Camels in America

Camels in America

March 3, 1855 - Today was the day that Secretary of War Jefferson Davis received the green light from Congress to test camels as a transport option in the American west.

A ship was sent to Syria and it brought back 31 camels and 5 Arabian drivers. One of Arabs was a colorful character named Hadji Ali. The American soldiers had a hard time pronouncing Ali's name, so they called him Hi Jolly.

The camels performed well in initial tests where they were able to handle rough terrain and the extreme temperatures of the Southwest. Loaded with 600 to 800 pounds, the camels could travel 25 to 30 miles a day.

The man in charge, Lieutenant Edward Beale, had this to say about the camels:

They pack water for days under a hot sun and never get a drop; they pack heavy burdens of corn and oats for months and never get a grain; and on the bitter greasewood and other worthless shrubs, not only subsist, but keep fat. I look forward to the day when every mail route across the continent will be conducted and worked altogether with this economical and noble brute.

But it wasn't all good. The weird-looking camels terrified the local horses and burros. They also tended to have wanderlust, and would sometimes escape into the desert.

Pleased with the overall results, the new Secretary of War John Floyd asked Congress to purchase 1000 more camels in 1858. Unfortunately, the nation was on the eve of the Civil War and the camel corps was eventually disbanded.

The camels were sold off for $31 a piece. 5 of them wound up going to the Ringling Brothers Circus.

Hadji Ali bought some of the camels and used them to run a freighting operation that ran supplies for mining camps. The business failed and by 1870 Ali had released his remaining camels into the Arizona desert.

In 1880 Hadji Ali became a US citizen. He settled down and got married in Tuscon where he was a local legend. Ali's grave with its distinctive pyramid shape and copper camel on top is now a tourist attraction.

There were wild camel sightings as late 1941 in Texas.

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