Society Balls to Buffalo Tails, Ephemera Traces Grand Duke's Tour
By Jim Crain
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"The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!" could
well have been the chant in 1871 as excited Americans prepared for
the arrival of the Grand Duke Alexis and his entourage of Russian
dignitaries. For the United States, entertaining royalty from abroad
was a rare event, but the Duke was on a mission, and citizens would
see to it that his tour was the tour of all tours.
was a handsome bachelor, just twenty-two, and an officer in the
Royal Navy when his father and current Czar, Alexander II, sent
him on a goodwill journey to foster an amicable relationship and
continuing trade between the two countries. Both nations had a history
of scratching each other's backs.
- Russia mediated a settlement between America and Great Britain
during the War of 1812.
- America showed sympathy for Russia during its Crimean War of
the 1850s, which led to increased trade.
- Russia backed the Union during our own Civil War in hopes that
a strong U. S. would counterbalance the European strength of England
and France, both supporting the Confederacy.
- The purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 cemented a bond
between the two giants that further insured mutual support.
In appreciation, the nation went all out to show Alexis the ultimate
in American hospitality. First-class hotels polished their finest
suites. Banquet halls were decorated to the hilt, while chefs concocted
gourmet feasts fit for royalty. The Pennsylvania Railroad assigned
a manager to oversee the train that would transport Alexis in luxuriously
outfitted Pullman cars. Local stationmasters along the route were
instructed to keep all other trains out of the way of His Imperial
Highness. Between November, 1871, and February, 1872, the Grand
Duke's travels took him through several eastern states, north to
Montreal, as far west as Denver, then through the American South
before departing from Pensacola, Florida.
Alexis's youthfulness undoubtedly helped him survive a whirlwind
ordeal of lavish banquets, society balls, parades, and an unending
schedule of receptions filled with equally unending speechmaking
on the part of his hosts. Crowds - sometimes numbering in the thousands
- turned out to greet him at railway stations and hotels. Bands
struck up the Russian National Anthem. He exuded a royal presence,
spoke fluent English with a heavy Russian accent, and exercised
a flair for flirting with the ladies.
he wasn't hobnobbing with dignitaries, he toured Philadelphia's
Baldwin Locomotive Works and the Smith and Wesson gun factory in
Springfield, CT. Both companies were providing equipment to Russia.
In nearby Bridgeport he was treated to a practical demonstration
of the celebrated Gatling gun at the Union Metallic Cartridge Company.
Alexis reviewed the cadets at West Point and examined rare Russian
volumes in the Harvard library. Escorts guided him through steel
plants, grain elevators, and carpet mills.
When Alexis arrived in Chicago a couple of months after the city's
devastating fire, the destruction so overwhelmed him that he donated
$5,000 to the mayor's relief fund. He took time out to make the
rounds of major photographic studios. In New York he posed for the
cameras of such prominent photographers as Brady and Sarony. They
churned out portraits that were snapped up by the throngs who wanted
mementos of the Duke's visit.
In the evenings President Grant and other prominent citizens toasted
their royal guests and the future of Russian-American cooperation.
When the east coast legs of the tour ended, Alexis eagerly looked
forward to the most anticipated event on his schedule - a trip to
the Wild West frontier, highlighted by a grand buffalo hunt on the
Months in advance of the Duke's arrival, Albert Bierstadt, the
famed landscape artist, was aware of Alexis's desire to hunt buffalo.
Bierstadt was heavily involved in arranging entertainment and returned
to the East in September of 1871 from a sketching trip in California
to help coordinate plans. He conceived and laid the groundwork for
On July 3 he wrote to General William T. Sherman for assistance:
"You are doubtless aware that the Grand Duke Alexis of
Russia is to be here in October, and I have learned that he is quite
desirous of witnessing a Buffalo Hunt. As his visit partakes of
a somewhat national character, would it not be well to give him
one on a grand scale, with Indians included, as a rare piece of
If a large body of Indians could be brought together at that
time, say the latter part of October, the performance of some of
their dances and other ceremonials would be most interesting to
our Russian guests. This would probably be the only way to give
them a correct idea of Red America. Some of the best Indian hunters
might go with the party on the buffalo hunt, to show the aboriginal
style of "going for large game." The herd could be driven
up at the proper time within searching distance of the railroad.
It would add very much to the happiness and well being
of our guests if you could find time to accompany them in person.
In default of that it might accord with your views to delegate some
officer of rank, as Sheridan for instance, in your place. This visit
of the Grand Duke should be made a matter of no ordinary attention,
as it has clearly a more important meaning than the mere pleasure
trip of a Prince."
Grant ultimately directed Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan, an old hand
at staging such events, to take charge of arrangements for the granddaddy
of all buffalo hunts. An elegantly designed timetable announced
that on January 12, 1872, Alexis's special train rolled out of Omaha
on Union Pacific tracks to McPherson Station, Nebraska. It carried
the Ducal Party, Sheridan, and George Armstrong Custer, now engaged
as the Duke's official escort for the remainder of the tour. There
they hooked up with their young guide, William F. Cody, already
known as "Buffalo Bill," and with a host of prominent
military officers such as generals Ord, Palmer, and Forsyth.
This retinue of about 500 participants incorporating cooks, teamsters,
couriers, and two companies of the Second Cavalry and its regimental
band, headed immediately across the cold prairie for "Camp
Alexis," already set up 50 miles south on Red Willow Creek.
To give the Duke a taste of "Red America," Cody used all
of his influence to induce a friendly chief, Spotted Tail, to bring
his best Sioux warriors to the hunt, where they would demonstrate
their hunting skills and add color to the event with their native
The hunt consumed two full days, January 14 and 15, across the
snowy Nebraska landscape. Herds of buffalo roamed within 15 to 20
miles of camp. Custer, Cody, and the entourage worked out a plan
for approaching the buffalo and giving Alexis the opportunity to
bring down the first kill. The Duke was no greenhorn. He was an
expert horseman and quite adventurous; but in the excitement and
eagerness of finally riding among a live thundering herd, he neglected
to follow all the advice given him by Custer and Cody.
Eventually, after borrowing Cody's horse and rifle, he managed
to drop the first animal and let loose a victorious round of whoops
and hollers. Following tradition he sliced off the tail and passed
the bloody appendage from man to man. A wagon of champagne and caviar
was then brought up from the rear, and the hunters indulged in the
first of many toasts. The hunt continued from one herd to the next,
and the entire party joined in a "free for all" slaughter.
The Duke bagged several buffaloes during the two-day romp.
at camp the hunters feasted on a variety of wild game. Evenings
were spent around the campfires offering congratulations and telling
Wild West yarns for the benefit of the Duke. Spotted Tail's band
entertained the party with war dances and mock battles late into
the night then wrapped up the show by passing the ceremonial peace
pipe. Before retiring to their tents, Alexis presented the chief
and his warriors with colorful blankets and a huge bag of coins.
Fortunately several photos were taken at Camp Alexis. A long-known
reference to this appeared in an extremely rare book, The Grand
Duke Alexis in The United States of America, compiled chiefly
from newspaper articles by William Tucker shortly after the tour.
The book states:
"When the party were mounted this morning, and the grand
cavalcade was ready to move forward, an enterprising photographer,
who had arrived in camp, took a picture of it as it stood with the
Grand Duke, General Sheridan, and General Custer at the head, followed
by the remainder of the Imperial suite, the officers and soldiers,
and the great Indian Chief Spotted Tail and his band of experienced
The photographer was identified in a contemporaneous report in
the Nebraska Intelligencer of January 16, 1872:
"Mr. Eaton, artist, of Omaha, took some views of the camp,
the hunting party, the Duke, Spotted Tail, and other groups, and
has received Alexis' order for several hundred copies of each."
Some of these previously unknown stereoviews by Edric Eaton have
now surfaced. They are as rare as stereoviews can be, which is a
mystery considering the popularity of Alexis and the clamor for
mementos. Perhaps this was not a commercial venture by Eaton, but
a commission by Alexis for his personal use. The book further states:
"Before leaving the camp several photographs were taken
by the enterprising artist. They will be interesting souvenirs,
especially to the Imperial members of the party who participated
in the hunting expedition with General Sheridan and His Imperial
Highness. One large view was taken of the party as they sat at breakfast.
Pictures were also made of the camp itself, and among the others
which were taken by request of the Grand Duke were those of Buffalo
Bill and General Custer in his buckskin hunting dress."
six views taken at Camp Alexis have been identified, and the total
number is probably very small. They are not particularly exciting;
one is quite distant and another of Custer and Spotted Tail is rather
blurry. No close up shots of Alexis at the camp have been seen,
nor have some of the other scenes described in Tucker's book. Eaton
unfortunately did not follow the party to the actual hunting grounds.
That setting would have produced some truly spectacular photos of
the personalities posed with their trophies. But the handful of
stereoviews that exist are a collector's dream and the only visual
record of this famous western event.
After a hair-raising ride back to the railhead on a converted Army
wagon, with Cody at the reins, Alexis and his circle continued on
to Denver aboard the exquisitely furnished train. Following another
round of banquets and appearances, the Grand Duke and Custer stopped
in St. Louis to pose for photographs in their buffalo-hunting attire.
Afterwards Custer invited Alexis back to his home in Louisville
to meet his wife, Elizabeth, and partake of some southern hospitality.
From there they headed south via Mammoth Cave and Memphis, then
down the Mississippi aboard the steamboat, James Howard,
to New Orleans, where the party made a grand entrance into the city.
Mardi Gras was in full swing at the time, and Alexis became its
most prominent star. Some believe that the festival's long-lived
mascot, King Rex, was created to honor his participation in the
first organized parade in the event's history.
As for the success of the U. S. excursion, citizens showed His
Highness all the warmth they could muster, and Alexis reciprocated.
He saw America as best he could from the vantage point of a dignitary
being hustled from one stop to the next. The trip to the frontier
was undoubtedly the experience of his life. He got prized souvenirs
of the hunt. Several buffalo heads, hides, and a batch of bison-tail
trophies were sent back to his homeland. On the down side, the press
had a field day ridiculing the hunt and the senseless sport of slaughtering
the diminishing numbers of buffalo, which were almost extinct a
decade later. When Alexis returned to Russia, his father, the Czar,
awarded Albert Bierstadt a medal, the Order of Saint Stanislaus,
for his role in planning the hunt.
I stumbled across the Grand Duke's tour several years ago through
the purchase of an original letter written by Bierstadt in April
1871. In the brief message he invited Major General Dix to an "urgent
meeting to discuss the best method of entertaining His Imperial
Highness, the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia during his visit in this
country." That one acquisition led to an unquenchable search
for more information and artifacts related to the tour. Most articles
written about Alexis have drawn upon two basic sources - the book
of day-by-day events compiled by William Tucker, and an eyewitness
account of the buffalo hunt written by James A. Hadley. Collecting
ephemera has added new dimensions to these resources.
One purchase of 62 original telegrams received by Frank Thomson,
manager of the Grand Duke's train, reveals the logistics, scheduling,
and complexities involved in getting Alexis from place to place.
Ornately designed railroad timetables show the date and time at
which the special train would pass through each little town on the
way to the next big city. Banquet invitations list the cast of committee
members, usually prominent locals, who planned the extravagant balls
and dinners. The stereoviews taken at Camp Alexis finally give us
a glimpse of the wintry Nebraska setting where the hunt was launched.
Numerous portraits of the handsome Alexis reveal why the ladies
were so eager to meet His Highness.
Gathering material about the tour has led to the assimilation of
a significant archive of research material, most likely, the only
one of its kind. The great thing about pursuing the trail of ephemera
for a subject such as this is that you never know what's going to
turn up next.