In the early 1880s, strange sightings of mysterious beasts began to circulate in the American West. The creatures were huge. They had humps and massive cloven feet. They were elusive but could be heard from afar making strange sounds like roaring moans.
In 1883, the Mohave County Miner newspaper reported sightings by miners and theorized the monstrous creatures were, in fact, ghosts—Red Ghosts—haunting the Eagle Creek area after a gruesome murder of a woman.
Then, other even stranger and more macabre sightings were reported of a monstrous “Red Ghost” in the Verde River Valley with a human skeleton strapped to its back. Weeks later, miners saw the ghost again and tried to shoot it, but it escaped into the hills. The Mohave Country Miner reported breathlessly that the beast had left behind “a human skull with a few shreds of flesh and hair still clinging to it.” The skull had been jarred loose from the monster's grisly cargo, the jangling human skeleton strapped to its hump.
Then Cyrus Hamblin, a respected Salt River rancher reported seeing the same monster, but he recognized the beast as a camel! He had seen camels before, as part of Union cavalry regiment years before.
Indeed, camels had been used by the U.S. cavalry as a long-forgotten experiment thirty years before, and the wild descendants of the discarded dromedaries still roamed the deserts and Plains of the West! The camels were not only an unlikely experiment of the Middle East meets the Wild West, they were the result of one of the most ironic and unlikely political liaisons in history. Eight years before the start of the Civil War, no less than [the future Confederate President] Jefferson Davis, advocated for incorporating camels into the U.S. military to develop the Western territories!
In 1853, Davis was U.S. Secretary of State under President Franklin Pierce. (Pierce would die only several years later of cirrhosis of the liver.) Davis faced a challenge of opening routes and forts in the western frontier, but the killing heat of desert areas and long stretches with little or no water cost the military dearly in dead horses and mules, as well as unfulfilled missions.
Davis had the idea of bringing camels to the continent to be used in the cavalry and for exploration and development of the West. The novel idea did not originate with him. During the Mexican War, Davis met Major George Grossman, a veteran of the Seminole War in Florida, who had first conceived the idea of using camels for military transport way back in 1836. The major had grown up with storied tales of camels in the Middle East traveling for days across scorching deserts without water. He had also read reports of Napoleon’s victorious Egyptian campaign utilizing camels.
In 1853, Davis submitted a report to Congress recommending the introduction “of a sufficient number of both varieties of this animal to test its value and adaptation to our country and our service.” Davis extolled the legendary toughness and utility of camels and cited Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, noting that the Arabs Napoleon had battled were not unlike the American Indians of the Southwest. In 1855, Congress granted Davis a $30,000 appropriation for his grand camel experiment.
Davis ordered Major Henry Wayne, of the Quartermaster Department and U.S. Navy Lieutenant David Porter (who would later become a Union Admiral in the Civil War) to sail to Constantinople to secure some camels for the U.S. military. He warned them that the Crimean War at the time might force them to go to Syria instead. “It is believed that the best breed of camels is to be found in Persia,” Davis wrote Porter. Davis ordered the officers to buy both two-humped and one-humped dromedaries.
Wayne and Porter landed with a shipment of camels at Indianola, Texas, on May 14, 1856. They had prudently secured the services of three Egyptians as camel attendants and two Turks from Smyrna as saddle makers to serve his camel corps. They also hired two remarkable individuals who would prove crucial to the camel experiment: Hadji Ali and George Caralambo. They were hired for six months at $15 per month. On the American frontier, no one could pronounce their names, so they were called Hi Jolly and Greek George.
Jefferson Davis wrote to Wayne and Porter: “The object is at present to ascertain whether the animal is adapted to the military service and can be economically and usefully employed. When this is satisfactorily established, arrangements can be made for importing and breeding camels to any extent that may be deemed desirable.”
On June 25, 1859, the first major camel expedition headed west from San Antonio to New Mexico Territory. The caravan consisted of 10 wagons, 25 camels (46 camels were left behind) and a bright red military ambulance wagon. The commander, Ned Beale, had unwisely refused to paid the Arab camel handlers for their previous services and they refused to join the expedition. The American military men did not know how to properly care for or pack the camels, resulting in lost cargo, delays and pack-sore animals.
Nevertheless, Beale was immensely impressed by the camels and noted: “they could travel continuously in a country where no other barefooted beast could last a week.” He felt them far superior to his mules. Ten days later the caravan drew supplies at Fort Bliss, and Beale found that the “Turks” from Camp Verde had hurried ahead to El Paso to join his expedition, among them Greek George and Hi Jolly.
Beale’s command wended its way north up the Rio Grande to Albuquerque, along the way, townspeople gathering gawking at the huge, spectacular beasts they had never seen before.
Beale rode his white camel, named Seid, and they made their way north to Santa Fe and beyond to Fort Defiance. On October 17, they reached the Colorado River where they traded watermelons, pumpkins and cantaloupes with the local Mohave Indians. As they crossed the rushing and dangerous Colorado River, they lost two horses and 10 mules, but all the camels easily swam the river.
After completing his journey, Beale wrote: “A year in the wilderness ended! During this time I have conducted my party from the Gulf of Mexico to the shores of the Pacific Ocean, and back again to the eastern terminus of the road, through a country for a great part entirely unknown, and inhabited by hostile Indians, without the loss of man. I have tested the value of the camels, marked a new road to the Pacific, and traveled 4,000 miles without an accident.”
Others sang the praises of the camels but all, it seemed, were wasting their ink, for powerful forces in the military were prejudiced against camels. Chief among them was General David Twiggs, the Army commander in Texas who would soon become infamous for treason against the Union when the War began. He scoffed at the idea of camels in the military. So, too, did many army officers in California, who complained they ate too much.
In 1860, Captain Winfield Scott Hancock experimented with camels as a sort of “camel express” and assigned Hi Jolly to carry dispatches from Los Angeles to Fort Mohave on the Colorado River. But two camels died of exhaustion. They were built for distance, not for speed.
The fortunes of the camels and the “Turks,” Hi Jolly and Greek George took a turn for the worse. Both men were dropped from the military payroll, once the camel experiment came to a screeching halt. And Seid, Beale’s favorite white camel, fought with Hi Jolly’s male camel, Tuili, during rut season and was killed by a crushing kick to the head. Seid’s bones were sent to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D. C., where he found his ignoble end in some wooden storage drawer.
The California dromedaries were sold throughout the West, some of them making it as far north as British Columbia. Many ended up in grueling labor of mining operations. When the War began, many camels were simply released to the wild. In Texas, Confederates captured 80 camels and two Egyptian camel drivers in 1861 at Camp Verde. But not knowing what to do with the strange beasts, simply released them.
One Mississippi regiment did adopt a camel as their mascot and named him “Douglas.” (See last photo montage.) He traveled with them all the way to Vicksburg, where he was finally killed by a Union sharpshooter.
Most camels wandered into the wilderness and lived free and populated the West. In 1875, a camel was sighted near Bandera, Texas, and an old cavalryman from Camp Verde captured it for a pet. In 1885, a young Douglas MacArthur—later to become General MacArthur of World War I and World War II fame, saw a camel brought in by hunters in Fort Seldon, New Mexico Territory. The “Red Ghosts” were still being sighted in 1901 at the U.S.-Mexican border, and in 1913 by the Santa Fe Railroad crew near Wickenburg, Arizona. The last sightings were in Arizona at a waterhole near Ajo in 1931 and a camel in western Texas in 1941.
The Syrian camel driver nicknamed Hi Jolly served the U.S. military for more than 30 years, including working for Brigadier General George Crook as a packer on the Geronimo campaign in 1885. Later, he moved to the desolate area of Quartzsite, where he survived mostly on the kindness of old prospectors. He died in Quartzsite in 1902, but his legacy and that of his camels was not lost to oblivion. In 1935, Arizona honored him by building a memorial above his grave with a metal statue of a camel atop the pyramid-shaped tombstone and an iron plaque commemorating the amazing accomplishments of him and his camels.
There is another fantastic irony to this tale: most Americans associate the camel with the Middle East, where they have been legendary desert creatures and served human endeavor for thousands of years. But the truth is that camels actually originated in North America 45 million years ago! Between 3-5 million years ago, they crossed the Bering land mass (between Alaska and Russia) to Eurasia, then migrated south to hotter lands.
The humped "Red Ghosts" of the West had finally come home to their ancient origin. Their quixotic journey brought them to North America to “tame” America’s frontier. But, ultimately, they were left to “re-wild” the West...
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