Camels were frequent visitors to Yuma when our town was young. The Sentinel newspaper reported on March 17, 1877, that a herd was camped across the river from Yuma.
Two Frenchmen were the owners. They brought the beasts down from Nevada, where they had been used in the freighting business.
Why Yuma instead of Nevada? Freighters didn't like the desert critters. Mules were frightened by them and became unruly when the camels were near.
The newspaper gave no information about what became of that herd. Most likely, they were turned loose to fend for themselves. Two months later, a camel strayed into town. A year later, camels were reported running loose along the Gila River.
The newspaper indicates that wild camels had become a problem by 1879. On Feb. 1, it suggested that camel herds were in danger of extermination. They frightened horses and mules on the wagon roads. Teamsters shot them on sight rather than risk losing control of their teams.
You may wonder how camels got to Arizona in the first place. They aren't native to North America.
Jefferson Davis, who later became president of the Confederate States of America, was partly responsible. As secretary of war in 1855, he thought the animals could solve transportation problems in the Southwest.
It was a reasonable idea. Camels had been used in the Middle East for several thousand years.
Congress believed it worth a try. They appropriated $30,000 in 1855 to purchase the animals. Maj. Henry Wayne, an Army officer, was sent to Lebanon to buy camels. Thirty of the creatures and several camel drivers landed at Indianola, Texas, in May of 1856.
One of the camel drivers was known as “Greek George.” The other was Hadji Ali, the famous “Hi Jolly” of Arizona fame. He lies buried beneath a pyramid-shaped monument at Quartzsite. An inscription on the tomb names it as the “Last resting place of Hi Jolly.”
Significantly, the ashes of the last known member of the Arizona camel herd is in the same grave. “Topsy” died in a Los Angeles zoo in 1934.
The first important use of the camels in Arizona was in building a road across northern Arizona. Navy Lt. Edward Beale was given orders to construct it. The route was to run from Fort Defiance near the New Mexico border to the Colorado River, ending in present-day Needles.
Beale surveyed the route in 1857 and early 1858, using camels to carry supplies. He thought the experiment a success. In his diary, Beale wrote, “I have tested the value of camels, marked a new road to the Pacific and traveled 4,000 miles without an accident.”
Most of the road was built the following year. Again, camels were used. In spite of Beale's enthusiasm for the beasts, the experiment wasn't entirely successful.
Soldiers despised camels. Hardly anyone could handle them except Arabs. Pack train animals panicked when camels approached.
When the road was completed, the camels were taken to Fort Tejon, Calif. Gradually, the Army disposed of them. Some ended up in circuses. Others were purchased by people who used them to haul mining supplies.
The first camels seen in Yuma were from the herd at Fort Tejon. A Californian, Sam McLeneghan, bought some in 1864. He tried using them to carry mining supplies in Nevada. Mules were so frightened by the strange creatures that teamsters said they would kill McLeneghan if he didn't take his herd elsewhere.
McLeneghan brought them here in 1865 after hiring Hi Jolly and Greek George as drivers. He thought he could sell them in Yuma. Shortly after reaching town, McLeneghan died.
The death of their employer left Greek George and Hi Jolly stranded. They abandoned the animals.
One other camel herd reached Yuma in 1872. Its owner was Frank Laumeister, who had used them to carry mining supplies in British Columbia. Why he brought them to Yuma isn't known. That herd was eventually taken to Carson City, Nev.
Many tales about Hi Jolly and his camels still circulate. One claims that a German group held a picnic in Los Angeles and failed to invite Hi Jolly.
To get even, he hitched two of his camels to a cart. They were driven through the picnic grounds. The Germans' horses were tied nearby.
A riot followed. When it ended, wienerwurst was scattered far and wide, tables were overturned, and the participants spent hours searching for their horses, which broke loose and bolted for the boondocks when the camels approached.