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The United States was born in a revolution against royalty, but every once in a while Americans go gaga over some foreigner with a fancy title. It happened when Grand Duke Alexis of Russia traveled to the Great Plains to shoot buffalo and drink champagne with Buffalo Bill Cody, General George Armstrong Custer and Chief Spotted Tail and his Sioux warriors. A glorious time was had by all except the duke’s host, General Philip Sheridan, who was lucky to escape the festivities alive.

Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovich Romanov was a son of Tsar Alexander II, the fool who’d sold Alaska to the U.S. for 2 cents an acre five years earlier. When Alexis arrived in New York in November 1871, he was 21, tall and brawny, with golden hair and long, flamboyant sideburns. The newspapers gleefully chronicled his adventures, which included meeting President Ulysses S. Grant, shopping at Tiffany’s jewelry store, and trips to Harvard University, Cleveland and Chicago, where he met General Sheridan, who was happy to fulfill the duke’s dream of hobnobbing with real Indians and shooting real buffalo.

Sheridan chose Custer to help run the expedition and dispatched Cody to visit Spotted Tail on his reservation and lure him to the hunt with the promise of many wagonloads of free food, blankets and tobacco. Meanwhile, Sheridan’s soldiers constructed Camp Alexis on the Nebraska plains, shoveling snow and pitching two huge hospital tents, complete with floorboards and thick carpets, for the general and the duke. They also carted in plenty of chow and prodigious quantities of booze.

At dawn on January 13, a special train carrying Sheridan, Custer and the duke arrived at North Platte, where Cody waited at the station, wearing a buckskin suit trimmed with fur, his long hair dangling over his shoulders.

“Your Highness, this is Mr. Cody, otherwise and universally known as Buffalo Bill,” Sheridan said. “Bill, this is the Grand Duke.”

“I am glad to know you,” Cody told the duke.

Buffalo Bill hopped on his horse, Sheridan and the duke climbed into a wagon and they set out for Camp Alexis. When they arrived, the Second Cavalry band greeted them with a spirited rendition of “Hail to the Chief.” Soon, champagne corks popped and the party commenced.

The next day was the grand duke’s 22nd birthday and he rode off to kill a buffalo, accompanied by Cody and Custer, who wore buckskins and what one reporter described as “a comical sealskin hat.” Alexis rode Buckskin Joe—“probably the best buffalo-hunting horse that ever lived,” Cody called him—and carried a revolver he’d been given back East.

“Of course the main thing was to give Alexis the first chance and the best shot at the buffaloes,” Cody later wrote. “Alexis at first preferred to use his pistol instead of a gun. He fired six shots from this weapon at buffaloes only 20 feet away from him, but as he shot wildly, not one of his bullets took effect.”

Cody handed the duke another pistol. “He again fired six shots without dropping a buffalo.”

If Cody was amused to watch a man whose title contained the word “grand” miss huge bovine beasts with 12 consecutive shots at close range, he did not mention it in his autobiography. He merely handed the duke his trusty rifle, “Lucretia Borgia,” and gave Buckskin Joe a whack on the butt. The horse dutifully carried the duke to within 10 feet of a buffalo.

“He fired,” Cody wrote, “and down went the buffalo.”

The duke stood over his kill, hollering in triumph and waving his hat, and his servants broke out the champagne.

The drinking lasted long into the night, with champagne washing down hunks of broiled buffalo.

By then, Spotted Tail had arrived with more than 100 Brule Sioux warriors, as well as his daughter Red Road, whose dazzling beauty instantly beguiled both Alexis and Custer, who began vying for her affections.

At least that’s what the papers said. But this was an age when reporters didn’t let facts stand in the way of a good story, and a grand duke competing with a dashing general for the love of an Indian maiden was too good to pass up. The Nebraska State Journal described Custer lovingly pinning earrings on Red Road:

“He consumed much more time in this pleasant occupation than was needed and having adjusted one of them in her ear, without changing his position put his arms around her neck in order to adjust the other…and the scene ended by his kissing her. It was done so graciously that old Spotted Tail had no cause to scalp him for his temerity.”

It’s a touching story, but believing it requires accepting the notion that Custer traveled to buffalo hunts carrying a spare pair of earrings.

After a couple days of hunting, Sheridan and Custer escorted Alexis to Denver, where a formal ball was held in his honor. Then they all headed off to kill more buffalo on the plains of Colorado. There, Custer showed off for the duke, demonstrating his horsemanship. “Throwing the reins on his neck, he guided the almost unbroken horse in a circle by the pressure of his knees,” recalled a scout named Chalkley Beeson, “and drawing both revolvers fired with either hand at a gallup with as much accuracy as though he were standing on the ground.”

Alas, the actual hunt did not proceed so artfully. Custer galloped off with the duke and their entourages while Sheridan stayed behind with Beeson. Hearing gunfire nearby, Sheridan and Beeson climbed a hill to observe the action, then watched in terror as several wounded buffalo charged toward them, followed by the hunters, firing wildly.

“The bullets were dropping all around us,” Beeson recalled. “Sheridan was too short in the legs to run and threw himself flat on the ground with his face in the buffalo grass.…Finally, they stopped and when Sheridan got to his feet I think he was the maddest man I ever saw.…I don’t know what kind of language Pa Romanov used to Alexis when he got mad, but that slip of royalty got a cursing from Phil Sheridan that day that I bet he will never forget.”

When the expletives faded, the hunt continued. That night, Beeson recalled, “Everybody was drunk and happy.”

The much-hyped hunt turned out to be great for Buffalo Bill but terrible for the buffalo. The publicity made Cody famous, launching his showbiz career, but it also attracted hordes of tourists eager to shoot buffalo, sometimes from the windows of trains. Within a decade, the beasts were nearly extinct.

Meanwhile the grand duke returned to Russia, where he took command of the imperial navy. When his fleet was crushed in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, Alexis retired in disgrace. He moved to Paris, where he attended fashion shows and hobnobbed with actresses. He died there in 1908, a decade before the Bolsheviks overthrew the Romanov dynasty and killed his nephew, Tsar Nicholas II.


Originally published in the June 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here