Hi Jolly: The Camel Driver Hired By The United States Government

Hadji Ali, better known as “Hi Jolly”, was born in Izmir, Turkey to a Christian Syrian father and Greek mother in 1828. At the Age of 25, he converted to Islam and took the name Hadji, a title Muslims receive after performing the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. As an Ottoman camel driver, he worked in the Ottoman Empire and later the French army in Alegria, supplying camels to serve as beasts of burden in the hot arid deserts of the Middle East and North Africa.

Thousands of miles across the Atlantic, the United States government had acquired more southwestern territory that it could manage following their victory in the Mexican-American War. The area between New Mexico and California was largely uninhabited, and the US government was looking for a way transport goods across these harsh conditions. Against the requests of the mule lobby, in 1856, the United States Army invited Hadji Ali to be a part of the United States Camel Corp. It was a 30,000-dollar federal initiative petitioned by Secretary of War and Mississippi Senator, Jefferson Davis. The goal was to import and utilize camels in the American South West; the lack of watering holes and defined wagon roads in the region made them the ideal animal.

A photograph of Hi Jolly / Hadji Ali / Philip Tedro, a camel driver hired by the United States, in Quartzsite, Arizona, USA.

Hadji Ali landed directly at the port of Indianola in Calhoun, Texas when he immigrated to the US. He and his team of camel drivers had around forty camels with them, purchased by the federal government from various parts of the Middle-East and North Africa. Once he got to the US, his American colleagues had trouble pronouncing Hadji Ali, so they nicknamed him “Hi Jolly”. The name caught on and was ultimately cemented in history and southwestern folklore.

In 1857, Hadji Ali led a successful survey from New Mexico all the way to Southern California, carving out wagon roads that were eventually converted into the iconic route 66. Although wildly popular and effective amongst the US army, the US Camel Corp was eventually discontinued due to lack of funding, causing most of the other camel drivers to return to their homelands in the Middle East. The Civil War greatly diverted government spending and as a result, the camels were either auctioned off or sold to mining companies, zoos, and circuses. Many of these camels were also let loose and in 1863, Union soldiers found and captured three camels in Arkansas that ended up being sold at auction in Iowa. The few that were left remained with Hadji Ali in Arizona where he eventually settled. He continued to be employed by the government as a scout as well as working in the local gold mining industry that was booming at the time. He even started a freight transportation business, moving goods to mining camps across Arizona with his camels. The business ultimately dwindled and as a result, the rest of Hadji Ali’s camels were let loose in the desert.

An image depicting the camels of the American West.

In 1880 he became an American citizen and was naturalized under the name Philip Tedro. He soon after married a Mexican woman named Gertrudis Serna in Tuscan, reporting his nationality as Greek knowing that the Catholic church wouldn’t officiate and recognize a marriage to a non-Christian. He and Gertrudis had two daughters and lived together until 1889 when he left to pursue mining once more.

A photograph of Hadji Ali (Hi Jolly) with his wife, Gertrudis Serna, taken at their wedding in Tuscon, Arizona, USA in c. 1880.

During his later years, he ended up in the small town of Quartzsite in Arizona, petitioning to receive a government pension after his years of service. Although he had recommendations and the support of army generals, he couldn’t secure the government assistance. He lived out his last days with the financial support of his friends. He was found dead in the desert in 1902 while tracking a wild camel. Local legend claimed he was found with his arms wrapped around a camel. His body was brought back to Quartzsite and buried.

The grave of Hadji Ali in Quartzsite, Arizona, USA

Although a little-known figure in history, Hadji Ali’s expertise, and efforts were crucial to the habitability of the American Southwest. Throughout his life, he maintained a high degree of respect from his peers in the army and from the people of Arizona. In 1935, the Arizona High Way Department erected a pyramid-shaped monument at his grave with a plaque commemorating his achievements and contributions. He was forever canonized in legends through folk music like the 1960s folk song “Hi Jolly” by The New Christy Minstrels. Camels from Hadji Ali’s initial caravan were spotted as far out as in Baja California in as late as 1956, 54 years after his death. The famous Arizonian legend of the “Red Ghost” stems from anecdotal accounts of these very camel sightings. According to lore Hadji Ali’s quadrupedal progeny still roam the Southwestern deserts to this very day.

Article written by Faris Ibrahim

Faris Ibrahim is a fiction author and history aficionado. His love for antiquity stems from the pivotal role it played in understanding his own identity. Growing up at the confluence of American, Arab and Nubian cultures made him an anomaly to the traditional rigidity of racial and ethnic singularity. His unbound curiosity led him to become a self-taught oud musician, playing in East African, South Arabian, and Levantine styles. He’s the author of “Breath of the Pearl Diver”, a novel dealing with post-industrialism, post-colonialism, and cultural cringe. He currently hosts his own podcast called “The Faris of Them All” available on all podcast platforms.  

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