Since 1856, Muslims have worshipped in Texas.
Like many Texas Muslims today, the first Muslims served the U.S. Army — as camel drovers.
Of the 27 cultures that share Texas history, the most interesting story might be that of Syrian and Turkish Texans, who trace a legacy back to frontier-era trader Hi Jolly and the U.S. Army Camel Corps.
Hadji Ali (he eventually changed his name) landed on the Texas coast in 1856 with seven Greek, Syrian and Turkish camel drovers delivering about 30 camels and dromedaries for a cavalry experiment at Texas forts.
He and cousin Mimico “Mico” Teodora of what is now Izmir, Turkey, helped lead the camels through Victoria and San Antonio to Kerr County, where they trained the animals for a year as Army specialists before Hi Jolly led a caravan to California.
Hi Jolly went on to become a miner and Old West folk hero in Arizona. Teodora stayed in Kerr County, married and is buried alongside what is now Mico Creek.
“They were the first two naturalized Americans from the Arab world,” said University of Arizona researcher Gary Paul Nabhan, talking by phone from Tucson, Ariz.
“Their story reminds us that a variety of cultures and ethnicities settled the American West. It’s easy to think all the cowboys were like John Wayne.”
The Camel Corps is a colorful part of Texas frontier history. The camels were meant to help the Army defend the United States from Mexico, but the Civil War interrupted the experiment, and the camels wound up running loose in Arizona and Texas.
Hi Jolly went on to work as a trader, packer and Army scout in Arizona, retelling the stories until his death at age 74 in 1902.
Hi Jolly “was the equivalent of a camel whisperer,” Nabhan said.
“He was very well-liked, very popular and very proud of his camels. Once, the cavalry soldiers thought the camels were just a pain. So he had them start loading a horse and a camel, and the camel held four times the load. That was his moment of truth.”
Less is known about Teodora, who died in Texas about 1896 and is buried on a farm near Comfort.
Nabhan is sure both were Muslim.
“The history makes it clear that he never gave up his Muslim faith, although there just wasn’t any way in Arizona for him to practice it,” Nabhan said.
In his last years, Hi Jolly was left begging for a $15-a-month Army pension.
Retired Col. George B. Sanford wrote a letter of reference: “The government has had few more faithful servants in the last half-century.”
We should remember them in Texas.