Hadji Ali and the U.S. Army Camel Corps
By: Malorie Lewis / Arab America Contributing Writer
Arab and Muslim participation in the United States military dates back as far as the inception of this young nation. Muslim slaves are noted as defending the colonies against Great Britain in the early stages of the Revolution, they participated in the Civil War, and the World Wars carrying on into the present day. One of the more peculiar military projects that involved U.S. and Middle East cooperation was the United States Army Camel Corps.
US ARMY Camel Corps Experiment
In 1855, one of the most creative and successful endeavors for improving land transportation was put into place by then US Secretary of War, Jefferson Finis Davis. He requested a trial basis to experiment with the capabilities of the Camel. He was granted a $30,000 budget, which is around $866,000 in today’s currency. With that budget Major Wayne and Lieutenant Porter, members of the USS Supply, procured 33 camels from Tunisia, Greece, Turkey, Malta, and Egypt.
During research his research, Major Wayne decided that dromedaries were preferable to camels. Dromedaries are the one humped Arabian camels, while the term “camels” referred to the two humped Bactrian camels. The Dromedaries were significantly faster than the Bactrian, while still continuing to carry a significant load. In the end they purchased twenty-one larger Arabian camels for daily use and hauling, nine dromedary camels in order “to chase off Indians” (Jefferson Davis), two Bactrian camels, and one Booghdee hybrid camel with one hump. In order to carry the camels back to the US, LT. Porter had to construct a Camel Deck, because the size of the camels was much larger than the typical horse and mule.
Establishment of the Camel Corps Experiment
In May 1856, 34 camels landed in Indianola, TX, beginning the US Army Camel Corps. As a side note, they were never officially called the US Army Camel Corps, but it’s a name that has caught on and stuck. Continuing on, Texans laughed at the idea of a camel being capable of carrying more than a mule or horse. However, they proved their worth by carrying a load of four hay bales which is around 1,256 lbs. It stood up and carried the load with no issues.
On top of the amazing carrying capabilities of these animals, they also were sustained on local vegetation. Vegetation that no other animals would consume. While they ate from the land, they also carried food and water supplies for the mules and horses. Altogether, the Camel Corps was 75 animals strong, and its home base was eventually established at Camp Verde, Texas, 60 miles north of San Antonio.
Testing and Experimentation
The most amazing feat that occurred during the testing was when the camels were used to travel 1200 miles to Fort Tejon in California. As the group of camels, mules, horses, and men approached the Colorado River, many believed the camels could not swim. It was merely a rumor, as the beasts crossed without any difficulty. However, several mules and horses drowned in the attempt to cross the river.
Hadji Ali or “Hi Jolly”
Along with the camels, the pair also hired five Arab and Turk men to help teach the Americans how to properly handle, care for, and ride the beasts of burden. Here enters Hadji Ali, or as the Americans called him “Hi Jolly”, whose real name was Phillip Tedro. Following his completion of the Hajj, he changed his name to Hadji Ali.
Pejorative Term: Hadji
Another interesting point, as many might know the term Hadji has become a pejorative term for Muslim used by many in the Military. The joke is on them though, as this title is actually revered and given to those who have completed the Hajj. The Hajj, being the sacred pilgrimage that is required of all capable Muslims and one of the five pillars of Islam. The pejorative meaning actually came from Johnny Quest in the 60’s. Check that out here if you are interested!
Hadji Ali’s Military Service
Continuing on… Hadji Ali, one of the most beloved characters in early Arizona Territory history, worked as a camel breeder and trainer. He served with the French Army in Algiers before signing on as a camel driver for the US Army. In 1856, he signed on with the US Army and headed for America. On an interesting side note, the French also had an Army Camel Corps. Predominantly used in the colonization of Algeria unsurprisingly.
Hadji Ali worked with the US Army until the end of the experiment which coincided with the Civil War’s beginning. With the split occurring between the Union and the Confederacy, it became less of a priority. Then, with the introduction of the railroad, caravans in general became obsolete by 1881. The US Army was ordered to auction the remaining camels. Hadji Ali purchased a few in fact! Those that did not sell were left to fend for themselves in the wild leading to folklore in the South.
The Life of Hadji Ali
Ali remained in the United States and eventually became a U.S. citizen in 1880, reverting to his birth name Philip Tedro. He married and had children, but unfortunately they became estranged. Ali would continue working with the US postal system, working doing side jobs, and with the US Army throughout his life. He worked as a scout and mule packer for the army and participated in the campaign against Apache chief Geronimo. The business ultimately failed due to the changing times and the appearance of the railroad.
Pop Culture and Memorialization
Unfortunately, Ali died in December 1902, poor and alone. His legend lives on through myths and tales in the south. Ali is memorialized in a 1962 folk song, at least two Hollywood Movies, a Turkish Documentary, and he appeared as a character in a 1957 show “Death Valley Days.”
More interestingly, he appears in ghost stories similar to that of the headless horseman as late as the 1960’s. By the 1890’s, camel ghost stories had become well established in folklore of the desert Southwest. One interesting tale was the Legend of the Red Ghost, you can learn more here.
His biggest memorial is the 1935, stone memorial shaped like a pyramid with a silhouetted camel mounted on top in the center of Quartzsite cemetery. It is now a big tourist attraction and historical marker in the little town of Quartzsite.
If you find yourself in Arizona, you can check this memorial out! Today the spirit of Hi Jolly and the US Army’s camel corps lives most vividly on a small farm near Waco, Texas. The place is not far from the original Camp Verde. Doug Baum, founder of the modern-day Texas Camel Corps, keeps nine camels that he trots into regional educational programs and reenactment scenes. This is one interesting tale of a Syrian Immigrant who came to the U.S. and became a frontiersman, a veteran, and a local legend.
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