Excerpt from Valley 101: A Slightly Skewed Guide to Living in Arizona, a collection of Clay Thompson’s columns for The Arizona Republic. (Originally published October 7, 2001.)
Q: We just moved here from the Midwest. My son came home from his new school the other day and said there are wild camels living in the desert. Is this true?
A: Your son is no doubt a charming lad, but he needs to pay closer attention in class if he hopes to live up to Arizona’s exacting education standards, standards that have won us the sobriquet of the “Mississippi of the West.”
Before the railroads came to the state, Jefferson Davis, then the Secretary of War, took it in his head that the answer to transportation problems in the region was camels. Subsequently, buyers were dispatched to the Mideast, and in 1856, the first of the beasts arrived in the Southwest.
Davis was correct. The camels were ideally suited for the Arizona desert, especially after Arab camel drivers were imported to handle them.
The best known of these was one Hadji Ali, who became known as Hi Jolly. Unlike many of his colleagues, Hadji Ali remained in the United States until his death in 1902. In a cemetery in Quartzsite there is a pyramid-shaped monument, topped by a camel, in his honor.
The camels, as noted above, were a success. Army surveying teams, freight haulers and others in need of beasts of burden found that camels could carry more weight farther than any mule and could live off what little vegetation grew on those arid grounds.
However, with the advent of the Civil War, the camel project was discontinued. Some of the beasts were sold to mining interests, but many were simply turned loose in the desert. It is not known for how many years these feral camels survived, but it was long enough to earn a page in Arizona history.