Western Trips

Saturday, August 6, 2011

History of US Military / Camel Caravan

 Hi Jolly and His Camels

The U. S. desert southwest is a beautiful place. Many travelers make it their vacation destination each year or if it's not their final trip destination they often are able to take some interesting side trips and visit some very unique areas.

One of these unique sites is located in Quartzsite Arizona, about 80 miles north of Yuma Crossing. Today Quartzsite is very popular with winter RVer's and there are many major gem and mineral shows scheduled during the months of January and February which bring in over one million visitors. Quartzsite is also the final resting place of a man who was referred to as Hi Jolly, a man much involved with camels in Arizona. The story of Hi Jolly and his work with the U.S. Army during the mid 1800's is an interesting tale of ideas and experiments and American exploration into a new region...the desert southwest...this new land taken over by the Americans as a result of the Mexican-American War during the late 1840's. This is a one of a kind story in the history of the army.

(Hadji Ali Monument photo courtesy of Jeremy Butler, Creative Commons License 3.0)
hi jolly monument

The picture at left is the monument erected at the grave site of Hi Jolly. Hi Jolly was not his real name. His name was Hadji Ali and he was also later known as Philip Tedro. Born in the Ottoman Empire of Jordanian parentage Hadji Ali (pictured with Gertrude Serna below right) was the first ever camel driver hired by the U.S. Army. His job was to drive camels through the American Southwest during the army's experiment using camels as beasts of burden. Actually, this was not Hadji Ali's first work with the military. Prior to his arriving the the U.S. he served with the French Foreign Legion in Algeria.

The Army Camels

hi jolly and wife
Hi Jolly and wife

Why the army was interested in camels is a story in itself. The camel idea was actually put forward long before Hi Jolly came to the United States. Most historians attribute the camel idea to George H. Crosman who served with the army in the Seminole Wars in Florida and who is pictured below left.

Starting in the 1830's Crosman promoted the use of camels to the federal government but not with much success. The American frontier in the 1840's ran basically on a line from Minnesota down through Missouri and then through Arkansas and east Texas. The arid regions of the desert southwest were outside the American domain and were explored and governed by Spain. When Spain was ousted in the 1820's the region was ruled by Mexico. Because of this, the camel, which was associated with the desert regions of the Middle East, was not at that time on the government's radar to replace the horse or the mule.

george h crosman
George Crosman
Crosman would speak of the camels virtues to anyone who would listen. Every feature of the camel seemed to be made for the harsh desert environment. The camel has extremely mobile lips that can gather food without sticking out it's tongue preventing the loss of moisture. It will eat anything it can get into it's mouth with it's thirty-four teeth. The camels digestive system is designed to extract the last bit of nourishment and moisture from every piece of food. The camel's hump is composed of fatty tissue, not water as many seem to believe. When the camel cannot get a drink it extracts moisture from it's fatty tissue. Normally a camel will drink every three days at twenty to thirty gallons at a time.

A remarkable attribute of the camel is that it is so efficient of getting moisture from it's food, some have been known to go as long as ten months without drinking water. Compared to the horse and the mule you can easily see how the camel was much easier to care for especially in frontier regions where water and adequate food could be hard to come by. The camel was also more sure footed over rugged terrain as compared to the horse and even the mule. An interesting note is that when settlers traveled westward over the Oregon Trail, the wagons were usually pulled by oxen and mules rather than by horses. The horse was more agile but the heavy loads were carried much better by the oxen and mules. George Crosman's argument on behalf of the camel was basically all of the above.

Eventually Crosman's crusade for the camel achieved influential converts and when word of the idea reached Jefferson Davis, who served as U.S. Congressman and Senator, Secretary of War and later President of the Confederacy during the Civil War, it was greeted with much enthusiasm. Another camel promoter named George R. Gliddon appeared. He had served as American consul in Cairo and upon his return suggested to Congress the importation of camels and camel handlers from the Middle East.

At this point in his career Jefferson Davis accepted the Secretary of War cabinet position in the Pierce administration and was now in a position to act on the camel proposals. Davis stated that the current expenses for the upkeep of horses and mules were so expensive to the government that it was wise to experiment with the camels. During the mid 1850's the proposal was still met with antipathy by Congress but the argument on the camels behalf was taken up by the newspapers and soon the general populace warmed to the idea. After much argument and lobbying, a Congressional act was passed and signed in 1855 appropriating funds to the War Department for the camel experiment.

Bringing the Camels to North America

uss supply ship
Ship carrying camels

In 1855 Jefferson Davis sent the U.S.S. Supply on a voyage to the Mediterranean for the purpose of bringing back camels to the U.S. The same ship was sent on a second camel gathering mission in 1856. The Supply then transported it's cargo of camels to Texas.

The U.S.S. Supply was one of the most active supply ships during this era and during the later Civil War. It's exploits to the Middle East during the 1850's certainly made United States Naval history. The camels were brought to the area around Victoria Texas and nearby Camp Verde. The arrival of the camels created quite a stir among the locals. The camels also created a stir among the horses and mules who picked up the camels unique scent and for whatever reason became highly upset when the camels appeared. It came to the point that teamsters had to be notified in advance when the camels were transported inland so they could get their horse and mule teams out of the vicinity.

The Southwest Expedition

The expedition in Texas was in-part conducted by a Major Henry C. Wayne who was quite familiar with the southwest having served with General Kearny in California during the Mexican War. Also recruited was Edward Fitzgerald Beale who was a former lieutenant in the Navy and a camel proponent. Beale furthermore recommended the appointment of one of his relatives, Navy lieutenant David Dixon Porter, to join the group. Porter went along with the U.S.S. Supply in it's voyages to secure camels and drovers in the Mideast.

After the end of the Mexican-American War and settlers began moving into the new southwest desert region, the Army was needed to produce further surveys and construct additional wagon roads. Edward Beale was of big importance in this endeavor having ridden with Kit Carson throughout the southwest during the war. The camels were brought to San Antonio on June 21, 1857 to be loaded. Beale set out across the south Texas plains and desert on June 25th and arrived in El Paso on July 27th. A stop was made at Fort Davis along the way. The journey passed through the dangerous Comanche territory , referred to as Comancheria, but without incident. When the caravan passed near to Mexico many of the locals came out to see these strange creatures. On the trip up the Rio Grande to Albuquerque much the same occurred when the group passed through many Mexican villages.

camels in american southwest
Camels in the desert southwest
Durring his travels with the caravan Beale made several interesting reports about the camels. He reported that the camels could travel continuously in a country where other barefooted beasts couldn't last but a week. He further noted that the animals could live on anything and thrive. Beale said that on an extremely hot day the animals didn't take a drink of water for over twenty-six hours. When the group reached Albuquerque, Beale rode up to Santa Fe to make his report to the military authorities there. On August 13th the group headed out west to Ft Defiance where they were to meet up with a detachment under the command of a Colonel Loring.

From Fort Defiance the caravan followed the 35th parallel where their real work would start. That was a survey for a wagon road westward to the Colorado River. The expedition was not actually the very first to traverse this region since they did have a map with them drawn up during a 1853 expedition to survey a railroad route.

The caravan continued westward from the Zuni Pueblo and did encounter some Pueblo Indians and Apaches along the way but all meetings were peaceful. Upon reaching the Colorado River, the crossing, while a bit difficult because the camels could not swim, was not as hard as predicted. The camels were roped together in gangs of five and were able to cross. Moving further westward they split up and a group went to Los Angeles and another to Fort Tejon. The Mojave Desert crossing seemed to be uneventful since Beale (pictured below right) only devoted a few sentences to it in his journal.

Beale left the camels at Ft Tejon and started a long journey eastward to Washington to make his formal report to Secretary of War Floyd. Eventually the camels in both California and Texas were costing the government significant money but nobody knew what to do next and funding from Congress was drying up.

The Experiment Ends

Secretary Floyd and others were proponents of camel usage throughout the military, however the majority were not. A few military commanders in the west wanted to do other experiments with the camels of a purely military nature. Could these sturdy beasts possibly replace many of the horses? They could subsist on almost nothing so could this help the army in it's consolidation of the southwest? After much debate and the start of the American Civil War the funding for the camels decreased and for all practical purposes the use of camels by the government and by private industry came to an end in the 1870's.

 edward beale photo
 The Travels of Hi Jolly

As to the story of Hi Jolly or Hadji Ali, he went on to gain a degree of fame in the southwest. Hi Jolly came to the U.S. with the second load of camels and drovers on the U.S.S. Supply.

Supposedly his real motivation for coming to America were the reports of fortunes in gold. The Gold Rush news made it all the way to the Mideast.  He traveled with Beale on the California expedition and won the praise of many officers. He was left at Fort Tejon with the camels but made some trips to the mining areas. Eventually he made his way back to Yuma Arizona and found work with the Army who were reconstructing Arizona forts after the Civil War.

After the jobs were completed the Army laid him off. Hadji Ali tried to get a government pension for the work he did with the camels but was denied since he was never an enlisted soldier. He met a woman in Tucson, Gertrude Serna, and they were married. During this time Hi Jolly became a naturalized U.S. citizen and took on the name Philip Tedro. The marriage partnership didn't last when Hi Jolly became tiresome of the arrangement and headed out searching for his El Dorado.

His luck was not good and he tried to reconcile with his wife but her family prevented it. At that point he moved to Quartzsite Arizona in poverty and basically lived off the kindness of local ranchers and prospectors. At times he would capture wild camels and try to use them on fruitless mining expeditions. There he died on December 16, 1902. He was buried where he died with just a simple wooden headboard which was common at the time. Hi Jolly later gained fame when in 1935 the Arizona Highway Department erected a pyramidal tombstone, as shown at the top of this story, with a metal camel on top as recognition for his contributions to the region. You may also recall the Army Camel experiments in the arid southwest when you pass by Camelback Mountain in the Phoenix Arizona area.

You would have to conclude that the aims of the experiment were met. The camels seemed to perform as advertised. I would think that some of the anti-camel groups were opposed to the camel idea simply because they looked so different from horses. A cavalry unit on camels doesn't seem to have the same romantic aura as that on horseback nor did most think it represented a threatening force in battle. Perception seemed to win out. The United States Army was to remain on horseback.

The camels in California were eventually driven up to the Benicia Arsenal north of San Francisco. There they were acquired by private parties who used them to haul supplies over the difficult Sierra Nevada mountains to the prosperous mining towns of Nevada such as Virginia City.

In Texas the camels were spread out to various private ranches to be used for a variety of purposes. Some were sold to circuses and merchants who figured out a way to use them for entertainment purposes. Others were simply turned loose. There was even a report of wild camel sightings in west Texas as late as 1941. With the camels superior survival attributes it's probably not a surprise that they could survive indefinitely in the frontier wilderness. The United States Army Camel Corp experiment was not only a success but added quite an interesting chapter to our military history.

If your travels include a New Mexico vacation or road trip another site commemorating the army camel expeditions is El Morro National Monument in New Mexico. Here you can see an etching from a Captain Breckenridge of the U.S. Army who passed through this valley in 1859 with his camels. The valley was known to be an excellent watering stop along the trail. The inscription on the rock is one of the more popular ones there with El Morro tourists.

(Photos and images from the public domain)