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Hi Jolly: The Camel Man

When the U.S. Army sent the first survey crews to northern Arizona in 1857 to survey a wagon road along the 35th parallel, it included in the contingent a herd of approximately 30 camels. The dromedaries were the brainchild of then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who believed the camels could solve the Army’s transport problems in the arid Southwest. In 1856, as many as 44 camels were procured from the Middle East along with eight camel drivers. One of the drivers was the fellow in this photograph. His name was Hadji Ali, but soldiers and civilians alike knew him as Hi Jolly. He had signed on at a salary of $15 a month. Tales of gold strikes no doubt lured him, too, and he was eager to come to the U.S. and make his fortune.

He became the lead camel driver on Edward Fitzgerald Beale’s wagon road survey group. Despite some successes, the camel experiment was ultimately a failure. Donkeys, mules and horses were freightened of the much taller and strongly odoriferous animals. Soldiers also complained that the camels were ill-tempered and mean, claiming the animals would wait until the soldiers’ backs were turned and then they would spit on them. In the 1940s, an old prospector said that Hi Jolly told him, “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.”

The camel experiment continued until 1861, when the Civil War turned the attention of the Army to other matters. Some of the animals were sold and others were abandoned. Most of the drivers returned to their homelands, but Hi Jolly stayed on, acquired some of the camels and started a freight business hauling goods from Colorado River ports to mining camps in Mohave and Yuma counties. He also carried cargo from Yuma to Tucson. That business failed, and he released his camels into the desert to fend for themselves. He spent the next dozen years or so working for the military and prospecting for gold.

In 1880, at the age of 52, he became an American citizen, using the name Philip Tedro. That same year he married Gertrudis Serna of Tucson, shown in the photo in her wedding finery. He gave his nationality as Greek, probably because his bride was Catholic and he knew the church would not sanction a marriage to a Muslim.

The couple had two daughters, but in 1889 he deserted his family and returned to prospecting. Ten years later he became ill, came back to Tucson and asked to see Gertrudis and his children. She visited him briefly but refused his bid for a reconciliation. His final years were spent in Quartzsite, supported in part by his friends. He died in the desert in 1902, searching for a wild camel. His body was returned to Quartzsite for burial.

In 1935, the Arizona Highway Department marked his grave with a pyramid-shaped moument of native quartz and petrified wood. A casting of a camel stands atop the monument, and a large steel plaque mounted on one side reads: “Last Camp of Hi Jolly.”

The last wild camel in Arizona was captured in 1946, and the last reported sightings of camels in North American occurred in Baja, California in 1956.

— Jane Eppinga and Jim Turner

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