I suspect Mary Shirkey would have enjoyed meeting Doug Baum, founder of the Texas Camel Corps. Clearly, she would have enjoyed meeting Doug’s sidekick, Gobi: especially if they met during the camel’s seasonal shedding, when Gobi’s fine, undercoat hair could be collected.
Mrs. Shirkey seems to have had entrepreneurial tendencies, combined with a decent amount of chutzpah. In a letter written to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis from San Antonio on August 12, 1856, Henry Wayne, the U.S. Army Major charged with overseeing Davis’s Great Camel Experiment, described the results of his encounter with Mrs. Shirkey as the camels traveled from Indianola to Camp Verde.
MY DEAR SIR: I have the honor to enclose herewith a pair of socks knit for [President Pierce] by Mrs. Mary A. Shirkey, of Victoria, Texas (lately of Virginia) from the pile of one of our camels.
In her letter to me accompanying the socks, Mrs. Shirkey says: “I have been much longer preparing the socks than I thought I should be when you left my house. I knit one, and found it too coarse. I then spun some finer, and knit the pair I have sent you.”
“If I had the machinery, I could have made you a better specimen of what the camel’s wool could do in Texas. I have spun the first thread and made the first article of clothing out of the wool in this country….”
The fleece from which these socks were knit consisted of the loose dead hair of the past year that I had clipped off on the 9th of June, to relieve the animal of its weight and heat. The fact of its being dead (not living) hair may have, perhaps, some influence upon the softness of the fabric woven from it.
The socks, at any rate, demonstrate the practical utility of the camel’s pile, and convey an idea of its probable value, should the animal live and thrive among us.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
HENRY C. WAYNE, Major, U.S. Army
For a generation after, when South Texans were asked about memorable events in their lives, even those who received no socks joined Mrs. Shirkey in remembering “when the herd of camels came into view and passed by my house.” Wherever Major Wayne and his entourage camped, people came to see the marvelous beasts: particularly the baby camel, which, as Chris Emmett said, “seemed to be having a very good time exploring in the New World.”
But the camels weren’t meant to provide socks and circuses. After a second group of animals arrived at Indianola and made their way to Camp Verde, expeditions into the desert southwest were begun to test their endurance and suitability for military service.
The first major expedition, led by the same E.F. Beale whose earlier travels helped bring camels to America, stretched from Fort Defiance in western New Mexico to Fort Tejon, California, just north of Los Angeles. The route he surveyed, known initially as the 35th Parallel Wagon Road, today is celebrated in song and story as part of Route 66.
Beale expedition, Camp Verde, Texas to Tejon Pass, California, 1857-1858
(Map by W.D. Smithers. Click image to enlarge.)
After experiencing the trip with about two dozen Camp Verde camels, Beale sang their praises as pack-animals, even though he occasionally could be less sanguine about their habits and personalities:
They are the most docile, patient and easily managed creatures in the world, and infinitely more easily worked than mules. From personal observation of the camels I would rather undertake the management of twenty of them than of five mules.
We had them on this journey sometimes for twenty-six hours without water, exposed to a great degree of heat, the mercury standing at one hundred and four degrees, and when they came to water they seemed to be almost indifferent to it. Not all drank, and those that did, not with the famished eagerness of other animals when deprived of water for the same length of time.
Lieutenants Edward Hartz and William Echols of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, in their survey of the Trans-Pecos in 1859, confirmed Beale’s report that “[camels] will get fat where a jackass would starve to death.” Heading west from Fort Stockton into the Chihuahuan Desert, they provisioned for the horses and mules, but allowed the camels to fend for themselves. Writing for Texas Highways, Michael Marks notes that:
The camels seemed content to gnaw on the ocotillo, creosote, prickly pear, and catclaw they found along the trail. And although they hauled barrels of water for the expedition’s other mammals, the camels themselves usually only drank when they came across a stream or a creek.
Alexander Sweet and J. Armoy Knox, travelers who recorded their own impressions of Texas in a volume titled On A Mexican Mustang Through Texas, From the Gulf to the Rio Grande, added a humorous observation regarding the camels’ diet:
The Texas camel is a voracious feeder. His principal food is the prickly leaves of the cactus and the beans of the mesquite tree; but he does not confine himself altogether to a vegetable diet.
When opportunity offers, he will reach up after the glass insulators of a lightning rod or telegraph pole, and conceal them in his commissary, or he will stand by the hour meekly chewing up a wagon sheet, when he cannot get a chance to eat the well-rope or a wheelbarrow.
Over time, the camels proved their worth as pack animals. Able to bear up to a thousand pounds of cargo, they carried munitions, salt, dry goods, and water for the military; some carried the mail between Tucson and Los Angeles. Aways, they provided entertainment, as this Los Angeles newspaper account from 1858 makes clear:
[Surveyor] General Beale and about fourteen camels stalked into town last Friday week, and gave our streets quite an Oriental aspect. It looks oddly enough to see, outside of a menagerie, a herd of huge, ungainly, awkward but docile animals, move about in our midst, with people riding them like horses.
They bring up weird and far-off associations to the Eastern traveller, whether by book or otherwise, of the lands of the mosque, crescent or turban, of the pilgrim mufti and dervish, with visions of the great shrines of the world, Mecca and Jerusalem, and the toiling throngs that have for centuries wended thither; of the burning sands of Arabia and Sahara, where the desert is boundless as the ocean and the camel is the ship thereof.
A metal sculpture of camels near Borrego Springs, California
Despite the animals’ obvious utility, the Great Camel Experiment eventually began to unravel. The outbreak of the Civil War; the reluctance of the U.S. government to continue a program associated with Jefferson Davis; the capture of the camels by the Confederacy and their subsequent return to the Union; the dislike of soldiers both Union and Confederate for the beasts; the coming of the railroads — all contributed to the program’s demise.
As the Army brought the experiment to an end, some camels were sold at auction. A few were purchased by Beale for his California ranch. Others escaped to wander the countryside, astonishing travelers in the process. Some were used as pack animals in Nevada, carrying salt and hay to the Comstock gold and silver mines before being sent on to Arizona, where they hauled ore from the Silver King mine to Yuma. Eventually, some were turned loose into the desert, near Maricopa Wells.
[After offering] a winning bid of $31.00 a head, he sold some of the camels to a circus for $3,745, and used the proceeds and the remaining camels to start a freight and mail business from San Antonio to Mexico. Local Presbyterian minister Velie C. Ostrum joined him in the enterprise, and though successful for a time, the business eventually failed.
Coopwood found another partner, Dr. M.A. Taylor, who loaned him $10,000 to restart the freight business, but this venture failed too. Coopwood and his camels stayed a familiar sight in San Antonio for many years afterward. Local stories said the he had a favorite camel named “Kitchen,” and that, from time to time, he rode Kitchen the 70 miles from a home in Austin to his San Antonio law office.
Eventually, through a combination of circumstances, Dr. Taylor brought part of the herd to Austin. His daughter, Mrs. Howell Bunton, recalled:
It was during the time that Davis, or afterwards when Coke was governor of Texas — I don’t remember the exact date — that a small herd of camels was brought to Austin by my father, Dr. M. A. Taylor, and kept for a while on vacant lots adjoining our home…
In the herd that my father acquired was a very gentle camel. I remember “Old Kate,” as she was called. She was the joy of every child in the city. Every day, crowds of them would congregate on the vacant lots and their screams of laughter could be heard for blocks as they safely rode on her back.
The keeper was a very kind man and fond of children, and he seemed to get much pleasure out of their sport, for he was always ready to order Old Kate to lie down, and when she fell to her knees he would let any child that could scramble on her back, and then he would prod her with a stick, and with a hunch she was on her feet again.
For her patience and forebearance, Old Kate may have been allowed to attend Austin’s Mardi Gras. According to Coopwood’s descendants, thirty-two of the Camp Verde camels, or their offspring, took part in the parade: “pulling the King’s float while being led by costumed Negroes holding lighted torches.”
When they weren’t partying, the camels took their ease in lush, central Texas pastures. Travelers Sweet and Knox may have happened upon Taylor’s camels as they traveled through the Hill Country from Fredericksburg:
In a pasture near Austin, we saw about twenty camels. In our jouneyings through Texas we had seen many strange things, but nothing so strange and foreign as a camel rancho. To meet a camel in a menagerie is not surprising; but to come suddenly on a herd of camels, grazing quietly on an American prairie, is certainly startling.
As the camels went, of course, so went the camel-keepers. After quiet, anonymous lives, most faded away quietly, but three of their number, all Greek, still are remembered today.
Mimico Teodora (known as Mico) remained near Camp Verde and built an adobe house along the Bandera highway. He was buried near Verde Creek, along a smaller, south-flowing creek which still bears his name.
Yiorgos Caralambo (known as Greek George) joined the Beale expedition in order to care for the camels, then stayed on in California. After traveling with camels purchased by Samuel McLaughlin for salt-hauling, he was hired in the 1870s to oversee the cattle and horses of lawyer and rancher Major Henry Hancock, whose family came into possession of California’s Rancho La Brea and made a fortune from the sale of its tar, asphalt, and oil to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
In 1867, Greek George became a naturalized American citizen, taking the name George Allen. He lived in present day West Hollywood, in a home thought to have been near the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and King’s Road, and he was buried in southern California after his death in 1913.
Despite occasional references to Philip Tedro as “a little Arab,” he was born in Smyrna of half-Greek, half-Syrian parentage. After converting to Islam and making the pilgrimage to Mecca, he become a Hadji, and was known as Hadji Ali. The inability of his American counterparts to pronounce his name led to the nickname of “Hi Jolly,” by which he still is known today.
After serving with the French Army in Algiers, he signed on as a camel driver for the U.S. Army in 1856, came to Camp Verde, and traveled with Greek George in Beale’s expedition to map the 35th parallel.
After the end of the camel experiment, Tedro divided his time between hauling freight (sometimes with burros and sometimes with camels, as between Yuma and Tucson), prospecting, and serving the U.S. Cavalry as a scout.
He married Gertrude Serna of Tucson in 1880, and they remained in that city for some time: becoming parents of Amelia and Herminia. Details of the following years are sketchy. Eventually, Tedro popped up again: living in a cabin near Tyson’s Wells (Quartzsite) Arizona, and mining with a burro. When he died, walking the old desert road between the Colorado River and Wickenburg on December 16, 1902, he was 73 (or 74, or 75) years old.
His burial site in the Quartzsite Cemetery was a simple grave with a wooden placard. The mourners, it seems, were primarily other old prospectors. The site was untended until 1934, when James L. Edwards of the Arizona Highway Department arranged for a more fitting memorial: a ten foot tall, pyramidal monument constructed from native stones such a black malapai, petrified wood, and gold-bearing quartz.
Topped with a copper camel, the pyramid also contains a vault in the base which is said to hold old letters, government contracts for Jolly’s work as camel driver and scout, and roughly a dollar’s worth of change: his total wealth when he died.
The ashes of Topsy, his favorite camel and the last camel from the original herd, also have been added to the pyramid. Topsy outlived her friend by thirty-two years, dying at the age of 80 in 1934, at the Garfield Zoo in Los Angeles.
It would be easy to say those are the facts, but certain stories record the facts somewhat differently. One version, passed from person to person over the years and reprinted in the Arizona Capitol Times in 1995, is especially memorable:
The final, sad act of the drama occurred on December 16, 1902, when 75-year-old Hi Jolly was sitting in a saloon at Quartzite, Arizona. A prospector stumbled in, telling of a huge, red camel wandering nearby. Hi Jolly rushed outside, and was never seen alive again.
Legend states that his withered body was found weeks later in the remote desert. There he lay, with lifeless arms wrapped around the neck of the last camel in the West.
Another legend, recorded by Robert Froman in American Heritage Magazine in 1961, had Hi Jolly tied into the saddle of a camel called the Red Ghost, or el Fantasma Colorado. The pair usually appeared in the midst of dust storms, then disappeared without a trace.
The Red Ghost wasn’t precisely a ghost. Its end was fleshed out by Froman in his American Heritage account of events, and chronicled in the Mohave County Miner of Mineral Park, Arizona, on February 25, 1893:
[The Red Ghost] first appeared ten years ago, shortly after Geronimo’s disastrous raid through southern Arizona. A couple of Mexicans washing for gold…had their tent thrown down over them, and awoke in time to hear the tread of galloping hoofs and a terrible shriek. They got clear of the wreck in time to see something taller than two horses tear into the brush.
They told their story at Ore the next day, and people went out to investigate. They found strange tracks in the creek mud and saw where the brush had been broken down by the passage of some great beast. But the mysterious trail was lost among the rocky hills, and that was the last of the Red Ghost for some days.
The next appearance, some miles away at Eagle Creek, resulted in the death of a woman by trampling. After that, Si Hamlin, a hunter in the Salt River country, got a good look at it, recognized it as a camel, and thought that it was carrying a man.
Everyone thought he was hallucinating, until a couple of prospectors saw it and took their shots. When the camel jumped before taking off, something tumbled away. When the men went to inspect whatever had fallen, they “found a man’s head, dry and withered, but with flesh and hair still on it.” Eventually, a cowboy had his own encounter with the Fantasma Colorado, and confirmed that the “pack” it carried was, in fact, a man: albeit minus his head.
At that point, the huge, red camel became less ghostly than macabre. Still, it was of interest when Mizoo Hastings, who ranched above the gold camp on the San Francisco, woke one morning to see the camel browsing away in his turnip patch. At that point:
Mizoo took a dead rest over the window sill and blazed away. He got the camel. When he went out to examine the beast, he found him covered with a perfect network of knotted rawhide strips. They had been on him so long that some of the strips had cut their way into the flesh. The camel was all scarred up, and evidently had a very hard time.
Now everybody down in that country is wondering whether the man was tied on there Mazeppa fashion for deviltry or revenge, whether it was some lunatic’s hideous scheme of suicide, or merely an ugly piece of humor of somebody who had a camel and a corpse for which he had no use.
The Red Ghost aside, some say the last authentic sighting of a real camel in the American desert took place at the international boundary between Arizona and Mexico in 1901. Others believe that an Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe crew came across one near Wickenburg, Arizona, in 1913. A reported sighting came from east of the Salton Sea in 1941, and in 1957 Robert Froman met “a part-time prospector part-time guide, and all-round desert rat who, although he himself had never seen one, was sure that camels still ranged deep in the burnt hills of Sonora and Baja, California.”
Today, the Great Camel Experiment has ended, and the Red Ghost is gone. Anyone who happens to glimpse a camel and rider silhouetted against the hot, dusty, desert sunset probably can assume a logical explanation: perhaps Doug Baum and Gobi out for an evening ride.
On the other hand, the desert’s a big place. Camels clearly have staying power, and not everything in the history of the world is a re-enactment. Perhaps we should keep our eyes open.