Region III Quarterly

Volume 2 - No. 3

July, 1940


By Charles J. Smith,
Grand Teton National Park.

As one travels through Petrified Forest National Monument, in eastern Arizona, just south of U. S. Highway No. 66, he may notice the wheel tracks or the old transcontinental route. In some places the ruts are a root or more deep. This is the early route to California along the thirty-firth parallel, which was followed in the 50's by Lieutenant E.F. Beale and others. About 1858, Lieutenant Beale stated: "I presume there can be no further question as to the practicability of the country near the thirty-fifth parallel for a wagon road, since Aubrey, Whipple, and myself have all travelled it successfully with wagon."

Believe it or not, had one been standing near this spot on a fall day in 1857, a strange sight would have appeared on the horizon to the east. Swinging along came a cavalcade of heavily laden camels under the charge of Hadji Ali, or "Hi Jolly", and "Greek George", who had been brought with them from the Orient. These camels were a portion of the herd which Secretary of War Jefferson Davis imported from the East in 1856. The animals were to be used as beasts of burden in transportation across what was then known as the "Great American Desert." The usual load carried by a camel was from 600 to 800 pounds; the dromedaries were to be used for express purposes. A daily journey for a camel was about 30 miles, but the dromedaries could go 75. The camels could, upon occasion, for a day or so at a time, carry burdens of 800 to 1,000 pounds. These animals were brought from Cairo and Smyrna in 1855 on the United States vessel Supply, commanded by Lieutenant D. D. Porter, afterwards an Admiral in the United States Navy. He brought back another herd, from Africa, in February, 1856, which was landed at Indianola, Texas.

In the summer of 1856 Lieutenant Beale, U. S. Topographical Engineers, was ordered to open a wagon road from Fort Defiance Arizona, to the eastern frontier of California. A part of the herd of camels was put at his disposal. The journey was "through a wilderness of forest, plain and desert, and occupied forty-eight days, when the Colorado River was reached on October 18th." They passed through what is now a part of the Petrified Forest National Monument soon after September 1, 1857. The route then led south of the San Francisco Peaks and crossed the Colorado River about 125 miles above The Needles.

Lieutenant Beale, reporting on the camels after this trip, said that they saved the members of the party many hardships, and excited the admiration of the whole party by their willingness and ability to perform the tasks set them. They carried water on the desert for the mules; they traversed stretches of country covered with the sharpest volcanic rocks, without injury to their feet; with heavy packs they climbed over mountains where the mules found it difficult to go, even with the assistance of their dismounted drivers; and to the surprise of all the party, the camels plunged into rivers without hesitation and swam them with ease.

What became of the camels? After this expedition they were used in various capacities during the time of the overland stages, but they turned out to be useless, probably because inexperienced men were left to handle them. The true Westerner had no use for the ugly beasts, and the horses and mules had an unconquerable fear of them. Packers and soldiers hated them, and finally, in about 1863, what was left of the camels was turned loose in Arizona and left to make their own living.

In 1876, two Frenchmen rounded up about thirty of the animals which were roaming north of the Salt and Gila Rivers and took them to Nevada for use in the region of the Comstock mines. They were considered such a nuisance that the old Comstock freighters ordered the two Frenchmen to take the camels out of the country. They were then taken to a mining camp in Sonora, Mexico, which was the last seen of this particular herd. As late as 1879, the "Expositor" stated that a great number of camels were running wild on the banks of the Gila in Arizona. In the Prescott Democrat of December 30, 1681, there is a reference to the Arizona camels. It was stated that a capture had been made by the Indians, and a carload of camels passed through on the way East. They were in charge of an Egyptian, Al Zol, who had been sent out expressly to get them, the camels having been purchased for a "trifling sum, the Indians being very anxious to get rid of them as their cattle and horses were greatly frightened."

Of the abilities of the camel and his habits, J. M. Guinn wrote: "He could travel sixteen miles an hour. That was a virtue, but when camp was struck in the evening, and he was turned loose to sup off the succulent sage brush, either to escape the noise and profanity of the camp or to view the country, he was always seized with a desire to take a paseur of 25 or 30 miles before supper. While this took only an hour or so of his time, it involved upon his unfortunate driver the necessity of spending half the night in camel chasing. He could carry a ton - this was a commendeble virtue, but when two ships of the desert collided on a narrow trail, as they always did whenever an opportunity offered, and tons of supplies were scattered over the landscepe and the unfortunate pilots had to gather up the flotsam of the wreck, it is not strange that the mariners of the arid wastes anathematized the whole camel race from the beast the Prophet rode, down to the smallest Imp of Jefferson Davis importation."

Greek George, who accompanied Lieutenant Beale, left Arizona when the Civil War started. He died in California. Hi Jolly made his home in Arizona and died in 1902. He is buried near Salome, Arizona.

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Date: 17-Nov-2005