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Arabs in the Wild West

posted on: Jun 9, 2021

Memorial to Hajji Ali in Quartzite, Arizona Credit: TheWorld

By: Evan Ploeckelman/Arab America Contributing Writer

Some of the earliest Arabs to arrive in the US first surprisingly settled in the “Wild West” of the United States. While these states do not currently have large Arab or Muslim populations, these people have left a lasting impact in these areas.

Early Arabs

Hajji Ali and his wife Credit: Wikipedia

The earliest recorded Arab in the wild west was Hajji Ali, nicknamed “Hi Jolly” due to his cordial nature and the foreign nature of Arabic at that time. Ali was born in 1828 to a Syrian father and a Greek mother. While he was originally Christian, he converted to Islam as a young adult. His presence in the wild west was due to the US military Camel Corps project. Essentially, the US wanted to see if camels would work well in the American Southwest to carry goods and supplies, as they are adapted to living in desert climates. As such, they obtained camels from the Ottoman Empire and brought people over to train the US military on how to handle camels in 1856. Out of these people, Ali was the only Arab. 

The Camel Corps experiment failed, due to both the fear other animals like mules had for camels and the pre-Civil War congress not approving additional funds. After his dischargement in 1870, Ali worked on various freight lines being built in the West. He got married in 1880, had two children, and moved to Quartzite, Arizona. Local Quartzite residents built a memorial for him there, which you can still visit today.

Later Immigration

Many more Arabs, particularly from regions in the former Ottoman Empire such as Syria and Lebanon, came to the US after the Civil War. The Homestead Act of 1862 gave public land to people who were willing to farm on it in the Western US Territories, and many Arabs took advantage of this opportunity. These Arabs were mostly peddlers, selling goods to people who were coming out to the West on foot or on train. Many Arabs also went out West to try their luck in mining and gold panning. By the 1900’s, there were a variety of banks, restaurants, and businesses owned by Arabs.

Ross, ND

Richard Omar, one of the last Arabs in Ross, North Dakota Credit: New York Times

In fact, Arabs who headed West were the first to build mosques in the US. One of the most well known of these imosques can be found in a small North Dakota town with a population of 97 called Ross. Immigrants from Lebanon and Syria originally built the mosque in 1929. The original building fell into disrepair and was torn down in the 1970’s. However, in 2005, one of the last remaining Arab families in the area rebuilt the mosque. The remaining family originated from the village of Bire in the Bekaa valley of Lebanon. The first member of this family to arrive in Ross was Abdullah Ayash, who came after working in the Henry Ford factories for a couple of years. Over time, their family name changed from Ayash to Omar, and he changed his first name from Abdullah to Albert in an attempt to Americanize his name in order to assimilate.

Relations between the Arabs and other Americans were mixed. Many White Americans married Arabs despite religious differences and some even converted to Islam and raised their children with the faith. However, many White Americans considered them to be “Black” as they were very different culturally from them. The US government continued this discrimination in some aspects, especially during World War I. Similar to German, Austrian, and Hungarian Americans, Arabs were prevented from serving in the war on the grounds that they were still loyal to the Ottoman Empire, who the US fought against. This war, just like for the above mentioned groups, forced many Arabs to adopt American culture, such as by changing their names. While they were more accepted after the war, many changes to their culture became permanent.

Modern Arabs in Ross

In Ross, there are no more Arabic speakers. The last one who spoke Arabic regularly and could read the Quran, Sarah Omar Shupe, died in 2004. She was buried in the cemetery adjacent to the mosque. This cemetery is still being used, and due to the influx of residents to the region because of the oil boom, some Muslims are being buried in Ross as well. Most recently, a Muslim from Florida of Ghanian descent was buried there. However, the state of the mosque is in flux, as the last living descendent of Abdullah Ayash, a man by the name of Richard Omar, has no one after him to maintain the mosque and cemetery.

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