How the Camel Came to California

Painting of The 'Camel Corp' on its way to California

Painting of The 'Camel Corp' on its way to California


The U.S. Army’s experiment with camels and the lives of two key players in that saga

Battle of Monterey, by N. Currier.
Battle of Monterey, by N. Currier. 

A young U.S. Navy officer was the man who brought the first camels to California in 1857, introducing another colorful character into the annals of the west.

The story starts in the critical months before the Bear Flag Revolt and the United States occupation of California. A young U.S. Navy officer, Edward Fitzgerald Beale (1822-1893) was entrusted with the delivery of sensitive dispatches to Washington from Commodore Robert Stockton,  the head of the United States Pacific Squadron. Beale came from a long line of distinguished navy officers. Both his father and grandfather had served with distinction and both had been awarded the Medal of Honor.

Lt. Beale went on to play a critical role in the subsequent conflict with Mexico. He and Kit Carson crept through enemy lines to bring reinforcements to General Stephen Kearney during the Battle of San Pasqual, in 1846. After the conclusion of fighting in California, the United States invaded Mexico and successfully concluded the conflict.

After the war, Beale continues to be at the center of events in California. He delivered the official dispatches on the discovery of gold back east. He is best remembered, though, as the man who brought the first camels to California. In 1857 Beale led a surveying expedition from El Paso, Texas to California, using 25 camels imported from Tunis.

The 'Camel Corp' on its way to California
The ‘Camel Corp’ on its way to California, after a painting by William Ahrendt, on display at a museum of 

This experiment introduced another colorful character into the annals of the west, a Syrian camel driver named Hadji Ali, who was brought to the United States to train our soldiers to handle camels and who accompanied Lt. Beale on the first camel expedition. 

Hadjj Ali’s easygoing nature—and Americans' ignorance of Arabic—left him with the nickname "Hi Jolly."

Hi Jolly took part in numerous camel projects throughout California and Arizona over the next few years. The Army continued the experimental use of camels until shortly after the start of the Civil War. They concluded that camels were not suitable as mounts. Soldiers disliked their strong smell, the camels had a tendency to bite and spit and they frightened horses.

Hi Jolly remained in the United States, where he prospected for gold, hauled freight and scouted for the US Army. He became a US Citizen in 1880 and married Gertrude Serna of Tucson with whom he had two daughters. A monument to this Arab pioneer was erected in 1935 in Quartzite, Arizona.

1935 Monument to Hadji Ali, located in Quartzsite, Arizona
1935 Monument to Hadji Ali, located in Quartzsite, Arizona 
Bust of Edward Fitzgerald Beale (1822-1893).
Bust of Edward Fitzgerald Beale (1822-1893). 

Edward Beale continued his distinguished service to our country. In 1852 he was appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs for California and New Mexico. He played an important role in ending Indian hostilities in California. (He was commissioned a Brigadier General to reinforce his status during the negotiations with the Indians).In 1861 Beale was appointed Surveyor-General of California and Nevada by Abraham Lincoln and helped keep California in the Union during the Civil War. In 1876 President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Beale U.S. minister to Austria.

Beale retired to Southern California where he had a large sheep and cattle ranch. He died in 1893 at the age of 71.