What’s up with all the CAMELS in Quartzsite, a tiny desert town in Arizona? It’s hard not to notice all the camels on signs, camel sculptures and even a street sign. Why would there be all these camel symbols in a sleepy little desert town with a population less than 2400 people?
For a moment, imagine this. You’re a cowboy riding your horse in the hot Arizona desert and Texas Hill Country in the late 1850’s. All of a sudden, amidst the tall Agaves, Saguaros and Ocotillos, a pack of camels crosses your path. And I’m not talking about cigarettes.
Well, you weren’t imagining it or hallucinating. It wasn’t some desert mirage. What you were witnessing was literally “history in the making”!
A little known historical event took place involving the United States Army, a middle eastern man and a pack of camels.
The historical event was called The Great Camel Experiment. And Quartzsite is the place that honors the man who proved to the U.S. government that camels could transport military supplies across the desert southwest instead of mules.
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The Great Camel Experiment: Quartzsite, Arizona
Pilgrimage to the RV Mecca of the World: Quartzsite, Arizona
Known as the Rock Capitol of the World, Quartzsite is also coined as the “RV Mecca of the World”. Its a misnomer that every RVer should make a pilgrimage to Quartzsite at least once in their RV travels.
Like most cities and towns in America, there’s a peculiar looking welcome sign that greets you to the town of Quartzsite. And when I say ‘peculiar’, you can imagine our curiosity of the pyramid and the three camels.
There’s a reason for the cool pyramid and camels incorporated on the sign. It took a little digging to find out the reasoning behind them. Funny, we actually learned something historically cool that took place there right there in this tiny eclectic desert town. Ironically, as important as it was to our Nation’s military history, it’s something we never learned in elementary or even high school.
Anyways, we towed our fifth wheel along with our Idaho Tote and two dual sport motorcycles in tow off the paved service road onto the rocky desert where our a bunch of our RV friends were corralled. We parked where we could get a decent WiFi signal yet be in close proximity of our friends and their RVs.
We boondocked in Quartzsite with the group for 12 days. After a few days of potlucks, campfires, gatherings, workshops and classes, Dan and I meandered into Quartzsite to explore the town.
Of course, this was also during the Quartzsite Sports, Vacation and RV Show. The dead giveaway is their notorious ‘big tent’ full of ‘everything RV’ from RV component and supply vendors, campground and membership organizations, flea market crap and of course, the outdoor section of RVs for sale.
But, this particular trek into town wasn’t to attend the RV show. We were itching to find out what was up with those dam camels. Now, those who know us can understand Dan and my quest to explore wild, weird and wacky places throughout our travels. And, Quartzsite surely hit this one right out of the park.
As we were driving around Quartzsite, we noticed a brown historical site sign pointing the way to the Hi Jolly Tomb. We looked at each other and said to each other “who the heck is Hi Jolly?” And, off we went!
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Learning about the significance of camels in Quartzsite
Once we got to the Hi Jolly Cemetery (a whole 60 seconds!), we walked over to the cemetery sign. And darn if there’s those camels again!
But as we read it, we started to piece this little-known historic event together. What’s odd is this bit of American history was or is not taught in classrooms. So, it’s part of our give-back job to share what we’ve learned.
Located only steps away from the sign is the Hi Jolly Cemetery that had one odd looking pyramid-shaped monument wit rusty steel camel on top looking out to the vast rocky desert.
On one side of the pyramid was a plaque with the inscription:
“Last Camp of Hi Jolly
Born somewhere in Syria about 1828
Died at Quartzsite December 16, 1902
Came to this country February 10, 1856
Camel Driver – Packer
Scout – Over Thirty
Years a faithful aid to the US Government
1935 by Arizona Highway Department”
And, at the foot of the pyramid rested a newer plaque listing it as one of the National Register of Historic Places by the Department of the Interior.
But, remember I mentioned the sign in the cemetery that has the camel on it? After a closer look, we learned what the camel in Quartzsite symbolizes.
The camel supposedly represents the Red Ghost; a scary red-haired beast that roamed the desert, terrorizing man and beast with what appeared to be a corpse tied to his back.
According to Smithsonian Magazine‘s account,
“In the 1880s, a wild menace haunted the Arizona territory. It was known as the Red Ghost, and its legend grew as it roamed the high country. It trampled a woman to death in 1883.”
However, others say the camel atop the monument recognizes Topsy, Hi Jolly’s favorite camel and companion. There’s claims that Topsy’s ashes are also placed in the bronze time capsule. So, who really knows?
So, since we knew nothing about who this Hi Jolly is and the U.S. Army Camel Corps’ “Great Camel Experiment”, we’re eager to learn the who, what, where, when, how and of course, why Quartzsite?
Inception of the Great Camel Experiment
In the 1850’s, the Army transported their supplies to the west using mules. However, this became a logistical nightmare due to the desert’s high temperatures and long stretches of nothingness that the mules weren’t accustomed to.
Jefferson Davis had this brilliant idea of transporting supplies across the Southwest desert via camels instead.
So, on accord with the U.S. Government, Jefferson Davis contracted a Syrian Camel Caretaker, Hadji Ali. Later known as Hi Jolly, he was hired by the government to sail to the United States on the U.S.S. Supply along with 20some desert camels from the Middle East to conduct a so-called experiment. Thus, the creation of the U.S. Army Camel Corps began.
After arriving in the United States and getting acclimated to the conditions in the American southwest, Hadji Ali and his camels were were transferred to Camp Verde, Texas to begin Jefferson Davis’ project with the U.S. Army Camel Corps.
A side note, speculation says that Hadji Ali (Hi Jolly) was one of the first Syrian immigrants to come to America (or, so they say).
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The Great Camel Experiment Commences
The U.S. 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, Hadji Ali (Hi Jolly) and Army Soldiers loaded six camels but with double the load. The object of The Great Camel Experiment was to see if camels could do a better job transporting supplies to the designated camps faster without incident.
Well, needless to say, because camels are accustomed to hot desert environments, Jefferson Davis looked like a genius. Hadji Ali (Hi Jolly) and his team of camels accomplished the experimental trip in less than half the time; clearly proving the camels’ tenacity, speed and weight-bearing ability over the mules.
Now, most everyone knows that camels don’t require a ton of daily water or food to survive. Whereas, mules and horses need regular feedings and ample water for daily consumption to survive, not only in the desert environment, but everywhere. Also, camels can withstand the barren heat of over 130 degrees in the summer months in the desert.
Several other exercises were conducted to prove that camels transporting abilities surpassed mules and horses. Jefferson Davis was extremely pleased of his new 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.”
The Great Camel Experiment Ends in Quartzsite
However, the U.S. Army Camel Corps Great Camel Experiment didn’t happen without logistical issues. Timing couldn’t be worse to complete the project.
The Soldiers or civilians wanted nothing to do with the camels as they were strange and odd to ride (one hump or two?). And, the camels required different care than the mules they were accustomed to. Further, they found camels extremely temperamental, sassy and sometimes violent.
A few years after the inception of the The Great Camel Experiment, America’s Civil War broke out. Jefferson Davis had to divert his focus to a different job in the U.S. government.
Due to the war efforts, the U.S. Army’s mission all changed taking all of the necessary support and attention away from the camel mission project. So, the U.S. Camel Corps. was abandoned and defunded and the mission was scrapped.
So, what does the U.S. Army do with the camels? Well, they sold some to zoos and circus’. And, they set the remaining camels free in the desert near Quartzsite to fend for themselves.
After the camels in Quartzsite were displaced, Hi Jolly (later named Philip Tedro) continued to live there until he passed away in 1902. He was very well-liked amongst the locals and reigned as somewhat of a hero.
So, the townspeople honored him by building a tomb out of multicolored petrified wood and quartz in the shape of a pyramid. A year later, the town dedicated his monument.
But then 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”.
By the way, it’s been said that the last surviving camel was sighted in 1942. As you’ve just learned, the camels outlasted and outlived the Father of The Great Camel Experiment, Jefferson Davis himself.
So, as history has it, Quartzsite was the Last Camp of Hi Jolly.
If this intriguing piece of American History piques your interests you, check out the U.S. Army’s Camel Corps Experiment.
|The Great Camel Experiment of the Old West||Uncle Sam’s Camels : The Journal of May Humphreys Stacey||The Last Camel Charge: The Untold Story of America’s Desert Military Experiment|
Wrapping up why there are camels in Quartzsite
As Paul Harvey said, “now you know the rest of the story”. That’s the reason for all the camels in Quartzsite. Who would ever think the U.S. government would take on such an interesting project; hiring a Middle Eastern camel herder and 30 some camels to transport supplies to the West? As bizarre as it sounds, it certainly doesn’t surprise us. The government does some crazy stuff even back as far as the 1850’s (or earlier).
So, when passing through or visiting this land where time forgot, pay attention to all the camels in Quartzsite. And of course, make it a point to visit the Hi Jolly Monument. And when you’re boondocking out there in the desert, just maybe you’ll see Red Ghost!
How to get to the Hi Jolly’s gravesite?
Hi Jolly Cemetery is located on West Main Street in Quartzsite, Arizona.
To get to the cemetery, 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. Drive through the flea market to get to the cemetery and monument. You can’t miss it. Just look for the pyramid with the camel on top!
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