By Mick Woodcock

Back in the day, camels roamed Arizona.  Of course we are referring to Camelops hesternus, the extinct Western Camel that thrived in the savannah landscapes of the Pleistocene West over 11,000 years ago.  Or are we?  There are legends of “ghost camels” wandering the southwestern Arizona deserts in territorial days.  One of the most famous of these tales was of a red camel with a headless skeleton of a man mounted on its back. Legends are generally based on some type of fact and such is the case with the desert mystery camels, for there definitely were wild camels roaming the Arizona desert in the late 19th century.

Their presence began as the inspiration of a former naval officer turned inland explorer named Edward Fitzgerald Beale.  Born in 1822 in the District of Columbia, he graduated from the Philadelphia Naval School in 1842, following a family tradition of naval service (both his father and maternal grandfather were navy officers).  In 1845 he was sent to California and subsequently served on land there during the war with Mexico, most famously in his role in relieving the siege of San Pasqual in Southern California.

A decade later the War Department needed to solve the difficult problem of military transportation to remote locations in the recently acquired Southwest, a problem for which Beale had an ingenious solution—the use of camels.  He found a supporter in Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who convinced Congress to appropriate money to buy camels in the Middle East and have them shipped to Texas to use in an experiment as an alternate form of desert transportation.  Davis reported that 75 camels would cost $30,000 to purchase and bring to the United States.  The first acquisition was 33 animals from Cairo, Egypt, and Smyrna, Asia Minor.

“The Report of the Secretary of War, Communicating, In Compliance With a Resolution of the Senate of February 2, 1857,

Information Respecting The Purchase of Camels For The Purposes of Military Transportation” set forth all of the communication on the purchase plus much useful information on the care of camels.

One of the details was to differentiate between the one hump variety, the Arabian camel, and the two-hump type, the Bactrian camel.  The Arabians were further broken down into camels which were beasts of burden and dromedaries, which were raised for riding.  Among the first group imported were 30 Arabians, two Bactrians and one Tulu, an Arabian-Bactrian cross.  A second shipment brought 44 more of the ungainly-appearing beasts.

Beale was appointed to survey a wagon route across the 35th parallel using the camels to transport his equipment.  The camels worked well, but were lost in the shuffle of the nation preparing for war and were sold as surplus both in Texas and California.

Beale’s route, since it was marked with blazes on trees and other identifiable features, made immigration to southern California easier.  It became the basis for the Atlantic and Pacific Railway to build an intercontinental railroad across Arizona, the establishment of an intercontinental highway, old Route 66, and finally the course for modern day Interstate Highway 40.

After laying out the wagon road and arriving in California, Beale’s camels and their caretakers were unemployed.  Beale went back to Washington to write his report and the soldiers were detailed to other duties, but the civilian camel drivers, who spoke little English, were left to fend for themselves.

One of the camel drivers who settled in Arizona was Hadji Ali, nicknamed Hi Jolly by the Anglos who worked with him.  Born in Syria in 1828, Hi Jolly went with Beale to California.  He later made his way to Arizona, working as a scout for the army, eventually winding up in Tucson.  There in 1880 he became a naturalized citizen with the name of Philip Tedro and married Gertrude Serna.  He later left Tucson and spent much of the rest of his life prospecting the deserts of western Arizona.

At some point he purchased a few camels that had been sold by the army at auction in California in 1864.  He used them in Arizona, later releasing them into the desert to become a part of Arizona folklore.  He spent his final years in Quartzsite, dying there in 1902.  Hi Jolly and the camels he worked with then became the property of history and folklore.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles to dayspastprescott@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastprescott@gmail.com for information.