with parts of Texas, California, Nevada, and 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 region. 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.

So in 1855 Jefferson Davis, then U.S. Secretary of War (later to become President of the Confederacy), 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 roughly 70 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  outlawed camel hunting.

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).

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 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 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 in one of the strangest military projects 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.


Don Parker said...

I just read The Last Camel Charge last night; fascinating book. Thank you for the extra material on the camels in BC.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for teaching me things I probably would never have learned without reading your blog! I am a health professional and love your work posts, but the history stuff is wonderful.

Anonymous said...

So interesting. I had heard about camels in the southwest, but never knew the story.

bobbie said...

Great post! TFS

Funder said...

I wasn't sure where the camels originated, but I know they made it to Nevada eventually. Virginia City had some camel trains for a while, but when they were banned from the public roads (again, to keep from scaring the horses) the camels suffered a reversal of fortune.

In the 1950s, the people of Virginia City managed to convince the San Francisco Chronicle that they had a camel race. Naturally, the only way to follow up on the hoax was to have an actual camel race, and they've had camel racing in VC ever since.

I'm personally aware of this because the Camel Races are sometimes held the same weekend as the one-day 100-mile horse race, and - yes - camels still scare horses, so we're warned to watch out for them.

ye olde clap chaser said...

there was a 'folk' song popular @ 1965 about him!!!!
'Hi Joli Ho Jolli twenty miles to go Hajalli twenty more before the morning light...' I'll google it and post back.

ye olde clap chaser said...

New Christie Minstrels @ 1963
Great song (I was younger than and had different tastes in music)

peace said...


chris1 said...

read this story about hi jolly in Arizona Highways in the 1960's. my great aunt sent the mag over to us in UK

Anonymous said...

I didn't know camels were originally from North America, how interesting!
They tried this experiment in Australia too, and also gave up on it, except that their feral camels DID thrive. There are hundreds of thousands of wild camels in Australia today.

Anonymous said...

I live near Lillooet and they have a statue in honour of the camels.

Anonymous said...

A gift shop in Mesa, Az had a mural on an inside wall depicting the history of "Hi Jolly" as you have written; the mural is gone but the store remains.

Ann Onny said...

Very cool. Especially the footnote about camel evolutionary camel distribution. Bravo!

MA said...

Thanks for remembering Quartzite and it's camel history. My parents told us about how the camels arrived to Arizona as they both loved history including arcane history.

Anonymous said...

There's a California's Gold with Huell Howser (TV Series) episode that talks about the use of camels on the Old Mojave Road. It's shot at Fort Tejon.

ye olde clap chaser said...

Dromedaries = one hump
Bactrian Camels = two humps

Though it appears the man in the photo sits between two humps, it was dromedaries that were widely imported to the US and Australia.
They are native to the middle east. Bactrian Camels come from Central Asia.

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