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Santa Clarita CA
Today in
S.C.V. History
June 22
1972 - Vasquez Rocks added to National Register of Historic Places [list]
Vasquez Rocks

Take a Hike | Commentary by Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel
| Sunday, Jun 7, 2015

DianneErskineHellrigelMillions of years ago, in the Miocene, camels roamed freely across North America. They evolved and migrated into Africa and the Middle East. Eventually they died out in North America while they thrived abroad.

In California, they survived until 15,000 years ago. Evidence of this habitation has been found in Ventura County, in the Cuyama Badlands; in Long Beach; and tracks have been found south of Death Valley and Kern County, among many other locations. These animals finally died out and are no longer an indigenous species in California.

But Tunisian camels made a return visit to California when they were imported for the military in the 1850s by Edward Fitzgerald Beale. Lt. Beale was assisted by a Syrian camel driver named Haiji Ali. Americans nicknamed him “Hi Jolly.” There is a monument on his grave in Quartzsite, Ariz., to honor this faithful camel driver. Atop this pyramidal shaped monument stands a camel.

Hi Jolly's tomb in Quartzsite, Ariz. Photo: Leon Worden

Hi Jolly’s tomb in Quartzsite, Ariz. Photo: Leon Worden

Camels, being more hearty animals than mules and horses, were highly valued for carrying much larger loads and traveling longer periods without water or rest. They were sometimes called “Ships of the Desert.” They were considered as possible mail carriers, for military purposes in the dry western states, a replacement for mules and horses, and goods transportation. A bill was even passed in Congress in 1854 to support the “camel experiment.”

So, 72 camels arrived in 1857 and were put to work for the Army and were stationed out of Benicia in northern California. Camels were also used to haul freight up to Fort Tejon. On one occasion, the camels and riders en route to Fort Tejon were threatened by Mojave Indians. The camel riders charged the Native Americans, who upon seeing the strange-looking camels, retreated in a hurry. It was the one and only camel charge in the West, and it was carried out by civilians.

nevcamelIt was soon evident that camels’ dispositions were not as fair as the compliant horses that Americans were accustomed to using. Camels are, and were, unpleasant, smelly creatures. They would wander off, scare the horses, bite and splatter people with green spittle.

Despite these habits, camels were continually used until the Civil War began. They were then either sold at auction or turned loose into the desert to survive on their own. There were a lot of sightings of these camels over the years, and legends began to pop up here and there about them.

Legends of these beasts are still told across the Southwest. Many of the stories surround the misfortune of people that were trampled to death, with red fur and large hoof prints left behind as the only evidence. In other stories, campers and prospectors were attacked, and again, that telltale red fur and large hoof prints told the story.

Photo by Leon Worden

Photo by Leon Worden

Eventually these stories began to call the vicious camel attacker the “Red Ghost.” Once the Red Ghost was named, people began to tell tales of seeing not only the vicious camel, but also a dead rider on the camel’s back. Versions of the story ranged from the dead rider to a headless rider and rolling heads falling off of the camel’s back.

One camel was shot when it was caught munching a meal in a farmer’s garden. The rider was no longer on the back of the dead camel, but the camel still wore a saddle. Rumors and stories developed about the rider-dead rider-headless rider and the falling skulls, as well. The most interesting one involved a soldier who was petrified of camels. His buddies tied him to a saddle atop a camel, hit the camel with a whip, and the camel and rider were never to be seen again. Even today, stories are told about the Red Ghost and the rider, now turned to bones, that haunts the Southwest.

camel jaw boneThe bones of one of the U.S. Camel Cavalry camels is held by the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.

Camel sightings continued to be reported across the Southwest until one last living camel wandered into Los Angeles. She was taken to the Los Angeles Zoo where she lived out the remainder of her life and was eventually euthanized.



Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel is executive director of the Community Hiking Club and president of the Santa Clara River Watershed Conservancy. Contact Dianne through communityhikingclub.org or at zuliebear@aol.com.




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  1. Daniel Konz Daniel Konz says:

    Guess what day it is..!

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