When the going gets rough, the camels get going.
That’s how the U.S. Army Camel Corps operated for about 20 years up until the 1870s, using the humpback natives of Africa as pack animals in the arid Southwestern deserts.
Hadji Ali, nicknamed Hi Jolly, earned a chapter in Arizona history as one of the camel drivers for the Corps, and will be the subject of Sounds of Kingman’s “Our Time, Our History” series at 2 p.m. Saturday at Mohave County Museum of History and Arts, 400 W. Beale St.
The program, “Hi Jolly and the Mystery of the U.S. Army Camel Corp,” is free to the public, funded by Arizona Humanities and Hill Development, and features historian Casey Davis telling the fascinating and true exploits of Hadji’s life and times. The camel driver’s gravesite is located in Quartzite.
“People willing to share an hour or so of their time for the presentation will enjoy an interesting expedition into a little-known act in the larger play of American history,” Davis said from his home in Mesa.
Sounds of Kingman chose the Camel Corps for its history presentation because it would be a good fit and had local relevancy to Lt. Beale’s trek through Kingman and the Southwest, said Janis Duke, publicist for the nonprofit arts and culture organization.
The U.S. Army Camel Corps and the camels themselves played a significant role in settling the Southwestern territories.
Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War at the time, was keen on the idea of opening up the Southwest as it had been recently acquired from Mexico during the Mexican-American War.
Naval officers shared with Davis how they had witnessed the success of camels hauling and patrolling in the Middle East during ports of call.
Davis was anxious to settle the Southwest, and the West as a whole, in hopes of expanding slavery west of the Mississippi River. By bringing new slave states into the Union, they would have greater leverage in Washington, D.C.
Arizona was deemed the de facto halfway point between two primary posts of the Camel Corps, one in Indianola, Texas, where the camels were brought to America, and the other in Fort Tejon, California.
“The primary purpose of the U.S. Army Camel Corps was to experiment in hopes of creating a mobile, long-ranging corps of the U.S. Army, a mixture of cavalry and dragoons, to patrol and respond in the Southwest, which was not closely tied to supply posts,” said Casey Davis, who earned an online Master’s degree in U.S. history from American Public University.
While the camels were mostly used in these “experiments,” they were called into service during the Mormon War, and even battled groups belonging to the Mohave tribe of Native Americans.
The camels, both Bactrian and Arabian species, were purchased in Cairo, Egypt, Davis said. The USS Supply, a naval vessel on loan to the U.S. Army, sailed throughout the Mediterranean Sea observing local, as well as British militaries, and their use of camels.
“Along with the camels, experienced camel drivers and tenders were hired,” Davis said. “This is where Hi Jolly, or Haj Ali, comes into the picture.”
It would seem logical that the camels would thrive and flourish in our region. However, their physiology was not ideally suited to the geography of the American Southwest desert, and the experiment failed.
Originally from Texas, Davis is passionate about American history, particularly in the Southwest. He focuses on overlooked, unknown and unrepresented history.
“Rather than explaining history, I attempt to share it in stories,” he said. “During my years as a teacher, I found stories (to be) one of the most powerful tools available for sharing knowledge.”
He fills his presentation with photos, maps and other visuals, although photos from the time are not of the best quality. He presented the Camel Corps story a few months ago in Lake Havasu City.
Davis said he’s never been to Kingman and is looking forward to the experience.
“I actually love living in Arizona. I never thought that I would find a place to live which would occupy as special of a place in my heart as Texas did. The desert is a special place for me.”
Davis has previously presented programs for Arizona Humanities, including stories about Annie Oakley, the St. Patrick’s Battalion and science and humanities.