The Great Camel Corps Experiment

For a moment, imagine you’re a cowboy or cowgirl riding your horse in the hot arid Arizona desert and Texas Hill Country in the late 1850’s. All of a sudden, amidst the tall Saguaros, Jumping Chollas and blowing Sagebrush, a pack of camels crosses your path…

Wait…did I just say CAMELS…in the United States of America?

Yes and if you were that cowboy, you certainly weren’t imagining it. It wasn’t some desert mirage or and you weren’t hallucinating.

Now, we’re all familiar with camels in zoos and in far away countries like the Middle East but in the Southwest deserts of the good ole U.S. of A.?

Hold that thought…we’ll get back to that shortly.

In January of 2017, we joined about 65 Xscapers in Quartzsite, Arizona for our first boondocking convergence.  Now, Quartzsite is the supposed ‘Mecca’ for RVers.  It’s said that every RVer should visit Quartzsite, also known as ‘the Q’, at least once in their travels; kind of an RVer’s right of passage.. It’s also home to the Rock and Gem Show.

Upon arriving at any town, large or small, visitors and residents are usually welcomed by a sign showing the name of the town and Quartzsite was no exception.  On a busy stretch of road leading into the Q, there was a small pull-over spot so we could park to get a photo.  Notice the cool pyramid and camels incorporated on the sign display? Well, there’s a reason for them.

 

Anyways, we found our tribe not far off of I-10 near Dome Rock right down the road from downtown Quartzsite.  We hauled Liberty and her two-wheeled dorey (our Idaho Tote with our two dualsports) off the paved service road onto the rocky desert. We situated ourselves where we had a decent AT&T WiFi signal so I could get some work done.  We unhooked, set up and started converging with our fellow Xscapers.

 

 

Though we were there for the 12-day convergence, a few days amidst the potlucks, campfires, gatherings, workshops and classes, we meandered into town to see what all of the hoopla was; the ‘big tent’, the never-ending flea market, RV show, etc.  Now remember, Dan and I enjoy finding ‘weird, strange and quirky’ sites and landmarks and this one fit the bill.

 

 

One of those days, we happened upon a brown historical road sign leading the way to ‘Hi Jolly Tomb’’.  Looking at each other while waiting for the green at the traffic light, we shrugged our faces and said “what they heck, why not? And…who the heck is Hi Jolly?”

 

Once we got there (a whole 3 minutes later), we expected to see some glamorous memorial; much like what you’d see at some military or prestigious famous cemetery.  Oh no…it certainly wasn’t that at all!  There, located in the Hi Jolly Cemetery was a hand-built, pyramid-shaped, humble monument with a camel on top at the edge of the town cemetery looking out to the vast rocky desert.

 

 

 

 

 

So now, we’ll get back to that cowboy seeing camels in the Arizona desert and this Hi Jolly guy…

 

We knew nothing about ‘Hi Jolly’ and these camels but we were eager to find out. Now, putting two and two together, we figured this is was the source and reason why camels and pyramids were incorporated with the welcome to Quartzsite sign.

 

Who was Hi Jolly?

Hi Jolly was notorious camel whisperer in this so-called Camel Corps Experiment which was conducted back in the 1850’s by the U.S. Army.

 

In the mid 1850’s, Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War, had this bizarre idea of transporting people and goods across the Southwest desert via camels because the horses and mules just couldn’t cut it in the hot and arid rocky desert terrain.

 

He (on accord with the Government) contracted a Syrian Camel Caretaker who, by the way, was one of the first Syrian Immigrants, Hadji Ali who was named for Army purposes, ‘Hi Jolly’ to sail to the United States on the U.S.S. Supply with a about 33 desert camels from the Middle East; thus becoming the U.S. Army Camel Corps.  After arriving and getting acclimated to the conditions in the American southwest, they were were transferred to Camp Verde, Texas. Having to prove this project would be successful, they conducted an experiment.

 

About the Great  Camel Corps Experiment…

 

The Army marched three six-mule teams, each to haul a wagon carrying 1800 pounds of oats from San Antonio back to Camp Verde.  It took nearly five days for the mule drawn wagons to complete their delivery.  At the same time, they loaded six camels with double the load accomplishing the same trip in less than half the time; clearly proving their tenacity, speed and ability over the mules.

 

Several other exercises were conducted to prove that camels transporting abilities surpassed those of mules and even horses.  Jefferson Davis was extremely pleased of his project and stated in his annual report “These tests fully realize the anticipation entertained for their usefulness in the transportation of military supplies…thus far, the result as favorable as the most sanguine could have hoped.”

 

Now, everybody knows that camels don’t require a ton of daily water or food to survive whereas, mules and horses need it for daily consumption for survival; hence, one of the reasons why Jefferson Davis thought this would work.  Also, the fact that camels can withstand the barren heat of over 130 degrees in the summer months in the desert. However, not many of the Soldiers or civilians wanted anything to do with the camels as they were strange, odd to ride (one hump or two?) and required a whole different set of logistical care, not to mention, if provoked, they became temperamental, violent and sassy.

 

Now getting back to this Hadji guy…err…Hi Jolly, it’s been said that he had two wives in his day. Notably, there were nine other camel caretakers who also came over on the ship with Hi Jolly.

 

One of the other trainers, “Greek George” (not the baseball player) also a Middle Easterner, and Hi Jolly remained while the other eight hit the road because the Army refused to pay them in up-front for their service.  Greek George, after the whole camel project got canned, settled in southern California.  Trying to be a good guy by helping a Mexican bandit who was injured in a fight, Greek George was later found guilty of aiding a criminal and hanged.  Poor George received no honors or monument.

 

Not long after, the Civil War broke out and Jefferson Davis changed jobs within the government and because of the war, the support and attention needed to continue the U.S. Camel Corps was abandoned and defunded.  The Army didn’t know what else to do other than to free the camels in the desert near Quartzsite to fend for themselves; some were sold to zoos and shows.

 

Oh, there were all sorts of strange logistics to take care of regarding these camels so other than the zoos and shows, what else were they to do with them that wasn’t costly?

 

After the camels were dispersed, Hi Jolly (later named Philip Tedro) continued to live there until he passed away in 1902.  He was so well liked that the locals honored him by building a tomb out of multicolored petrified wood and quartz in the shape of a pyramid.  The town dedicated his monument a year later.  In 1935, a bronze plaque was set on the tomb by the Arizona Highway Department and mounted a metal camel silhouette on the top of the pyramid monument, “A fair trial might have resulted in complete success”.

 

The last camel sighting was in 1942.  They reportedly outlived Jefferson Davis.

 

So, there’s more to the history, we’ll let you read it for yourself at the U.S. Army’s Camel Corps Experiment.

 

So, if you’re taking in the Quartzsite mecca or just passing through, make time to visit the monument.  This is one of those ‘untold stories’ of American History that we don’t learn about in our school history classes.

 

The Hi Jolly Cemetery is located on West Main Street in Quartzsite, Arizona.  To get there, take exit 17 on I-10.  North side, about a ½ mile east on Business 10/W. Main Street.  Turn North at the Hi Jolly Tomb sign and drive through the flea market to get to the town cemetery and monument.  You can’t miss it.  Look for the pyramid.

But wait!  We’re not done yet, read on….

A couple months later, we trekked back to San Antonio, Texas to get our annual medical stuff out of the way at Fort Sam Houston and Lackland AFB.  Between appointments, we took little field trips outside the city to find cool little sightseeing treasures.
One beautiful day in March, we drove out to the small town of Camp Verde, halfway between Bandera and Kerrville on State Highway 173.  Now, strangely, when we arrived at the Camp Verde General Store, darned if we didn’t see those silly camels again and then it all came back to us.
THIS was the Camp Verde that was home to the Army’s Camel Corps; where it all started.  This was the connection between Camp Verde and Quartzsite.
Camp Verde used to be the Old Camp Verde Military Camp.  The town grew around the old Williams community store near the Army Post, opening in 1857, which accommodated serving the Soldiers stationed there.
In 1858, Charles Schreiner, a German Immigrant bought the store and the camp was abandoned.  The store also served as the Post Office to the townspeople.  In 1866, the post office closed but was reopened the following year with Charles C. Kelley serving as the Postmaster.  A few years later, the post office closed again and reestablished in 1899.

 

Now, that once-was Post Office is located in the Camp Verde General Store and Restaurant.
We decided to stay since we were already there. This pleasant, off-the-beaten-path cafe hosted our fabulous lunch date!  The food was delicious, the nicely remodeled room and building posed great atmosphere with awesome history and the serving staff was friendly and accommodating.
After finishing our lunch, we walked around in the General Store. It was a fun updated mercantile with almost everything under the sun when it comes to souvenirs, kitchen gadgets, grilling tools, gifts, writing papers and instruments, jewelry, jellies and jams, etc.
They also had beautiful gardens with colorful flowers and ivy, camel sculptures, fountains, patios with fireplaces and nice outdoor sitting areas to enjoy a beverage or lunch.

 

So there you have it! I bet you never knew about the Army Camel Corp Experiment just like us but now you now can say, you learned it here.
So if you’re anywhere in the Hill Country of Texas near Bandera or Kerrville, make this your cool lunch and shopping stop.

2 Replies to “The Great Camel Corps Experiment”

    1. Diane, I think you would like it! There’s so much unwritten history of our Country out there. We are so glad to share what we’ve learned on the road. Thank you for your interest in and following our blog. Safe travels! -Lisa & Dan

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