A big historical anniversary in southwest Nebraska is now a year away, though how it’ll be celebrated remains unknown.
On Jan. 13, 1872, a trainload of renowned historical figures — including Civil War Gens. Philip Sheridan and George A. Custer — got off a Union Pacific train at the original 1869 depot in five-year-old North Platte.
They accompanied the Grand Duke Alexis, a son of Czar Alexander II of Russia, who had arrived in the United States in November 1871 and wanted to hunt buffalo.
Waiting for them: 25-year-old William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, then chief of scouts for the U.S. Army’s 5th Cavalry at Fort McPherson near present-day Maxwell.
Alexis, who turned 22 on the hunt’s first big day Jan. 14, also witnessed living examples of Native American life — the latter courtesy of Spotted Tail’s Brulé Lakota band — while at “Camp Alexis” on Red Willow Creek, about seven miles northeast of present-day Hayes Center.
He and his party boarded another U.P. train Jan. 16 at North Platte, bound for Denver and more buffalo hunting. The grand duke would sail for Russia in a month later.
Alexis’ state visit, one of post-Civil War America’s early celebrity jaunts, also proved a turning point on Cody’s road to international superstardom as founder and 30-year leader of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.
“Due to his notoriety and skill, he was asked to lead the hunt,” said Adam Jones, superintendent of Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park in North Platte.
“We know it took a lot of his tracking skills to find the bison for this hunt, and luckily it turned out to be a success even in the seasonably cold weather.”
The Alexis hunt says nearly as much about North Platte’s prominence in Old West history, said Jim Griffin, director-curator of the Lincoln County Historical Museum near Cody’s Scout’s Rest Ranch.
Because the Union Pacific Railroad created North Platte as a vital rail hub, “North Platte was an important stop for people who wanted to see the West and experience it,” Griffin said. “Duke Alexis is probably the height of that interest.”
As hard as it is to imagine any public observance of 2022’s 150th anniversary amid COVID-19 — let alone a Nebraska winter — historians say Alexis’ buffalo hunt deserves to be remembered.
Lee Farrow, a professor of Russian history at the Auburn University campus in Montgomery, Alabama, hopes to put together a formal commemoration in southwest Nebraska between late 2021 and spring 2022.
COVID-19 “has thrown a monkey wrench” into her plans, but “several groups are still on board,” Farrow said in a November email to The Telegraph.
Bill Moore of Papillion, who organized September’s AirMail 100 relay that stopped in North Platte while marking the centennial of the first U.S. airmail flight, said last week he’s been in touch with Farrow.
Moore himself is working on a “mixed reality” online project, “Camp1872,” which would let viewers virtually visit Camp Alexis and interact with avatars of the grand duke, Cody and others.
“Maybe the bigger question (for his project) is: Why?” Moore wrote recently in the Omaha World-Herald. “Perhaps the simplest answer is this: ‘The best way to learn from the past is to relive it.’”
Next year’s anniversary is on the North Platte/Lincoln County Visitors Bureau’s radar, Executive Director Lisa Burke said, though lost lodging-tax income from the pandemic could keep it from helping much.
Griffin said his museum will “take an academic route” with next year’s observance. “I know we are going to have some speakers up here and some sort of exhibition to commemorate it.”
The staff at Scout’s Rest Ranch, which has a few of Alexis’ gifts to Cody, likewise is “brainstorming ideas” about how to mark the anniversary, Jones said.
While North Platte did have a newspaper at the time of the hunt — the North Platte Democrat, founded in 1871 — no known copies survive from prior to March 1872.
History owes the event’s only real-time descriptions of the hunt to an anonymous reporter for one of America’s most famous newspapers.
His accounts, relayed from Camp Alexis in Hayes County to the telegraph station in North Platte, were published in the New York Herald on Jan. 14, 16 and 17, 1872. Newspapers across the country then reprinted the Herald’s accounts.
Publisher James Gordon Bennett Jr. already knew of Buffalo Bill. He had taken part in a Cody-led buffalo hunt from Fort McPherson in September 1871, two months before Alexis arrived from Russia.
His unnamed correspondent was “an Omaha member of the party,” according to a Sept. 4, 1915, Omaha World-Herald story that includes the entirety of that writer’s first dispatch from North Platte.
Bennett had a penchant for big splashes with celebrity expeditions, having sponsored the successful 1869 trip to Africa by journalist Henry M. Stanley (a previous observer of the young North Platte) to find the British explorer David Livingstone.
Despite contemporary dime novelist Ned Buntline’s famous though fictional accounts of Cody, Bennett “did more to promulgate Buffalo Bill’s authentic adventures and accomplishments,” said Jeremy Johnston, historian and former curator at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming.
Less than a year after guiding Alexis on Nebraska’s winter plains, Cody made his first Eastern appearances in indoor stage Western melodramas.
A decade after the hunt, Cody’s Independence Day “Old Glory Blowout” in North Platte set him on the road to launching his Wild West Show in 1883.
The publicity from Alexis’ hunt, Jones said, also raised nationwide awareness of the bison then rapidly being killed off by white hunters on the Plains.
Though Cody earned his nickname by killing bison to feed Kansas Pacific Railroad track gangs, recent historians have credited him with also helping to avert the extinction of the buffalo during his long show-business career.
Scout’s Rest “recognizes this part in Bill’s life, and we have tried to represent it in the positive light which it deserves,” Jones said.
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