Hi Jolly and the US Camel Corps —
In the mid 1850’s a group of Manifest Destinyists got the great idea to fight back the Indjins of the Western USA with a Calvary of camels. Jefferson Davis approved the plan and the trading route he sought to establish — “across the Great Desert”– from Texas to California was to be blazed on camel back.
In 1856, 33 camels, a driver by the name of Hadj Ali, and seven other men were shipped into Texas from Syria and North Africa. The US Camel Corps was born. 41 more camels were to follow.
Hadji Ali was a Syrian Greek originally named Philip Tedro, but he converted to Islam, made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and donned upon himself a Muslim name that adequately tells the tale of his wanderings. But this name would soon be capped with another culturally mandated title, for nearly as soon as Hadji Ali entered the USA with the first load of camels, the American soldiers promptly renamed him “Hi Jolly.”
I must admit that, to an American, Hadji Ali does sound remarkably similar to “Hi Jolly.” And the mispronunciation of foreign words has seemingly always been a seldom dormant aspect of American humor.
So now named “Hi Jolly,” Ali was the man who was in charge of driving and caring for the 70 odd camels dumped out in the Sonoran Desert. He made a successful run from Texas out to the California coast, but the camel project was doomed to be abandoned.
America, apparently, could not adapt to the camels. “”Hi Jolly told me all about it. Those camels were lonesome for the caravans of their home country and every time they sighted a prospector’s mule train they’d make a break for it. You’ve heard of how horses bolted at the sight of the first automobiles. That wasn’t anything compared to the fright those ugly, loping camels threw into mules. The mules would lay back their ears and run for their lives and then the prospectors would cuss and reach for their guns and shoot at the camels. A lot of camels got killed that way,” I read from a 60 year old AP article.
The camels also had difficulty adapting to the rugged terrain of the American desert, and their feet never could get the knack of walking on stones and brittle shrubs rather than smooth desert sand of their homeland.
“For a time, Hi Jolly wrapped their feet in burlap. Later a special shoe was fashioned for the animals’ split toes. The shoes never proved really satisfactory as they didn’t keep rocks out from between the toes,” the old AP article continued.
Apparently, not even camels could tolerate this desert.
So the project was labeled a failure, and the camels were left to roam the Arizona desert. Hi Jolly eventually dumped his near Gila Bend, AZ, and he roamed around the American southwest running errant enterprises and became a living legend. But in 1902, at the age of 62, Hi Jolly made his last camp in Quartzsite.
A monument stands to his memory today, and travelers from afar come to revel in the memory of the man who drove the camels, “Hi Jolly.”
“Today, Hi Jolly’s tomb is this town’s only attraction,” the AP article continued.
More than 60 years later, little has apparently changed, for Hi Jolly’s tomb is still the most visited location in Quartzsite.
Vagabond Journey series on the Arizona desert
[seriesposts orderby=date order=ASC name=”arizona desert” ]