- Custer, Cody, and Grand Duke Alexis: Historical Archaeology of the Royal Buffalo Hunt by Douglas D. Scott et al.
In 1871 and 1872 a Russian delegation headed by Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovich, the fourth son of the late Tsar Alexander II, paid a political goodwill visit to the United States. One of the highlights of the three-month tour was a buffalo hunt on Red Willow Creek in southwestern Nebraska, arranged by Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan, commander of the Army’s Department of the Missouri. Soldiers from Fort McPherson established a camp on Red Willow Creek in Hayes County about fifty miles south of North Platte, which was used for three days in January 1872. Among the participants in the “Royal Buffalo Hunt” were Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and US Army scout William F. (“Buffalo Bill”) Cody, along with other high-ranking US Army officers and members of the Grand Duke’s Russian entourage. Chief Spotted Tail of the Brulé Lakota and several hundred members of his band were invited to participate in the hunt. The successful hunt received much publicity in local, state, and national newspapers at the time and was a much-celebrated event of international and intercultural flavor.
The three authors of this book—two archaeologists and an anthropology graduate student—have skillfully analyzed the historical, photographic, and archaeological evidence of the hunt and its campsite. They reanalyzed the many previous historical descriptions—typically exaggerated and embellished, sometimes even fabricated—of the hunt.
With the help of magnification, photographic superimpositioning on modern landscape images, and a computer modeling program, several rare photographs of the campsite—most not previously known to exist—were analyzed for details that allowed reconstruction of the camp’s arrangement as well as its context in relation to surrounding landscape features. Archaeological investigations conducted in 2008 and 2009 confirmed the camp’s location through the discovery of a scatter of camp debris, including nails used in improvised wooden frameworks that supported the various kinds of tents used in the camp.
Since the historic photographs are critical to the analytical efforts to reconstruct the camp and place it in context, it is unfortunate that better-quality images were not reproduced in the book.
The results of the authors’ research provide fascinating new insights into a singular episode of early tourism in the American West, details of military camp layout that may be compared with a small but growing body of archaeological data on other US Army camps of the period, and the participation of several iconic figures of Civil War and western history. [End Page 239] A number of glaring misconceptions in the published lore of the “Royal Hunt” are effectively dispelled. This book is an enthralling read for anyone interested in the history of the American West.