The Great Camel Experiment: Part I – Quartzsite, AZ
For a moment, let’s imagine that 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, Chollas and Ocotillos, a pack of camels crosses your path…
…wait! Did I just say CAMELS?
Yes! You weren’t imagining it. It wasn’t some desert mirage. 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. Quartzsite is supposedly the RV Mecca of the world; at least that’s what we were told. Its a misnomer that every RVer should visit Quartzsite, also known as ‘the Q’ at least once in their RV travels. It’s kind of a right of passage. And, seemingly, regulars make their annual pilgrimage to this place for reasons….well, weird reasons, I guess.
Like most cities and towns, visitors are welcomed by a sign showing the name of the town and Quartzsite was no exception. On the busy stretch of road leading into the Q, there is a small pull-off spot where we parked to get a photo. Shhhhhh, there’s a no parking sign but hey, we still parked anyway to get this shot. (Because we’re bloggers and that’s what bloggers do!).
Anyway, there’s a reason for the cool pyramid and camels incorporated on the sign display and we’re going to educate about why in a second.
We hauled Liberty and our Idaho Tote with our two dual sport fun machines (dirt bikes) off the paved service road onto the rocky desert where our Xscapers tribe had corralled. We situated ourselves where we had a decent WiFi signal so I could get some work done but be in the midst of our new RV nomad friends.
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. There was the notorious ‘big tent’ (RV vendors), the never-ending flea market, RV show, etc.
Now, those who know us, appreciate that Dan and I enjoy exploring weird and quirky places. This one certainly fit the bill.
One day, we happened upon a brown historical site sign leading the way to ‘Hi Jolly Tomb’’. While waiting for the green at the traffic light, we looked at each other and said “what they heck, why not? And…who the heck is Hi Jolly?”
Once we got there (it literally was right down the street), we expected to see some glamorous memorial; much like what you’d see at some military or prestigious famous cemetery. Oh no! It wasn’t that at all! There, located in the Hi Jolly Cemetery stood a hand-built, pyramid-shaped, very humble monument. It had a rusty steel camel on top looking out to the vast rocky desert.
We knew nothing about this dude Hi Jolly and what the heck these Middle Eastern camels were doing in the middle of the desert southwest. (and, why they were part of the Quartzsite welcome sign. But we were eager to find out, so we Googled it.
Who was Hi Jolly?
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.
Jefferson Davis (on accord with the Government) contracted a Syrian Camel Caretaker, Hadji Ali, who was named for Army purposes, Hi Jolly to sail to the United States on the U.S.S. Supply with about 33 desert camels from the Middle East to conduct this so called experiment. By the way, Hi Jolly was one of the first Syrian immigrants to come to America (or, so they say).
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 then began to conduct the U.S. Army Great Camel 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, Texas. 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. They accomplished the same trip in less than half the time; clearly proving their tenacity, speed and weight-bearing ability over the mules.
Several other exercises were conducted to prove that camels transporting abilities surpassed mules and horses. Jefferson Davis was extremely pleased of his “pet project”. He 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, most everyone knows that camels don’t require a ton of daily water or food to survive, hence, why Jefferson Davis thought this would work. Whereas, mules and horses need regular feedings and ample water for daily consumption for survival. Also, camels can withstand the barren heat of over 130 degrees in the summer months in the desert.
However, there raised a huge problem. The Soldiers or civilians wanted nothing 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. Oh, and camels, became temperamental, violent and sassy.
A few years after the inception of the project, our nation’s Civil War broke out. Jefferson Davis changed jobs within the government. Because of the war, the support and attention needed to continue the U.S. Camel Corps was abandoned and defunded. In doing so, 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 circus shows.
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, 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….
You need to read about our visit to Camp Verde where the Great Camel Experiment started! Click on the image below: