- The Washington Times - Friday, October 17, 2003

In southwestern Texas, alongside the numerous Hispanic place names, are a county, a mountain range and a pre-Civil War fort all bearing the name of Davis.

Fort Davis in Davis County, the long-lived legacy for a short-lived Confederate president, is a National Historic Site under the auspices of the National Park Service. It was at that place some 20 years before the war that an unusual project began — the start of the U.S. Camel Corps, originated by Jefferson Davis.

The fort was established in 1854 amid the westward migration at the close of the war with Mexico as well as the continued swarming to the California gold fields. Re-established as an Army post 13 years later, it finally was abandoned in 1891. The fort saw its most interesting phase in this brief history when camels came to the green valley of the Limpia, the creek that runs to the Pecos River basin, once traversed by early Spanish explorers.

The area, higher in altitude than most of the Lone Star State, is extremely dry. It rains barely enough to permit any sort of farming and cattle raising unless assisted by irrigation. It was hard country for the horses and mules upon which the Army depended, and mortality ran high.

Rough beginnings

Two men originated the camel idea. George Perkins Marsh, a former ambassador to Turkey, was acquainted with the animals’ efficiency, and he discussed it with Army 2nd Lt. George H. Crosman, who agreed that the solution to overland transportation problems lay in the “ship of the desert.” No one in authority agreed, however — except Maj. Henry C. Wayne of the Quartermaster Corps, who passed on the idea to Davis, then a senator from Mississippi.

Davis liked the idea, and as chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Military Affairs, he proposed it several times but met with little support. In 1852, Davis was appointed secretary of war, which gave him the chance to foster the idea of using camels for freight transportation in areas inhospitable to horses. It took three years for him to persuade Congress to appropriate $30,000 for the project, which was kept relatively quiet and received little press attention.

Sailing on the USS Supply with Lt. David Dixon Porter in charge, the camel procurers set out on June 3, 1855. Wayne, who had suggested the idea in 1848, was directly charged with finding and bringing the beasts home.

The first stop was Tunis, where the officers quickly discovered that their cavalry knowledge did not include understanding about camels. They found it difficult, for instance, to discern a healthy animal from a sick one. Nor was it a propitious time to purchase camels. With the Crimean War in full swing, most were working there. Again in Malta, Greece and Turkey they found no healthy animals.

When they reached Egypt, decent camels finally were found at an average cost of $250 each. After negotiations (and bribes), the regulations prohibiting exportation were circumvented, and 33 camels and five camel drovers were loaded on board for the two-month trip to Indianola, Texas.

The ship had been fitted to accommodate the large animals. Heavy gale winds and storms required that they be tied down on their knees to protect them from injury, and because the procurement occurred during rutting season, the camels of both sexes were easily annoyed and intractable. An additional 41 would arrive after a second crossing.

Worth proved quickly

In Texas, Lt. Edward F. Beale took over. The camels were allowed to rest from their arduous journey and were used only sporadically before being taken to their permanent base at Camp Verde, 60 miles west of San Antonio. The main drover was a 27-year-old Syrian named Hadji Ali, whose name proved unmanageable for the locals, and he became known as “Hi Jolly.” Upon arrival at Camp Verde, the camels were welcomed by all, and one woman sent President Franklin Pierce a pair of socks “knitted from the pile of our camels.”

The animals quickly proved their worth. Beale made a trial trip in June 1857 to survey unexplored land between El Paso and the Colorado River. He took 25 camels, 44 soldiers, two drovers, including Hi Jolly, and some mules and horses. The camels were able to cover almost 40 miles each day and to go 10 days without water. They carried 600 to 800 pounds each, four times that of a pack mule, and although the horses at first were faster than the camels, in a few days the camels became accustomed and then easily outlasted the horses.

The camels’ uncanny instinct to find water became evident when the whole train became lost and the water supply dwindled. Horses and mules were exhausted and becoming dehydrated. Still doing fine, the camels found a river 20 miles from camp and led the group to it. Some said they seemed to stand by haughtily as the men, mules and horses all quickly filled themselves.

Beasts of burden

As Beale watched the camels swim across the Colorado and plow through 3 feet of snow, they thought the success of the journey could pave the way for a series of Army outposts throughout the Southwest Territory to enable the expeditious transport of mail and materiel where mules and horses were unlikely carriers.

A magazine article by Chuck Woodbury quotes Beale as saying, “The harder the test [the camels] are put to, the more fully they seem to justify all that can be said of them. 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.”

As one drover said, “Camels would get fat where a jackass would starve to death.” Beale later became a general and continued to use what he considered the “economical and noble brute” to transport supplies from Los Angeles to his base at Fort Tejon, Calif.

There was a downside to using camels, however. Cloven-hoofed animals accustomed to sand had to negotiate the rocky terrain of the West. Hi Jolly wrapped their soft feet in burlap and later fashioned special shoes to try to solve the problem, but rocks still worked between the massive toes and caused pain to the sturdy beasts.

They were a frightening sight to the indigenous mules and burros, and even the Army mules showed disapproval. Humans disliked the odor as well as the behavioral problems, such as spitting. One soldier attributed to the expectorating beast the “accuracy of a Kentucky rifle.”

Seeking familiar terrain

In 1940, an old prospector named Henry Keiser was interviewed and explained the problem with camels: “They scared hell out of every varmint that sighted ‘em and they caused plenty of trouble.”

Keiser added: “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.”

Nevertheless, in 1858, then-Secretary of War John Floyd reported to Congress on the positive aspects: “The entire adaptation of camels to military operations on the Plains may now be taken as demonstrated.” Wayne also implored that the project be continued, citing its success.

The Civil War loomed, however, and Congress failed to grant approval. The Camel Corps would march (or lumber) into history. When the fort was overrun by the Confederates, the camels were left, and they received little or no care for the next few years. They eventually were auctioned or sold, most bringing no more than $30. Some simply wandered off and frequently were shot by prospectors.

Jolly’s legend survives

Hi Jolly became a scout for the Army and started a freight-carrying business, turning loose his last camel when the enterprise failed. He married and had two daughters but abandoned the family and roamed the hills prospecting. He had become a naturalized citizen in 1880.

Although he had served 30 years as scout, drover, herder and packer, he was declared ineligible for any pension because he had never actually “enlisted.”

The Syrian drover died penniless on Dec. 16, 1902, at age 74.

He is buried in Quartzsite Cemetery in Quartzsite, Ariz., where the state Department of Highways finally replaced a flimsy wood marker with a pyramid stone monument that rises majestically and is topped off by a copper camel. The last known survivor of the herd, Topsy, is buried with him. She died in the Los Angeles zoo in 1934, the year the monument was erected.

According to legends that survive him, the old drover perished when he went out into the desert to find a wild camel. When his body was found, he had one arm wrapped around the neck of the dead beast of burden. Each year the residents of Quartzsite celebrate Camel Daze, and camels do appear in the area annually — when a few are brought in to participate in a Christmas Nativity scene.

The fate of the Camel Corps was best described by an unknown writer: “Poor camels, far from their natural habitat and not welcome except as harmless denizens of the range!

“Their strange odor and appearance stampeded all other animals on the road; their ungainly form did not lend itself to the cinches of the diamond hitch; the professional packer had little patience, nor did he pause at regular intervals to kneel and pray, as does the Turk or Mohammedan. The place for the camel in our literature of the Inland Empire is the so-called historical novel.”

Martha M. Boltz is a writer who lives in Vienna.

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