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Nebraska Historical Markers: The Grand Duke Alexis

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It was kind of a big deal....

I don’t remember when I first heard about the Grand Duke Alexis’ visit. It happened in the area where I grew up, so I took it for granted, just like I did Buffalo Bill Cody. We tend to do that with familiar things; fall to recognize their importance because they become part of our every day lives. The “Grand Duke Alexis” wasn’t part of my every day life, but the idea that the area in which I grew up had any real historical importance was (and still is somewhat) hard to fathom. There’s just not much there other than canyons, hills, great beef and farmland.

I choose to review this marker because I wanted to investigate whether or not I might have been wrong, that perhaps this visit by a young Russian Duke had more meaning than I’d believed. It turns out I was wrong.

More below.

Marker Text

During the winter of 1871-72, the Grand Duke Alexis, fourth son of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, paid a good-will visit to the United States. General Phil Sheridan arranged for a buffalo hunt to be held in his honor. The hunt camp-site was about a mile north of here on Red Willow Creek. It was a short distance above the point where a Fort McPherson-Republican Valley military road crossed the creek 1/2 mile east of here. The hunt took place January 13-15, 1872. Alexis was accompanied by Russian officials and servants. General Sheridan’s party included Generals George Custer and George Forsyth. Buffalo Bill Cody was the guide and chief hunter. Many officers, enlisted men and civilians were required to run the camp. Chief Spotted Tail and an encampment of Brule Sioux entertained with dances and shooting exhibition. Alexis and others succeeded in killing a number of buffalo, and nightly celebrations were held. Within two years, the buffalo were gone, and pioneer ranchers moved into the area. A decade later, hundreds of homesteaders moved into the area and Hayes County was organized in 1885.

Location

Intersection of Ave 369A & Ave 370A, 4 miles east and 4 miles north of Hayes Center, Hayes County, Nebraska

View this marker’s location 40.557264, -100.9102

Commentary

This hunt takes place on January 14, 1872, just seven years after the Civil War and five years after Nebraska officially became a state. Settlers are moving into the state while the Indians are being pushed out.

The Grand Duke Alexis’ full name was Alexei Alexandrovich. He is royalty, and when he comes to America, he’s treated similar to the way people fawn about the recent royal baby birth in England.

The Grand Duke Alexis - a photo taken by Matthew Brady, famous for his Civil War photography.
Matthew Brady

The Grand Duke’s visit was a catalyst in Buffalo Bill becoming as famous as he did. It’s easy to understand why his visit was such a big deal. Consider how much fawning was done recently over the Royal baby being born. You can translate that back to newspapers across the country and discover that the grand Duke’s visit to the United States was reported upon with great zeal. Wikipedia has the whole spiel about the trip if you’re interested.

Interestingly enough, there is little mention of it in the Nebraska newspapers when you do a historical look back to the 1870s. There is a rather cranky “Get Off My Lawn” entry in the Nebraska Herald of Plattsmouth on November 23rd, 1871:

The Grand Duke Alexis of Russia has arrived in New York ; and it is now in order for weak minded and soft pated Americans to exhibit their foolishness before the world.

Ah, there’s nothing like a newspaper man’s ability to climb his ivory tower and shower the masses with derision of how ignorant they are.

The hunt itself is larger than life, as most events were in the old West. Embellishment for the newspapers, for the masses has been around as long as mankind.

Andreas’ History of the State of Nebraska has this version of the hunt:

As soon as a herd of buffalo was seen, some two miles away, Alexis at once became excited, and wanted to make a charge. Better counsel, however, prevailed, and the party went about behind the hills and to the leeward, approaching cautiously till the herd was neared, when they went tearing down among them, Bill riding beside the Duke. When within about one hundred yards, Alexis shot, but missed; Bill then handed him his own rifle, when he tried again, and brought down his game. He was of course much elated upon killing his first buffalo, the hide of which was carefully preserved, that the Duke might take it with him to Russia as a souvenir of his hunt on the western plains. The party returned early to camp, where there was a liberal supply of champagne and other beverages provided, and the evening was spent in frontier style, many hours given up to song and story.

Whereas Buffalo Bill Cody’s account of the hunt is as follows:

Of course the main thing was to give Alexis the first chance and the best shot at the buffaloes, and when all was in readiness we dashed over a little knoll that had hidden us from view, and in a few minutes we were among them. Alexis at first preferred to use his pistol instead of a gun. He fired six shots from this weapon at buffaloes only twenty feet away from him, but as he shot wildly, not one of his bullets took effect. Riding up to his side and seeing that his weapon was empty, I exchanged pistols with him. He again fired six shots, without dropping a buffalo.

Seeing that the animals were bound to make their escape without his killing one of them, unless he had a better weapon, I rode up to him, gave him my old reliable ‘Lucretia,’ and told him to urge his horse close to the buffaloes, and I would then give him the word when to shoot. At the same time I gave old Buckskin Joe a blow with my whip, and with a few jumps the horse carried the Grand Duke to within about ten feet of a big buffalo bull.’Now is your time,’ said I. He fired, and down went the buffalo.

The Grand Duke stopped his horse, dropped his gun on the ground, and commenced waving his hat. When his suite came galloping up, he began talking to them in a tongue which I could not understand. Presently General Sheridan joined the group, and the ambulances were brought up. Very soon the corks began to fly from the champagne bottles, in honor of the Grand Duke Alexis, who had killed the first buffalo.”

So… basically, Buffalo Bill whacks his horse so Alexis gets so close to a giant animal that he cannot possibly miss. It works. Everybody drinks champagne. Then they watch the Indians dance and kill more buffalo.

And then, seemingly, everyone kills more buffalo. They kill millions of buffalo. General Sheridan believes if they kill the buffalo, they can destroy the Indians because they’ll destroy their food supply.

This is a mountain of Buffalo skulls.

There’s a depression in 1873. Men figure out they could kill buffalo, sell the hides and make some money. In a few years, millions of buffalo are gone. There are only an estimated 300 buffalo in the wild by 1900. They are protected because Congress makes a law making buffalo hunting in Yellowstone National Park illegal.

While doing research I stumbled across this article - Reinterpreting the 1882 Bison Population Collapse - which posits that the buffalo did not die off because of excessive hunting/slaughter, but because of disease.

By 1883, bison were virtually extinct, and hunting is usually blamed. However, records indicate that hunters killed less than the annual increase each year. Evidence implicates disease and habitat degradation instead.

It makes sense, but who wants to believe it was disease when we can hate our ancestors for their stupidity?

Look at the aftermath of this event. The buffalo get slaughtered (whether by humans or disease, the result is the same), the Indians get slaughtered, and General Custer and his men get slaughtered. Buffalo Bill Cody goes on to make a killing when his show, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West”, tours the US and Europe.

All of these events influence the concept of the “Western” which wasn’t a very long period in US history but has been romanticized ever since. The wonderful site xkcd.com explains the “Western” in our culture extremely well:

According to “The History Guy”, who has a degree in History and loves History, US and Russian relations are never closer than they would be when the Grand Duke Alexis visited the United States. Oh, what could have been had not those damned Bolsheviks come along.

Here are some more photos... because they’re in the public domain:

The Grand Duke Alexis and George Custer
Buffalo Bill Cody as a dashing dude.

Then There’s This

I pointed out how dime novels influenced our view of the “Wild West” when I introduced this series. Embellishment made the career of many a man. And woman, probably, if you consider Annie Oakley or Belle Starr.

While researching the Grand Duke Alexis, I came across this article in the Omaha Bee, dated January 24, 1904.

Here’s part of the introductory text:

“I was sitting in my tent writing a dispatch,” said Forbes, “when the flap was suddenly drawn aside, and In stalked the most terrible and awe-lnsplrlng object I have ever seen In my life. It was Skobeleff,whom I knew well, but I had to look twice before I recogrized him.

”Ills smart general’s uniform was torn Into shreds and stained with blood and gunpowder from head to foot. His sword, which he held in his hand, was simply smothered In blood, and great drops of it fell on the floor of the tent as he greeted me. There was a terrible gash across the top of his forehead, and his eyes still blased with the fierce excitement of the hand-to-hand fight which he had Just had with hundreds of Turks.

”While he stood there telling me about the battle, his favorite captain, Kouropatkin camo up and called him away to deride about the disposition of some of the prisoners. Kouropatkln looked even more like a god of war fresh from the scene of carnage. He was bleeding from half a dozen wounds, but he stood as steady as a rock when he saluted Skobeleff.

The latter suggested that he had better go into the hospital, but he curtly replied, ‘No, general. There is work to be done.’”I heard afterward that Skobeleff and Kouropatkln had fought side by side throughout that bloody day, and had slain the Turks literally by dozens. Their exploits formed the theme of many a story told beside the campfires of both armies throughout the campaign.”

What utter bullshit is this!!!!!

Long before there were Star Wars Stormtroopers, the worst fighters in the history of the universe, Kouropatkin and Skobeleff were slaughtering Turks “literally by the dozens” with their sabers. This is the “Fast and Furious” series before there were movies. Clearly, people loved this kind of stuff as much as we love Jackie Chan movies today. It would be really interesting to interview people and see how many actually took these types of articles at face value.

Here’s a link to a PDF to the Omaha Bee story:seq-24.pdf