The Grand Duke Alexis

Monday, December 31, 2007

In November 1871, the Grand Duke Alexis, 4th son of the Czar of Russia came to the United States on a state visit. Ulysses S. Grant was President and he was determined that the Duke, the first of the Czar's family to visit the United States, should have a good experience, so that when he returned to Russia he would carry a good impression of the United States.

Alexis was just 21 years of age and apparently had had his fill of fancy dress balls. At a White House dinner in his honor he confided to his host, Civil War hero, Gen. Phil Sheridan that he was looking forward to some "real adventure" in the American West. Sheridan assured him that he could surely witness untamed Indians and shoot a buffalo from the vast herds, which thundered freely across wide-open spaces in the country beyond the Mississippi, and that he could have the protection of the War Department while doing so.

The Duke made his obligatory Eastern stops during the next two months, while Sheridan made preparations for the Duke's hunt in Nebraska in mid-January. He chose the colorful General Custer (age 32) to be the Grand Marshall of the hunt and William F. Cody (25) to be the hunt's guide. Custer had attracted much favorable attention during the Civil War, and four years later would attract lasting attention with his famous "Last Stand."

Cody had distinguished himself as a great buffalo hunter, and was already well known as "Buffalo Bill." Sheridan's instructions were to "Put on a real show for the Grand Duke!," which probably launched Cody's real calling -- the Wild West Show.

Cody located "friendly Indians" -- Chief Spotted Tail's Brule Sioux, camped along the Frenchman River in Southwest Nebraska. After spending the night in Spotted Tail's lodge (offering flour, sugar, and coffee and 1000 pounds of tobacco) he arranged for 100 (or more) braves to leave their winter quarters and perform for the Duke at a Camp, north of the present Hayes Center on the Red Willow Creek.

The Duke and his entourage arrived at Fort McPherson on Jan. 13, accompanied by Gen. Custer, resplendent in a new buckskin outfit. They were greeted by an enthusiastic throng, headed by Buffalo Bill. After speeches and much pageantry the Duke's party set out for the hunting grounds. It was quite a group -- Department of the Platte Generals, two companies of infantry in wagons, two companies of cavalry, the cavalry's regimental band, outriders, night herders, couriers, cooks, trailing groups of Indians and sutlers -- and three wagons of "champagne and royal spirits."

At the camp (Camp Duke Alexis) the Duke and his entourage were treated very well. They were provided with floored wall tents -- the floor in the Duke's tent was covered with an expensive Oriental rug. The tents were heated with Sibley stoves. Chief Spotted Tail's braves put on breathtaking displays of riding and fighting exhibitions with bows and arrows. In the evening, they danced around a huge camp fire, honoring their own and the Duke. The dances were punctuated with blood-curdling cries that "caused shivers down the spine of the observers."

The next day was Duke Alexis' birthday and spirits were high in camp, and grew mightily when, after a hearty breakfast, scouts rode in with the word that a herd of buffalo had been spotted. As the hunting party neared the buffalo herd Cody gave word that the Duke should have first shot. Aboard Cody's favorite horse, Buckskin Joe, the Duke rode to within 20 feet of the herd, then shot wildly, emptying six pistol shots -- into the air. The buffalo looked vacantly at the Duke and began to walk slowly away.

Cody rode up to the Duke and gave him his famed .48-caliber rifle, "Lucretia," the one with which he had killed 4,200 buffalo. This time, from a distance of only 10 feet, Duke Alexis fired and successfully killed his first buffalo.

This was cause for a real celebration. Alexis severed the buffalo tail and proudly waved it for all to see as he rode back to the camp. The Russians immediately began to pop the corks on the champagne bottles to celebrate. Spotted Tail offered his pipe to the Duke in congratulations -- to which the Duke declined, saying he preferred cigarettes. Before they arrived at the camp Alexis accidentally killed a buffalo cow, and again the Russians began to pop more champagne bottles. Later Cody remarked, "I was in hopes that he would kill five or six more before we reached camp, especially if a basket of champagne was to be opened every time he dropped one."

The second day of the hunt saw the Duke's party bag another 56 buffalo. The only damper on the hunt was when a greatly shaken Duke Alexis was forced to climb a telegraph pole when he was charged by a wounded buffalo.

When the hunt broke up Sheridan suggested that Cody should drive the Duke back to North Platte in an open carriage, saying, "Shake 'em up a bit, Bill, and give us some old-time state driving!" Cody was delighted. Later he exaggerated (just a bit), "We covered six bumpy miles in three minutes." The Duke commented on his ride, "I would not have missed that ride for a large sum of money -- but rather than repeat it I would return to Russia by way of Alaska and swim the Bering Straight!"

Duke Alexis was well pleased with his hunting trip. When he and Cody parted in North Platte, he presented Cody with a fur coat and expensive cuff links. From there the royal train journeyed on to Denver and an honorary ball at the American House Hotel. Here Gen. Custer heard that another buffalo herd had been spotted near Colorado Springs. That hunting trek exhausted the party's supply of caviar and sparkling wine. Custer continued to accompany the Duke and his entourage through Kansas, to St. Louis, and finally to Florida, where the Duke boarded a Russian Steamer for home -- with his hundreds of pounds of iced buffalo meat carefully stowed aboard.

Though the Grand Duke Alexis was thrilled with his trip to America, his father Czar Alexander II was not happy with the Americanization of his son. Soon after his return the Duke married a commoner. His father was enraged and had the marriage annulled. Duke Alexis never married again, though he remained something of an "International Playboy" throughout his lifetime.

Soon after the turn of the century, Alexis headed the Russian Navy, but that ended badly. He resigned his post when the Japanese destroyed the Russian fleet in 1905, during the Russo-Japanese War 1904-05. His critics talked of Alexis' life as consisting of "fast women and slow ships," referring to his womanizing and naval failures. Perhaps the best time of his life had come during the glory days of the Old West when he had hunted buffalo with General Custer and Buffalo Bill. He died in 1908.

Source: Notes from the Frontier County Historical Society.

You can meet and visit with (re-enactors) Grand Duke Alexis, Generals Sheridan and Custer, Buffalo Bill, and Spotted Tail and others at the Grand Duke Alexis Rendezvous at Camp Grand Duke Alexis near Hayes Center. The Rendezvous, held each year in September, is very well done and a lot of fun, as well as being extremely educational. For more information contact Doris Vlasin, 73292 Old 17, Hayes Center, NE 69032

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