The Camel Military Corps

 

hi jolly monument

 

Although efforts were made at mining the hills in the area, early Quartzsite is best known for its link to a failed military experiment, the United States Camel Corps. The Mexican-American War of 1846-48 made clear to military leaders that securing the rough terrain of the Southwest against Native Americans or the Mexican government, both of whom were unhappy with the growing power of the U. S. in that region, would not be easy. The majority of American causalities in the war in those distant lands fell victim not to enemy fire but to the harsh conditions, proving just how inhospitable that region is to traditional cavalry and infantry.

Convinced they had found a solution, Second Lieutenant George H. Crossman, a veteran of the Seminole Wars and Major Henry C. Wayne, a quartermaster, gained the support of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis and persuaded Congress to allocate $30,000 to create the Camel Military Corps in 1855. Like many such ideas, this seemed sensible at the time. Both Arabia and the American Southwest are similar climatologically. Obviously, dromedaries are well suited to the arid environment and even if it is hardly plausible that Crossman, Wayne, or Davis would have known this, giant prehistoric camels once roamed the continent. More likely, Crossman and Davis had heard of plans to bring camels to the Mojave desert as pack animals and might even have received word that the animals were being brought to Australia by settlers to help colonize the Outback. In what would be the first operational test of material in the field by the Army, inaugurating the tradition of operational military research later taken up by George Owen Squier, the Corps was charged with determining the capabilities of the animals for the possible formation of a camel cavalry, for deployment in artillery units, and for use as pack animals.

Two years later, the Army imported seventy-seven North African camels and a Syrian camel driver named Hadji Ali. Based at Camp Verde, Arizona, some two hundred miles from Quartzsite, the Corps was charged with establishing mail and supply routes westward to California and eastward to Texas. Although the camels thrived in conditions that would fell any horse, the experiment was not without its problems. The animals did not adapt well to the rocky terrain. They scared other pack animals such as horses and burros. Soldiers found them foul smelling and bad tempered and complained about camels spitting at them. Nevertheless, the new Secretary of War, John Floyd, was impressed and asked Congress for a further 1,000 animals. But tensions between the North and South were rising and the Congress couldn’t be bothered with the distant lands of the Southwest. Moreover, upon being appointed Commander of the Texas Army, Major General David E. Twiggs, sometimes known as “The Horse” (but also as “Old Davy” or “the Bengal Tiger”) was horrified to discover the Camel Corps in his charge and successfully lobbied Congress to be rid of the beasts. Perhaps it is just as well: Twiggs would soon surrender his command and, with it, the Texas Army to the Confederacy.

Instead of serving the Confederacy, in 1863 the Camel Corps was sold off at auction. Most would wind up in private hands, but some would be released into the desert where they became feral. Hadji Ali, now known as “Hi Jolly” remained behind although whether this was to pursue the American dream or simply because he was marooned far from home is unclear. After a time running a camel-borne freight business, Hi Jolly, who was actually half-Greek and also known by the name Philip Tedro, married a Tucson woman and moved to the west Arizona town of Tyson’s Wells, nine miles west of Quartzsite, Arizona, where he worked as a miner until he died in 1902, reportedly expiring with his arm around one of his camels during a sandstorm. In memory of his service, the government of Arizona built a small pyramid topped by a metal camel on his gravesite in the 1930s. Feral camels would be seen roaming the desert until the early 1900s.

For a half century after Hi Jolly’s death, the population of Quartzsite remained small, with only about 50 people living in the outpost town on a permanent basis. By the 1950s, however, snowbirds began spending the relatively mild winter months in the area, and by the 1960s the seasonal population could swell to 1,500. Many of these winter travelers returned year-after-year and some settled permanently. As the community slowly grew, businessmen and civic boosters formed the Quartzsite Improvement Association and created a gem and mineral show to encourage more winter travelers to come.