After the Civil War, the American West was considered by many to be a mysterious and romantic place with its game to be hunted and its wild Indians. The ultimate hunting experience was enormous and fierce buffalo.
“Custer, Cody, and Grand Duke Alexis” tells us of Grand Duke Alexis, also called Prince Alexis, the 21-year-old third son of Czar Alexander II, coming to the visit the U.S. in late 1871 as part of a good-will world tour.
He made the usual rounds of balls, parties, receptions and so on. He even went to the usual tourist sites. He was very much the popular figure and two composers even wrote piano music titled after him.
What he really wanted to do was to meet some Indians and buffalo hunt in the West. The government was eager to provide him with the experience.
Lt. Gen. Philip Sherman was the host of the hunting party of about a dozen prominent men, including Lt. Col. George A. Custer and William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. The army provided roughly 100 officers and men from the second cavalry who went ahead and set up the campsite which was about 30 miles north of present day McCook, Neb., and less than a mile east of today’s Hayes Center.
The party arrived by train in North Platte Jan. 13 and made its way cross-country to Camp Alexis. Brule Sioux Chief Spotted Tail, his family and band moved near to the camp, giving the Prince the opportunity to meet and talk with real, live Indians. The party went buffalo hunting and gave the Prince the honor of the first kill. Ultimately, he killed five and the party, overall, killed about 50.
They returned to North Platte Jan. 16. The Prince resumed his tour of the U.S. and continued his trip around the world. In his later years, he would reminisce how much he had enjoyed the hunting expedition.
The army tore down the camp, took everything with it and never went back.
Participants, historians and others wrote sometimes-conflicting accounts of the experience, which became a part of Western lore.
Over the years, the expedition became a part of the area’s folklore. The general area was used for several other things; a granite monument was set in 1930 and the exact location of Camp Alexis was lost. More than half of “Custer, Cody and Grand Duke Alexis” is devoted to telling the story of Alexis’ American tour and hunting expedition.
Simply telling a tale of events based on written documents is not sufficient for writing history today. Authors must use as many resources and disciplines as possible and try to make a theoretical statement. A study of a small event such as this three-day expedition is called micro-history.
Because of conflicting versions, both written and oral, Douglas Scott felt justified in using archeological techniques to learn as much as he could of Camp Alexis.
About one third of his book is devoted to explaining the nature of the disciplines of archeological history and micro-history, what he discovered and the various theoretical problems that he wanted to discuss, based on his findings.
He went over the probable camp area with metal detectors.
As would be expected of a three day’s camp, he did not find very much; just some uniform buttons, broken dishes, Champaign and beer bottles, construction nails used in building the wooden floor for the Prince’s tent because there was no sleeping on the ground for him, horse shoe nails indicating the location of the farrier, some other objects and the probable location of the flag pole - all of which he lists and analyses. Some of which he also shows in photographs.
From his excavation, he was able to establish the exact location of the camp. The layout, it turned out, was according to the “Revised U.S. Army Regulations of 1861,” a manual which was used by both Union and Confederate armies, and which was used by the army for decades afterwards.
Using ideas from micro-history, Scott compared Camp Alexis with other camps from that period and found them similar; learned something of the lifestyles of participants; confirmed some of his discoveries by using a computer to superimpose photos of camp scenes on today’s landscape; analyzed the expedition and camp in various other ways; was generally able to confirm early accounts, and to settle some discrepancies; and considered the expedition as a tourist experience which could be analyzed according to William Hunt’s tourism theory.
The book includes 64 illustrations, mostly photos, which add to the interest to its 162 pages.
Douglas Scott is a historical archeologist who also wrote “Uncovering History: Archeological Investigations at the Little Bighorn,” which was reviewed on this page on April 21. If you want to learn more about historical archeology, read it, too.
Christopher Banner is emeritus senior specialist in music at K-State and a Manhattan resident.