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Once upon a time, I met a camel named Ali and he told me all about his time in the US Army Camel Corps. He was born in Egypt but was captured by humans and loaded into the belly of a ship that spent 3 months sailing from Egypt to Texas.

Sounds pretty unbelievable, doesn’t it? And while Exiled: The Memoirs of a Camel is a fictional re-telling from the camel’s point of view, I thought it did an excellent job of telling all about the US Army’s camel experiment and the daily life of a working camel.

camel books lying on blue and tan woven rug
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What was the Texas camel experiment?

After the Mexican-American War, the United States government thought it would be a good idea to explore and settle more of the desert southwest to solidify our claim. And to do so, they needed a hardy animal, strong and well-suited to life in the desert. Enter… the camel.

An Overview of the Camel Experiment

Who brought camels to America?

Jefferson Davis, while serving as Secretary of War, was able to procure funding for camels. $30,000 was appropriated for the purchase and importation of camels to study their adaptation to the American desert southwest.

Major Henry Wayne left aboard the USS Supply in 1855, headed for the Middle East to learn about and acquire camels. Eventually, he had 33 animals – purchased at an average cost of $250 each – ready to head back to Texas aboard the Supply. Five native Arabs and Turks had also been hired to care for the animals.

After a rough three-month sea voyage, the camels landed near Houston, Texas. After a short rest, they were walked to San Antonio and then Camp Verde. Davis sent Major Wayne and the Supply back to get more camels since there was still money left in the budget.

Testing the Camels

Once the camels had arrived at Camp Verde, they were subjected to several tests. Time after time, the camels proved their superiority over horses and mules when working in the dry desert areas.

Eventually, the camels were sent out on longer treks to explore routes for roads through the area. Mr. Edward Fitzgerald Beale won one of the government contracts and was dismayed when he learned that the camels were a required part of the deal but he soon changed his mind.

An excerpt from the journal of Beale, July 8, 1857

They seem almost entirely indifferent to the best grass, and to prefer any kind of bush to it. … It seems that they like most the herbs and boughs of bitter bushes, which all other animals reject. The more I see of them the more interested in them I become, and the more I am convinced of their usefulness.

Their perfect docility and patience under difficulties renders them invaluable, and my only regret at present is that I have not double the number.

-Edward Beale

A big project that the camels helped with was the 35th Parallel Wagon Road— which later became part of historic Route 66.

Topsy and Hi Jolly

Exiled is historical fiction. Two of the main characters in the book were Ali (the camel) and Hi Jolly (Ali’s favorite handler and friend). The real “people”? Hadji Ali and Topsy.

Hi Jolly, first camel driver hired by the US Army

When the Army brought the camels, they also brought experienced camel handlers from the Middle East. One of the most famous handlers was a man named Hadji Ali, more commonly known by the Americans as Hi Jolly. Hi Jolly is a main (human) character in the Exiled story.

There’s even a folk song written about Hi Jolly!

Topsy – the World’s Most Interesting Camel

Topsy the camel lived a most extraordinary, long life. She was one of the first camels brought by the Army to be part of the Camel Corps.

After the Camel Corps was disbanded, Topsy’s career included silver mining and circus performing. She was injured in a train accident and spent her remaining days as a star at the Griffith Park Zoo in Los Angeles.

Quartzite Memorial

In Quartzite, Arizona, you can find a memorial to the lifelong friends, Hi Jolly and Topsy.

The camel was a practical success but a politcal failure.

-historic marker at Fort Stockton, Texas
inside pages of Army Camel book shows camel convoy across Texas desert. In foreground two toy camels and book title Exhiled: Memoirs of a Camel
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Camels in Texas Today

The Army’s camel experiment ended fairly quickly but there are still camels in Texas today. Doug Baum was once a camel caretaker at the Nashville Zoo and when he moved to Texas in 1997, he brought a couple of camels with him and started the Texas Camel Corps.

Baum now travels the state with his camels to give living history presentations to school kids and participate in historical reenactments. When he’s not on the road, you can visit the camels at his farm. (You know I’m adding the camel farm to a future Big Trip itinerary!)

Here’s a video Doug made about the Camel Experiment history. You can see his camels in the video!

Australia imported camels too

Australia, another country with a lot of desert terrain, also imported camels. As in America, they were eventually set free and today Australia has over a million feral camels.

Sophie Matterson’s Coast-to-Coast Australian Camel Trek

Sophie Matterson decided to train 5 of those feral camels and then walk with them across Australia on a coast-to-coast camel trek. She started her journey at the Indian Ocean in April 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns and finished on the beach of the Pacific Ocean on December 21, 2021. She will be writing a book about her journey and I can’t wait to read it!

While waiting for Sophie’s book, you can see pictures from her journey on Instagram and read some journal entries on her website.

You can also listen to her talk to the host of The Adventure Sports Podcast about her journey.

Episode 808 is a replay of Sophie’s first interview from January 2021.

Episode 807 is Sophie’s second interview from February 2022.

A Few Fun Camel Facts

Ali did such a great job telling his story in Exiled that it made me want to know more about camels.

Chris Barns, better known as Brolga or Kangaroo Dundee, operates The Kangaroo Sanctuary in Alice Springs, Australia. The sanctuary is also home to three orphan camels. Enjoy this video of Brolga with the cheeky camels.

Are you feeling Camel Crazy?

Here’s a fun book about camels all over the world. According to the blurb, “This moving and rollicking ode to “camel people” and the creatures they adore reveals the ways camels touch lives around the world.”

How many humps does a camel have?

There are two main types of camels. The dromedary camel is the most common domesticated camel and they have one hump. The wild bactrian camel has two humps. (The Camel Corps had both types of camels!)

dromedary camel standing in desert with sunset in background
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bactrian camel (two humps) stands with mountain landscape in the distance
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Visit the San Diego Zoo Camel page to learn more about camels.

What does a camel sound like?

Have you ever wondered what a camel sounds like? This short video lets you hear it for yourself!

How does a camel drink water?

SharonSaysSo re-shared this video of camels drinking water, from under the water. So cool! I love little details like this. I was able to track down the original video on TikTok.


♬ الصوت الأصلي – جاسم الوهيبي

Yes, camel wrestling is real

In the Exiled book, Ali briefly mentions camel wrestling. I immediately had to look that up. Is camel wrestling really a thing? The internet tells me that yes, camel wrestling is indeed real.

Here’s a video in case you’d also like to learn more about camel wrestling.

Watch a Movie about the Camel Corps

The 1976 western slapstick comedy called Hawmps! featured the great camel experiment.

Listen to podcasts about the Camel Corps

These are the best two podcasts (in my opinon!) about the Camel Corps.

Based on a True Story Podcast

This episode talks about the movie Hawmps! and how much of the movie is true. This is a great way to hear more about the movie itself while also learning more about the Camel Corps.

History Unplugged Podcast

This first episode of History Unplugged talks about the history of camels in general as well as the failed American camel experiment.

Listen to “When Camels Roamed the American Southwest—The U.S. Camel Corps (1856-1866)” on Spreaker.

Read more about the US Army Camel Corps

Camels are often referred to as Ships of the Desert. These books tell the story of the Great Camel Experiment.

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photo collage of camels and books with title text Army Camels - The Great Camel Experiment
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