Did Camels Ever Roam Wild in Arizona?
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.”
At one time, many years ago, there were indeed camels roaming the deserts of Arizona.
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.
Veri interesting. It makes alot of sense. Perfect place for camels. Are mules now more desirable for certain terrain.
Shortly before the fire that destroyed the main building at Castle Hot Springs, in 1976, I talked to an employee on the property. Castle Hot Springs is an historic resort located in the Hieroglyphic Mountains northwest of Lake Pleasant. At the time, it was closed, but everything was freshly painted and manicured. It was wonderful to emerge from the ragged and rugged surrounding desert to see wide swaths of green lawn and stately palm trees. The point (I do have one) is that the employee said there was a small number of camels living wild in some of the rugged areas around the hotel, and maintained that he had seen them himself while hiking in the mountains. He did not mention how sober may have been at the time….
After the fire, Castle Hot Springs was given to Arizona State University, which used it as a retreat or conference center for several years, before selling it in the late 1980s. It’s had a few different owners since then and is now closed. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Here’s an additional bit of info: Up until about 8,000 years ago, native camels DID roam Arizona. They died off with a wave of mammalian die-offs around that time, when our planet began to warm at the end of our last ice age (has it really ended yet?). So although the “modern” camels you mention came long afterward, Arizonans can proudly say that yes, Arizona did at one time have native camels – humans probably interacted with them in some way, too, since North America was populated before they died out.
Always pay my respect to Hi Jolly…Just recently in fact. There’s a grave there that reads: I’ve soared through the clouds as a skydiver..I’ve scuba dived to the bottom of the sea…. I’ve toured our land in an old Dodge van…And the only thing I couldn’t find was me……
I live in Arizona, in the Phoenix area. The camels are still here. At least they were about a decade ago. I’ve seen them with my own eyes.