At the annual re-enactment of a lavish 19th-century buffalo hunt originally held in honour of the visiting Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich, Neela Banerjee discovers the fleeting joys of 'living history' A 119-acre stretch of switch grass, cottonwood and willow, Camp Hayes Lake is a park and hunting preserve carved out of the vast, rolling farmland of southwestern Nebraska. Deer season doesn't come to the park until late autumn. Before then, there's very little shooting around here, but for one weekend every September, when the park plays host to the world's only celebration of famous cowboys, fatalist Indians and Russian royalty - a three-day Old West re-enactment called the Grand Duke Alexis Rendezvous, whose soundtrack is a steady stream of gunfire.
Single shots were already cracking out every few minutes when I arrived at the preserve on Saturday morning with my friend Lee Farrow, a historian who has spent the last four years researching the goodwill tour that brought Russia's Grand Duke Alexei, the fourth son of Tsar Alexander II, to the United States and Canada 140 years ago. We were gathering our things from the car when General Philip Sheridan - the right-hand-man to America's 18th president, Ulysses S Grant, an innovator in scorched-earth war and the scourge of America's Indians and buffalo alike - pulled up in a big muddy white pickup truck. "Morning, ladies," he said. We had met Sheridan the night before in the nearby town's lone bar, where he was dressed in the same homemade 19th-century cavalry uniform: midnight blue hat, grey breeches tucked into high boots, white shirt with oversized epaulettes. More shots rang beyond the trees. "I brought my revolver," Sheridan said, and began to gesture with the gun. "I heard there were Indians here. You never know with those Indians. They're always breaking their treaties."
A slight man with a big moustache, Sheridan walked fast across the pasture, avoiding cowpats wide as dinner plates without looking down. "You know, it's not true that I said, 'The only good Indian is a dead Indian,'" he told us. "What I said was, 'The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.'" We followed General Sheridan through an alley of trees to a campsite where a dozen teepees and tents made a loose oval on a bluff overlooking a lake. Some men and women dressed in buckskin and braids approximating Plains Indians tended campfires. The general ignored them and trotted off to join Buffalo Bill Cody and a grizzled red-beard named California Joe. General George Custer, who famously met his demise at the Battle of Little Bighorn, hadn't yet arrived. The air was tart with wood smoke and sulphur. The firing got more frequent as a target shooting contest began. Soon afterwards, someone fired a cannon across the lake.
The 22-year old Grand Duke Alexei (Alexis is the anglicised version of his name) came to the United States in 1871, and visited more than 30 cities in the US and Canada during his four-month stay. He was in New York during the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the fall of "Boss" Tweed, the city's famously corrupt political leader; he arrived in Chicago six weeks after that city's Great Fire, and donated the equivalent of $250,000 (Dh925,000) today in gold to the homeless. The press covered his every move.
The Grand Duke's visit was intended to fortify the already-close relationship between Russia and the United States, but the tsar and his wife had their own reasons for sending their son abroad: they hoped the trip would end the prince's love affair with a commoner. Grand Duke Alexis's letters home, Farrow said, reveal a sad young man yearning for his family, but he put on a charming show for the scores of politicians and industrialists he met, for the crowds that lined the streets as he passed, and for the women that he danced with at every ball thrown in his honour, even the ugly ones he later complained about privately.
In Washington, Alexei told President Grant that when he finished his official visits he hoped to shoot buffalo, and Grant asked Sheridan to organise a hunt. In January 1872, the Grand Duke and his retinue set out for the Nebraska plains, where buffalo wintered, accompanied by wagons filled with Persian rugs and champagne. They were led by Sheridan, his protégé General Custer, and the 25-year old army scout William Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill.
Cody, who had earned his nickname by killing thousands of buffalo on the plains, served as the hunt's ringmaster, taking the Grand Duke to the buffalo, giving him his own hunt-trained horse to ride, and hiring around 600 Sioux to provide entertainment. Their leader, Chief Spotted Tail, had once fought against white settlers, but resigned himself and made peace when he realised the inevitability of America's westward advance. Cody had the Sioux put on displays of "Indian-style" hunting and dancing for Alexei. A decade later Cody would turn his talents as an impresario to the creation of "Buffalo Bill's Wild West", the travelling show that would propel him to worldwide fame - leading John Doerner, a historian at the Little Bighorn National Monument, to dub him "the original re-enactor".
Kirk Shapland, who has portrayed Buffalo Bill in every Grand Duke Alexis Rendezvous, says he figures there are at least 30 Buffalo Bills now working across the United States - although most of them are older than the 37-year old Shapland; they do Cody in his later years, as a Wild West showman rather than a buffalo hunter. When he isn't being Buffalo Bill somewhere, Shapland operates a lawn care and taxidermy business during the week in Dighton, Kansas, a four-hour drive from Hayes Center.
Shapland's taxidermy skills came in handy. He'd set up two elaborate tents in a corner of the Rendezvous. One was the Grand Duke's dining tent, with a fully-set table inside and artfully arranged buffalo skulls outside. Next to it stood Buffalo Bill's smaller tent. Between them, Buffalo Bill had hung a bountiful kill: a couple of geese strung up by their umbrella-handle necks, the haunch of a deer and a whole deer itself pierced through their ankles, and some smaller furry critters. The wounds on the animals shone a glossy red from the lacquer Shapland had used to mount them.
I asked Buffalo Bill if he killed them himself. "No, they're mostly roadkill," he answered. "Like the deer: the sheriff's office called me and asked me if I wanted to pick it up." Shapland didn't stay out of character for long. On Saturday morning, Buffalo Bill grabbed his rifle, Lucretia, and strode into the clearing in the middle of the tents and teepees. Buffalo Bill is tall, and looked even taller in his wide brimmed hat, his long, light brown hair flowing from underneath. He wore tan suede trousers, knee-high boots and a flaxen shirt with orange and green flowers embroidered across the chest.
In a Plains drawl, Buffalo Bill told the crowd that the goal of the White House-backed safari was to make sure the Grand Duke bagged a buffalo. "I asked him, what kind of gun you got?" he said, referring to the prince. "And he had a Smith and Wesson pistol. I told him he would need a rifle. "When we went out on the plains and saw the buffalo, we held back so the Duke could go first. Well, he emptied six rounds at that buffalo, and that buffalo thundered across the plain. Then he did it again."
Buffalo Bill was vexed by the Grand Duke's infatuation with his revolver, which he got back East. Finally, the scout convinced the Grand Duke to take his rifle. "I found this gun to be so deadly accurate and murderous," he said, weighing the gun in his hands, "that I named her Lucretia, after this woman I saw in a play called Lucretia Borgia. She used to poison people. And I told him, 'Now I'll ride out with you and I'll tell you when.'"
"We saw a buffalo and I said, 'Now, now is your time!'" Buffalo Bill turned to his left and as if he were on horseback aiming at a buffalo alongside, fired Lucretia into the dry, calf-high grass. In the metal bleachers in front of him, two hundred local farmers, Boy Scouts, Old West aficionados and the odd academic flinched. "He puts the hammer down and drops the big shaggy." Buffalo Bill fired again into the ground, driving away waves of grasshoppers.
"The Duke hollered to a bunch of Russians in his party," Buffalo Bill said, as a wagon pulled up with French champagne to toast the kill. That apparently happened a lot during the hunt. "I felt that if we would break out the champagne every time the Grand Duke shot a buffalo," he said, "he could kill every big shaggy on the Great Plains, as far as I was concerned." Under the strong midday sun, the crowd listened intently to each hunter's account of those three days on the prairie in 1872. No one was texting. No cell phones chirped. No earbuds were to be seen. They wanted to know what had happened here.
When it was the Grand Duke's turn to tell his side of the story, he couldn't talk without shooting a lot more. Though Alexis was barely out of adolescence when he arrived in the US, the portly Grand Duke at the Rendezvous looked like the prince in his later years, when he was secretary of the Russian Navy, the one sunk by the Japanese in 1905. Amid the heat and clouds of gnats, he stood neat and composed in his black Astrakhan wool hat and heavy wool teal jacket.
"Later in hunt, I am by myself. Mr Cody is behind me and Gen Custer someplace in background. I see buffalo coming right toward me," Grand Duke Alexis said in a slight Russian accent, revolver in hand. "I take careful aim" - at this point he shoots - "I kill buffalo with one shot from .45 calibre Schofield. You Americans call this I think 'scratch shot.'" The Grand Duke seemed to enjoy the buffalo hunt, and every year after he returned to Russia, he organised an Old West festival in St Petersburg.
At the Rendezvous this year, the sole buffalo was named Killer. Like many American bison now, Killer was raised on a ranch. He got his name because he'd killed his father, brother and a son, his owner wrote on a sign. His "hanging weight" after being in a cooler for two weeks was 488kg. We ate him in various forms?burgers, barbecue?at the Rendezvous. His massive dark brown head was mounted on the side of a shed. Its furry stillness invited petting.
On any given weekend, thousands of people around the world are out in a field or forest, re-enacting some historical event. The fever for re-enactment is particularly strong in England, where conflicts from Roman times to the Napoleonic Wars are replayed; in the US, the Civil War is dominant. But for those who feel they were born too late to help along Manifest Destiny, the Grand Duke Rendezvous provides a chance to wear some buckskin and calico and relive the happier moments of the cowboy era.
Most of the 1,500 to 2,000 people who come to the Grand Duke Alexis Rendezvous weekend are outsiders, largely history buffs and gun enthusiasts. There is no way to replicate the hunt at the Rendezvous, or even have the re-enactors ride around the refuge, because people wouldn't be able to hear their stories. So, they take turns telling their tales to an audience a few times over the weekend and chatting with visitors and each other, mostly in character. The other big attraction is the black-powder target shooting, where people use replicas of old-time shotguns which are loaded down the barrel with lead balls and gunpowder. When folks tire of guns, they can throw tomahawks at playing cards nailed to a slice of a huge tree stump.
On Sunday afternoon, California Joe, Custer's chief of scouts, sat alone by the entrance to the Grand Duke's dining tent. Custer had left the dining tent to get his picture taken elsewhere with Spotted Tail and the Grand Duke. An accomplished Indian tracker, California Joe - real name Moses Milner - was also a drunk, smelly and "an equal-opportunity killer," according to Mark Berry, the 59-year old Kansas farmer who portrays him.
Under a hat pulled low, California Joe's face was a haze of red hair and beard. Berry said he'd probably look like this anyway, even if he didn't have an alcoholic gunslinger as an alter ego; he started to play the part after someone told him he looked like California Joe while he was volunteering as a scout at historical re-enactments at a fort in Kansas. The biggest mistake people make in looking at re-enactments is assuming the same things about history attract people, Berry said. Some are interested in the stuff of the past, like the tents, guns and knives, he said. Others are into the acting. Many clearly enjoy the sense of community. Some want to make a statement against political correctness. A few think they are reincarnations of the historical figures they portray.
Jahnis Abelite, a lawyer from Bellingham, Washington, plays the Grand Duke Alexis. Abelite is a longtime, passionate student of General Custer, and he developed the Grand Duke role so he could spend more time with his wife, Nora. At the Rendezvous, Nora played Lydia Thompson, an English burlesque performer who toured the US and performed for the Grand Duke many times. But for years, Mrs Abelite has portrayed Lydia Ann Reed, Custer's sister, at events all over the country.
"By portraying his sister for 15 years, I got to know him not as the villain of Washita and Little Big Horn," she said, referring two contentious battles against the Indians, "or as a Civil War hero, but as a loving, caring tender family man." Custer actively cultivated his legacy during his 36 years. He loved publicity. He designed his own uniform, making him look like "a circus rider gone mad," John Doerner said. "People need heroes and George Custer is singled out for his exploits," Doerner added. "All great nations have their last stands: the Texans had the Alamo, the Spartans and Thermopylae, and Custer is a tie back to a period in history that lot of people were fascinated by but born too late for."
The Rendezvous has a top-notch Custer in Steve Alexander, who has become the go-to man for all things Custer in the United States. He has appeared as Custer on cable television programmes at least 15 times. He is Custer at re-enactments at Little Bighorn, Gettysburg and other Civil War battles and travels three or four times a month to portray him elsewhere. He travels through airports wearing his costume, a cocked cowboy hat, light grey buckskin and red scarf. He owns 1,000 books about the Custer era. His colleagues at his job as a utility company surveyor in Michigan call him "General". He also sometimes does the same.
Alexander grew up in Custer's hometown of Monroe, Michigan, studied the general all his life and fell into the role of Custer in the late 1980s, when travelling out West towards Little Bighorn. A museum director in Hardin, Montana saw Alexander in a full beard, suede jacket and hat and asked him to play Custer at a celebration. Like the other historical figures at the Rendezvous, Alexander makes little money at historical re-enactments, usually recouping only his travel costs. The living historians, as they prefer to be called, spend considerable time and money to research and portray the personages they take up. The re-enacters also seem to have an affection for their chosen historical personae, eager to excuse or forgive their famous shortcomings, as if somehow, in all the time spent with these long-dead figures, they have become like family.
Alexander likes to come to the Rendezvous, he said, because it's near a place where Custer had once been. He wants people to know about other aspects of the general's life, not just the storied last day. He is on a mission to "swing the pendulum back," on Custer, he said. "My patriotism and who I am as an American was greatly influenced by what I read as a child," he said. "In recent times, they try to destroy historical figures. What I do is a positive to balance the negative."
The Great Royal Buffalo Hunt marked a high-point of sorts in relations between the two future superpowers whose nuclear standoff defined the second half of the 20th century. Their friendship cooled in the decades following the Grand Duke's return to St Petersburg, eventually falling into a deep freeze after the Bolshevik Revolution that killed Alexei's nephew, Tsar Nicholas II. The Rendezvous, too, may be on the wane. All the organisers are in their seventies and eighties, and the 11 months of planning for the event exhausts them. Fewer townspeople are coming to the event, saying that it changes little each year, and the organisers suggested that next year's Rendezvous may be the last.
The re-enacters are getting old for their parts. Shapland is the youngest of the bunch and he can play Buffalo Bill for decades, as Cody died at 70. But the others are largely in their fifties, and some re-enactors question how long they can play people who were in their twenties and thirties during the Grand Duke's trip. "There are many Buffalo Bills and a number of Custers, but there is no one I know who does the Grand Duke," Jahnis Abelite said. "We don't see anyone coming up to us and saying, 'Can I take over your role some day?' All of us re-enactors feel that these events will fade into obscurity unless others come up. I don't want to be a 65-year old man playing a 22-year old Grand Duke."
Steve Alexander declines to give his age, only to say "I will be celebrating my 170th birthday in Monroe, Michigan this December 5," which is in fact, Custer's birthday. But he does colour and curl his hair now to approximate Custer's blond locks. He wonders, too, how long he can pull off his portrayal. But his life is now so intertwined with Custer's that it may not matter much. He bought the house that belonged to Custer's wife - where the general himself stayed for a few months in 1868. Even if the re-enactments end, he's still Custer, Alexander said, because he wakes up in the general's house every day.
Not that he thinks he is Custer. Rather, after all these years at re-enactments like the Rendezvous, Custer is a part of him. "The Indians think I am Custer reincarnated," Alexander said. "I'm a Christian, so I don't believe in those supernatural things." "But I have a theory - and there's no credence in scientific fact for this - that memories aren't something you can hold in your hand. So, when a person dies, do those memories go with him or go out into the universe? Then suppose a child was born who was more susceptible and empathetic to those values. Is it possible that I inherited some of those molecules of Custer's memories?"
Neela Banerjee, a former reporter at the New York Times, is a writer based in Washington, DC.