Three generals and Russia’s Grand Duke go buffalo hunting

January 11, 1872

On this day, Russia’s Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich began a 700-mile trek to Nebraska for a royal buffalo hunt.  It took three generals, the cavalry, the infantry, five military ambulances and a brass band to get him there.

Traveling from St. Louis to Omaha midway through a celebrated world tour,  the prairie sojourn of the Grand Duke (right) captivated the nation.  Accompanied by generals, Philip Sheridan, Edward Ord and George Armstrong Custer, he arrived by special train at Fort McPherson near present-day North Platte.  There he met the most famous buffalo hunter of all time, Buffalo Bill Cody.

Fort Cottonwood was renamed McPherson in 1866

It was a breathtaking display of military excess. In addition to all the troops and hardware, it included a caravan of open carriages, a wagon for luggage and three more wagons just to transport the liquor to “Camp Alexei” 50 miles from the fort.  And the Grand Duke wasn’t exactly roughing it once he got there.   His tent was fitted out with oriental rugs, a box stove and an array of other special furnishings.

In a pre-Little Big Horn demonstration of détente, six Sioux chiefs and 600  warriors assembled to greet Alexei, performing feats of horsemanship and hunting techniques in exchange for 25 wagon loads of flour, sugar, coffee and tobacco.   

 Unfortunately by the second night a dispute arose at the camp when the 22-year-old Alexei was apparently too attentive to one of the Lakota women.  Gifts of blankets, ivory-handled knives and silver dollars were needed to calm the waters.  

Actresses Lydia Thompson, left, and Lottie Crabtree

It wasn’t the first time his Highness had been smitten with a young lady in the New World.   He raised eyebrows and made headlines across the country pursuing actresses Lydia Thompson and Lottie Crabtree as well as an unsuspecting young dance partner from Lawrence, Kansas. 

Nor was it the first time the Grand Duke’s romantic liaisons had gotten him in trouble.  His affair with  Alexandra Chukovskaya, (right) the daughter of a poet and eight years his senior, was bitterly opposed by Tsar Alexander III.  Many European critics viewed the world tour as an attempt by the Tsar to distract attention from the birth of the couple’s son the year before.

Custer pictured reclining with the Grand Duke, 1872

The Grand Duke’s visit to the United States lasted another six weeks following visits to Denver, Louisville, Kentucky, Memphis, Tennessee and New Orleans.  Alexei departed from Pensacola, Florida, on February 22 with a buffalo robe, several hundred pounds of frozen buffalo meat and a fast friendship with General Custer which lasted until Custer’s death in 1876.  

After the Grand Duke’s Western frolic had become old news in America, his celebrated affair with Zenaida Skobelyeva, “Zina,” Duchess of Leuchtenberg, continued to make him controversial back home. (Right, Duke and Skobelyeva) 

Following a spotty military career, he was eventually appointed General-Admiral of the Russian Imperial Fleet in 1883.   The navy’s defeat during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, however, cost Alexei his command and he retired in disgrace.  The following year, mourning the  assassination of his brother, Sergei,  he retreated to Paris where he died three years later at just 58.

His reputation for “fast women and slow ships” tainted his legacy for years.   More recent history, however, has been a bit kinder, crediting the Grand Duke with reorganizing the Russian Navy, improving the country’s ports and modernizing the fleet.

By the time Alexei died in Paris, the American bison was in retreat, as well. Once numbered in the millions, it had been hunted to near extinction.   By 1890, fewer than a thousand were left.  Only casually related zoologically to the buffalo, the bison was misnamed by early explorers because of its somewhat similar appearance to the Asian Water Buffalo and the African Cape Buffalo.                                     A domestic water buffalo

Luckily, bison have made a remarkable comeback.  According to a recent census by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an estimated 300,000 animals are now on private ranches and another estimated45,000 roam on Federal land.

 An Inter Tribal Bison Council founded in 1990, is dedicated to establishing Native American herds.  Today 56 tribes in 19 states  collectively own more than 15,000 head, according to the most recent data available.Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park, 2921 Scouts Rest Ranch Road, North Platte, Nebraska, includes 25 landscaped acres, the showman’s 1886-era mansion and four original structures for exhibiting Cody’s Wild West Show memorabilia.   Entered on the list of National Historic places in 1978, the grounds are next door to the Buffalo Bill State Recreation Area which features a variety of outdoor activities.

Managed by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, admission to the grounds is just $3 per vehicle and visitors are free to tour the mansion and other areas.  Open Monday through Friday, 10 to 4 from March 24 to Memorial Day and 10 to 5 daily from Memorial to Labor Day.  From Labor Day to Oct 24, the park is open 10 to 4 on Fridays.  For more information go to or call (308) 535-8035.   

© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.