When a man joins the military, he might expect to encounter circumstances which demand great feats of heroism and bravery. Back in the rugged days of the early 1850's, Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale (A main street in Kingman, AZ is named after him) and Major Henry Wayne were two soldiers who certainly anticipated such encounters. Instead what the military gave them was camels.
This is a story of a little-known footnote in history when the United States Army was faced with a perplexing problem. The military wanted to develop a supply route through the Southwest from Texas to California. But the land had scant water and little grass, and crossing the arid desert with mules and horses proved too difficult. What animal, what beast of burden could rapidly, with little water and food, carry large loads over this cast desert area?
In 1855, Jefferson Davis, the head of the War Department, was told by Congress to try a daring new idea. The plan was to import camels to the United States and use them for desert travel. Since camels were so successful in Egypt, Arabia and Turkey, thought government strategists, surely they could also be used in the deserts of the Southwest. Thirty thousand dollars were appropriated for the project and in 1856 Major Henry Wayne was assigned the task of purchasing camels for the United States. Uncle Sam was in the camel business.
Now, not everyone thought that buying camels for the Army was such a wonderful idea. "Sounds like a hump-dinger of an idea to me," said one witty observer. "Those boys in Washington must have humps on the brain," quipped another. Most folks simply shook their heads in disbelief. Camels, those funny looking humped things you saw in circuses! Could they keep up with horses? Could they carry as much as a mule? Would they need fancy foreign foods to eat? Would they work? The War Department was determined to find out.
Major Wayne's orders were simple. First, learn all you can about camels, then go to the Middle East and buy the best stock available.
The first place Major Wayne visited was the London Zoo in England. There he learned how camels adapted to living in captivity. Then he went to France and met with French soldiers who had used camels in North Africa. They told him how camels could be used for travel in harsh terrain. Next, he went off to Florence and Pisa, in Italy, where camels were bred by the royal Dukes of Tuscany. There he was shown that camels were tough beasts of burden who could easily adapt to extreme variations in climate.
When he finally reached the Middle East and started to buy camels, he discovered that most of his learning came from working with the animals themselves. Slick operators tried to sell him diseased, miserable old street-camels at outrageous prices. By necessity, Major Wayne had to learn a lot about camels very quickly and the more he learned, the more excited he became. Not only would camels solve the Army's problem but here was a wonderful new money-making opportunity for people in the United States.
He could see it all. Camels to carry thousands of pounds over arid desert lands. Camels to backpack cotton for Southern plantations. Camels to swiftly follow attaching Indians. Move over mules and horses; camels are going to revolutionize the American way of life!
The next challenge for Major Wayne was to get the camels to the United States. A Navy ship had been commissioned for the job, but getting a thirty-three camels on board wasn't easy. The big dromedaries didn't take kindly to being pushed and shoved into strange places. The deck of the ship actually had to be cut away to provide enough head and hump room for them.
In spite of these difficulties and the Navy personnel's lack of experience, the camels arrived safely in Texas. In fact, a few births had even taken place during the voyage. Now the project was turned over to Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale. His assignment was to take the camels across the area now known as Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, and on to California through rough terrain and uncharted areas. If the camels could make it successfully, then a series of army posts would be established to relay mail and supplies across the Southwest.
At first things did not go well for Lieutenant Beale. His men did not know how to handle the exotic beasts and the camels were out of shape from their long confinement on board ship. But with the help of two handlers hired for the purpose, the Americans soon began to learn. The handlers were Greek George and a man from Turkey named Hadji Ali. Hadji's name was much too complicated for the Americans to pronounce and he soon became known as "Hi Jolly" a name that was to stay with him for the next 50 years.
When Lieutenant Beale first accepted his assignment, he did so with a degree of good-nurtured humor. What else could he do about the situation in which he found himself? But as the journey progressed across the Southwest, his amusement soon changed to avid enthusiasm.
Camels were docile. Each could carry over a thousand pounds and travel forty miles a day without tiring. They ate anything available and seemed content with grease wood shrubs and cactus, plants that no horse of mule would touch. They could also go for days without water and even ended up carrying water and food for the miles and horses when such items became scarce. They could travel faster than horse, swim swollen rivers, climb mountains and survive in conditions of two or three feet of snow. Everywhere Beale went people crowded around his dromedaries, fascinated. He became convinced that camels were the animal answer for the Southwest.