Camels of the Old West

Camels of the Old WestBefore we get started with our weekly campfire chat, I want to clear up a couple of things: 1) Yes, you read the title of this post correctly. We really are going to talk about camels of the Old West. 2) We are not going to be talking about cigarettes, although, from what I’ve seen in television Westerns, that would seem more logical. No. We’re talking about honest-to-goodness, hump back mammals in the Old West. Why? Because they existed and because we can!

Hump Day

Camels of the Old WestIt was during the 1830s when Major George H. Crosman first encouraged the U.S. War Department to use camels for the Indian campaigns in Florida. It made all kinds of sense, when you stop and think about it. Camels don’t require a lot of food and water, and they are regular workhorses—except they’re camels, not horses! Now, more than a few people probably thought Major Crosman was a tad daffy, but at least one man didn’t. As it happened, that one man was none other than Senator Jefferson Davis.

Jefferson DavisWhen President Franklin Pierce appointed Jefferson Davis as Secretary of War in 1853, Davis was charged with solving two major problems. First, how to deal with the Indians and second, how to transport arms, supplies and men to Texas, California, and, what is now New Mexico and Arizona. The army desperately needed bases for operations and supply lines through a large area of desert.

Unfortunately, the army’s budget was pretty well tapped out after the Mexican War. Davis bought into the belief that much, if not most, of the Western U.S. was a desert wasteland that wasn’t fit for man or beast. Well, he didn’t think it was fit for most beasts. Camels, on the other hand, thrive in the desert! I’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia! Of course, camels thrive in the desert!

Davis asked Congress for funding to test using camels to solve the western transportation problems. In 1855, Congress made $30,000 available “under the direction of the War Department in the purchase of camels and the importation of dromedaries, to be employed for military purposes.”

Illustration for Jefferson Davis' report to the Senate in 1857
Illustration for Jefferson Davis’ report to the Senate in 1857

Military officials hightailed it to Turkey to see how many camels they could relocate for $30,000. That sounds like some bizarre Old West math problem: If Jefferson Davis gets $30,000, how many camels can the military purchase? In 1856, they returned with approximately seventy camels and eight camel drivers, all of whom were led by a man named Hadji Ali, or as he was known by Americans who had a difficult time understanding foreign names, “Hi Jolly.” We’ll get to more about “Hi Jolly” later.

G.I. Joe Camel

Camel at Drum Barracks, San Pedro, California
Camel at Drum Barracks, San Pedro, California

The U.S. Army Camel Corps worked relatively well. The camels could easily handle all of the heat the southwest could throw at them. They didn’t have to be watered frequently. They were great pack animals and they easily led supply trains from Texas to California. But… (Based on the fact that you don’t meet a lot of Texas camel ranchers today, you knew there had to be a “but.”)

Camels of the Old WestThe military had originally thought that that camels and horses would work side by side. However, the camels scared the bejeebers out of the poor military horses! It was next to impossible to have them travel in the same convoy. The army personnel were also totally unprepared for the fact that the camels weren’t exactly congenial. If you’ve ever had one of the lumpy beasts spit at you, you know what I mean. In addition to the fact that camels are just plain ornery, they also smell awful, which did little to endear them to the soldiers! In case you’re interested, I did a little research and it seems that Peter O’Toole didn’t enjoy working with camels in Lawrence of Arabia either.

Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back

When the Civil War broke out, the U.S. Army Camel Corps disbanded. You might say that the Civil War was the straw that broke the camel’s back. What happened next is a little vague. Some sources say the camels were simply released into the wild, where they flourished for many years. Other sources indicate that Jefferson Davis, as the first and last president of the Confederate States of America, put the camels to work for the Confederacy.

CamelsThe Texas State Historical Association reports that eighty camels and two Egyptian camel drivers passed into the hands of the Confederacy. They were used to pack cotton bales into Mexican ports. It is believed that at least one camel was used to carry a company’s baggage for the duration of the war. At the end of the war, the surviving camels were likely sold at auction by the U.S. government.

Another Hump in the Road

Camel CorpsWhile all of this was going on, one of the soldiers who had been a part of the Camel Corps saw dollar signs in his eyes. He purchased a herd of camels and delivered them to British Columbia. Our neighbors to the north were smack in the middle of a gold rush and they needed pack animals.

The prospectors appreciated that the camels could carry twice as much as mules, but the camels weren’t suited for the terrain. The rocky terrain tore up the camels’ poor tootsies. There was also the problem that the camels’ dispositions weren’t any sweeter in Canada than they had been in the West.

He’d Walk a Mile for a Camel

Camels of the Old WestI’m sure you’re champing at the bit to learn what happened to Hadji Ali, aka, Hi Jolly! Hadji Ali, the lead camel driver, hired by the U.S. Army was discharged from the Quartermaster Department of the U.S. Army in 1870. It is believed that he was the son of a Jordanian Bedouin, but he chose to remain in the U.S. For a time, he used a few camels to run a freighting business between the Colorado River and mining camps. He married, had a couple of kids and, in 1880, he became a U.S. citizen. His name was legally changed to Philip Tedro, but Hi Jolly is the name that stuck. Hadji Ali died in 1902 and was buried in Quartzsite, Arizona. In 1935, the governor of Arizona dedicated a monument to “Hi Jolly” and the Camel Corp at the grave site of Hadji Ali.

There you have it—a synopsis of how camels came to the Old West! Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Camel cigarettes didn’t come around until 1913.

Happy Trails,
Anita Lequoia

6 Replies to “Camels of the Old West”

  1. Thanks Anita. I’ve seen tidbits on the Camel Corps but never the whole story. Very interesting. I do know this- they are nasty critters. In college I picked up an odd job cleaning a stable at our county fairgrounds where several of them were ‘billeted’ during some event. ‘Spit’ wasn’t the half of it….

  2. The experiment of the camels was well-to-do great great grandpa Santiago Tafolla was a union Confederate and civil-service hire working with camels from Camp Verde Tx from the 1850s to the 1860. Memoirs are in a book called Crossing Borders. Today I portray his character in Tx Forts and events many historical events working with camels.

    Gil AKA …….
    EL BARBON

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