McCook Daily Gazette, Nebraska Centennial Edition 1867-1967
EDITOR'S NOTE---This account of the Grand Duke Alexis buffalo hunt, which took place near what is now Hayes Center, is reprinted from Outdoor Nebraskaland magazine, a publication of the Nebraska Game Commission.
BY GREG SMITH
The homespun, buckskin West had never seen anything like him, an honest-to-goodness Russian prince ready to take on the prairie wilderness for a couple of days of buffalo hunting. Big and bewhiskered, as fancy a greenhorn as had ever graced the Plains, the Grand Duke Alexis had come a visiting, the royal emissary of Alexander, I, czar of all the Russias.
Such a royal visit was big news, even in the cultured East, but to the raw and untamed Nebraska frontier of 1872, it was like having a trainload of dancehall girls come to town. Phil Sheridan had pulled off the social coup of the season during a White House reception shortly after the Duke had arrived in the states with the Russian battle fleet in tow.
Fun - loving Alexis was quick to pounce on the general's invitation. Even in the regal splendor of St. Petersburg, he'd heard about the vast herds of buffalo that blackened the Plains and the colorful characters who hunted them. Alexis couldn't see why "roughing it" in the wilderness a couple of days wouldn't go a long way toward cementing relations between the two nations, the prime reason for his trip.
So rough it he did, bringing along admirals and counts and royal physicians and servants and enough champagne to float the Russian fleet, at least that's what one grizzled old-timer reckoned when he saw the beribboned party unload at North Platte. The whole town met the royal train to give a 21-gun salute and cheer the duke, Sheridan, Custer, and Buffalo Bill Cody as they led the impromptu but colorful parade, up the dusty streets of the small frontier town.
Even the weather cooperated in Sheridan's plans for the royal hunt. It was an unseasonably warm January morning when the colorful party rode out toward Camp Alexis, 65 miles to the southwest.
The hunting camp on Red Willow Creek near the present town of Hayes Center was a far cry from roughing it. The Negro infantrymen who'd worked almost a month setting it up reckoned that maybe old Phil had gone a little overboard in his attempt to impress the royalty.
A town had been created in the middle of nowhere, one that would be lived in for only a couple of days. Two big hospital tents were ready for feasting and merrymaking. Six wall tents, three of them floored and covered with plush red carpeting and outfitted with the finest of furnishings, awaited the ducal party and officers. Thirty "A" tents for the troops and 265 Sioux Indian lodges were nearby, as pretty a picture as anyone would care to see.
The belles of North Platte were impressed by the young duke as he led the hunting party off toward buffalo country. He was big, big all over, and you couldn't help noticing his massive hands and feet, even on a 6 foot, 2-inch frame. His light side whiskers and mustache set off his blue eyes. Quite a catch, the girls agreed, even without the royal jewels.
Alexis, Sheridan and Custer rode in an open carriage, Bill Cody and five other buckskin - garbed scouts rode nearby. Stretched out behind was the duke's entourage in colorful ribbon and braid bedecked uniforms. Accompanying them were the reporters, an army in themselves. Out a ways they met General Palmer and an escort of cavalry. An unsuspecting stranger coming on this parade would wonder whether he or the hunting party had got a taste of loco weed.
Encouraged by the duke, Cody and the boys gave chase to a couple of stray buffaloes when they were spotted. Each time one of the great beasts went down, the Russians gave out with a cheer. They had never seen such daring horsemanship. The way the scouts handled their charges and weapons was something they would never forget.
Bill was hand-picked for the hunting job. Sheridan knew of no other who could do a better job at leading the duke around the wilderness lot. Cody had already gained a reputation as a scout for fancy eastern hunting parties as well as being recognized as a real hero of the Plains.
The colorful Nebraskan had a taste at royal hunting for the past two years, putting on great shows for a couple of British nobles as well as newspaper editors from Chicago and New York. Thanks to the colorful writings of these early-day journalists, the 26-year-old scout was fast gaining a national reputation. Youngsters in the East were already hero-worshipping Bill Cody, youngsters from six to 60.
The sun was crowding the cold western horizon when Alexis and the boys reached the bluffs overlooking the camp. There to greet them with "Hail to the Chief" was the Second Calvalry's regimental band, another of Phil's special little treats for the duke. As the last strains wafted off into the endless prairie sky, Spotted Tail's Sioux warriors charged into view. Painted and feathered and wearing their Sunday best, they showed the duke daredevil riding that would put the famed Cossacks to shame.
Cody had invited 100 Indians to participate in the show; closer to 1,000 were on hand when the Russians moved in. But they were no more eager to get in on the act than the American generals who were present, six of them to be exact, with only two companies of cavalry and two of infantry to lead. The troopers did more saluting in those two days than they did during the rest of their enlistments.
After a gourmet - style feast and a couple of rounds of toasting, the royal party hit the sack early to be ready for the hunt the next morning, the duke's twenty - second birthday. January 14 was another clear day, and Alexis was up early to learn the finer arts of killing a buffalo from Cody.
Alexis climbed aboard Bill's famed hunting horse, Buckskin Joe, and was ready to go. His colleagues weren't quite so fortunate. Phil had rounded up the most spirited and showy horses of the department and had them grained up for weeks. The troopers howled with laughter as on after the other, the Russian "kings" were unceremoniously dumped to the ground.
Cody, Custer and the duke rode out ahead to a small herd kept from wandering by spotted Tail's Sioux. Cody pointed out a choice bull and the duke charged. Just at the last moment he reined in, and when Cody came riding up, the flustered duke blubbered out that "You have drilled me so hard, I have a blank mind."
Swallowing a laugh, Bill told the duke to let old Buckskin Joe do the hunting. All Alexis would have to do was shoot. Buckskin Joe played his roll perfectly, putting the duke alongside a prize specimen. Alexis pulled out his .44 revolver and blasted away six times as bull, Joe and the duke charged together across the plains. It seemed impossible but Alexis missed all six shots.
Cody raced forward with his rifle, the famed Lucretia Borgia, and gave it to the still flustered duke. The Russian fired, started to reload, then looked back and discovered his first shot had been a killer. He hauled back on the reins, jumped off Joe, raced for the beast, and cut off his tail. Then, sitting square on the back of the buffalo, "He let go with a series of howls and gurgles like the death song of all the fog horns and calliopes ever born, " at least that is the way Cody described it.
While the duke waved the tail for all to see, the ambulance wagons drove up loaded down with wicker baskets of champagne. The Russians toasted the duke, toasted Phil, toasted each other, and the servants were always on hand to make sure that no one's glass was empty. It was a heck of a place to have a party, but no one complained.
Once things got back to normal, the rest of the group continued to hunt. When it was over two hours later, some 20 to 30 black carcasses dotted the prairie. The duke's bull, sans tail, was a better trophy than most realized when he had it hauled back to camp. Alexis personally supervised the skinning out of the head that would soon grace the gilded walls of St. Petersburg.
Once back at camp, the toasting began all over again. Later there was great feasting and singing, first in Russian, then Indian, and then by the troops. The celebration lasted long into the night with not even Sheridan too concerned whether the group got off to an early or late start in the morning.
The last day of the hunt dawned brighter than even the previous two. Custer and Sheridan accompanied the duke, but all were taking it slower. Not cottoning to the fast pace of the chase in the early hours, they sat back and watched Spotted Tail's braves surround another herd. After his experience with a pistol the previous day, Alexis believed that the Indian's bows and arrows were totally inadequate to bring down the monstrous animals. One noted bowman immediately proved the weapon's worth by killing a huge specimen, the arrow going completely through the buffalo and sticking in the ground.
At this, the Russians let out a great cheer and then another after the Sioux's hunting dance. That afternoon the duke bagged two more animals. The hunters went at the sport so enthusiastically that Custer's horse died in the chase and Mike Sheridan, the general's brother, ran his to the ground. Each time the duke brought down an animal, the champagne was passed around again. One scout observed later that he "was in hopes that the duke would kill five or six more buffaloes before we reached camp, especially if a basket of champagne was to be opened every time he dropped one."
Once back at camp and another round of feasting, the royal party settled down to listen to the band and later, watch an Indian powwow. The royal hunt had ended, a smashing success, to say the least.
Cody was a showman to the end. On the return trip the next morning, Alexis learned that Bill was once a stagecoach driver of some renown and asked him to drive the team to the station. Cody, always eager to oblige, paid no mind to the springless, brakeless dogcart - type wagon they were riding in and whipped the spirited cavalry team to a lather. Even Bill was a little scared by the time it was all over, figuring that they made a roadless six-mile expanse in about three minutes.
Though the speed was stretched a mite, the duke agreed it was one heck of a trip. He told Sheridan that, "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 Strait.
The duke and his entourage couldn't pull out of North Platte without having at least one more fling. Alexis presented Buffalo Bill with a purse of gold, a diamond stick pin, and other treasures before leaving for Denver.
Nebraska will be a long time forgetting the Grand Duke Alexis hunt. It was a royal soiree that has no equal in the Plains country. Bill Cody, without realizing it, had staged his first Wild West show, played to his first real royalty.
Only a stone marker pinpoints the spot where the royal hunt occurred, that, and maybe a couple of mementos of the hunt. I would seem appropriate that Hayes Center recreate the hunt on an annual basis. It's a cinch this kind of pageant would attract the kind of attention and the kind of press that the real article did 90 years ago.
© 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 by Brenda Lawless Daniel