Northern Arizona has had its share of venturous explorers. The Spanish Conquistadors in the 1400s and 1500s, the “mountain men”, and the cattle men who followed added to the lore, culture and adventure. But in 1857 and 1858, when the Territory was beginning to reach its stride as new migration came in from the eastern United States, a number of interesting characters seemed to emerge.
Lieutenant Edward F. Beale, a veteran of the Mexican War and later Superintendent of Indian Affairs in California and Nevada, undertook the opening of a wagon road along the thirty-fifth parallel that runs across northern Arizona.
Something of a visionary, he had conceived the idea that camels could well be adapted for use in the western American desert – just as they had been for centuries in the sands of the Middle East. After all, the temperature in both locations made it difficult for horses and oxen to do their tasks. The sands across the landscape of both areas suited the hooves of the dromedary. The camel, the “ship of the desert” could stand endless days without water and actually seemed to enjoy the scorching climate. Beale found a ready supporter in Jefferson Davis (yes, that Jefferson Davis), who was then serving as the United States Secretary of War (yes, the soon-to-be President of the Confederacy was guiding our war efforts!)
Davis convinced the American Congress to appropriate funds to import camels by way of Texas seaports from locations in Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula. Thirty thousand American tax dollars were appropriated for the task. Two “characters” well known in later Arizona history, “Greek George” and Philip Tedro, better known as “Hadji Ali” (or Hi-Jolly to most Arizonans), both Syrians or Armenians (nobody knew for sure), became the chief “drivers” of the herd.
With his camels and a good-sized party of men, Beale left Zuni, New Mexico in August, 1857, he lead a caravan west across the Mogollon Rim and reached the Colorado River in January, 1858. He refused to use the steamships to move him down the river but rather took his party and returned across the Territory to prove that camels could handle the winter weather of northern Arizona too.
But the experiment with camels was a sad failure, because riders, packers and teamsters hated riding the jarring animals and detested their horrid dispositions. The native pack animals, normally used to haul people and goods – horses, mules and burros, seemed to hate them as well and co-existence seemed impossible.
Most of the camels that had been imported for this experiment, and others that followed in various parts of the west, were eventually turned loose on the ranges to forage for themselves. For some period of time they seem to thrive, but cattlemen, ranchers, miners and prospectors found them to be a nuisance to their work and began using them for target practice.
The experiment had been interesting and romantic to many, but it was much less important than the marking of a wagon road across the Territory – to be known as Beal’s wagon road.