Thursday, March 1, 2007

Hi Jolly's Camels

Navajo Folk Art Camel by Matthew Yellowman
Navajo Artist Matthew Yellowman

"A camel carving, what craziness is this?" I asked Matthew Yellowman. Matthew patiently gazed at me over the top of his latest sculpture, which portrays a calvary officer astride a camel, and pondered my question. As I watched him, Matthew's eyes focused inward as if searching for something. I could literally see him capturing a thought and brushing away the cobwebs of time. Refocusing on me, Matthew smiled softly, and then, in his gentle way explained how his mother had once shared a girlhood story with him about how, in the late 1800's, the calvary brought camels to Fort Defiance, Arizona.

"Not only that," said Matthew pointing to the south with his lips, "Mom was born near Fort Defiance and claims to have seen one while she was herding sheep as a very young girl. Whether she really did or just witnessed a mirage really does not matter, the fact is there were camels on the Reservation." I snorted contemptuously and asked Matthew if he was, "Pitching camel dung in my direction". "You're such a wise guy!" said Matthew, eying me and then the computer behind me.

Matthew pursed his lips again, this time in the direction of the computer, and asked if it was connected to the Internet. "Of course," I said, "we are technologically advanced around here". "Too bad you haven't taken better advantage of the educational opportunities it offers!" he responded. Frowning, yet secretly admiring Matthew's quick wit, I turned to the Mac and Googled Camel/Navajo. Instantly a barrage of nonsense listings came up. "Just as I thought, no camels!" I said turning back to Matthew. "Try The Beale Expedition or Hi Jolly." he said. "What the heck is a Hi Jolly?" I asked, feeling I was being set up and about to find out.

Matthew's eyes twinkled, and an air of confident victory came over him. I did the search, and sure enough, several hundred hits popped up. I groaned in educational agony. I clicked on the first listing and began to read, "Jefferson Davis, as secretary of war in President Pierce's cabinet, approved the plan to experiment with camels for freighting and communication in the arid Southwest. Major Henry C. Wayne of the army and Lt. D.D. Porter of the navy visited the Near East with the store ship supply and brought 33 camels which were landed at Indianola, Tex., Feb. 10, 1856. On a second trip they got 41 more."

With the first shipment came a caretaker; a short, heavyset, happy-go-lucky Arab named Hadji Ali, whose name was promptly changed to "Hi Jolly" by the soldiers. The Texas base for the camels was Camp Verde, a frontier outpost in Kerr County. On the Beale expedition (1857) to open a wagon road across Arizona from Fort Defiance to California, the camels, under Hi Jolly, proved their worth. Nevertheless, the war department abandoned the experiment, and the camels were left to shift for themselves on the Arizona desert.

Navajo Folk Art Buzzard by Matthew Yellowman
Navajo Folk Art by Matthew Yellowman

It must be admitted that I always admire a well managed sales pitch. Whether Matthew had planned this one in advance or simply allowed it to unfold on its own accord, I cannot say. The fact is, Twin Rocks Trading Post is now the proud owner of a smartly dressed Native American calvary officer sitting astride a two hump Middle Eastern camel. Chuckling to himself, Matthew headed for the door with a hefty check poking out of his breast pocket. He turned back just before he left, waived and said, "Next time I am going to bring you a buzzard!" "No buzzards!" I said with conviction. "What?" said Matthew, "You have never heard how Buzzard wound up so shabbily dressed?"

Shaking my head in admiration, and wanting to know more about what happened to Hi Jolly, I went back to the Internet and continued to read, "The army never explained officially why it abandoned the experiment. Perhaps they proved uneconomical or perhaps the Arizona desert country was too tough for them. Keiser said the rocks hurt the camels' feet. For a time, Hi Jolly wrapped their feet in burlap. Later a special shoe was fashioned for the animals' split toes."

The camel shoes were unsuccessful at keeping rocks out of their toes. Hi Jolly was grieved to lose his animals, but took up scouting for the army and also did some mining. On Dec. 16, 1902, he died in Quartzsite, Arizona at the age of 64 years. The Arizona Highway Department has built a tomb for him; a pyramid of quartz and petrified wood, topped by a tin figure of a camel. "The last camp of Hi Jolly," a sign says.

Just as I finished reading, I heard the door chimes ring and turned to see Steve returning from school with Grange. He immediately spied the camel and gave me a look of consternation. With a note of frustration in his voice, he said, "A camel carving? You have got to be kidding!" I adopted a pose of patient understanding, and said, "What, you have never heard the story of Hi Jolly and his camels?" Cautious skepticism came over him as I continued, "For someone who is supposed to be educated to the culture, you are representing, you are severely lacking."

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2007 Twin Rocks Trading Post

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