Elegant parties were a dime a dozen in Gilded Age New York. If you were in the right social set, you could attend an Europhile black-tie event on Fifth Avenue any day of the week, drowning yourself in French wine and beluga caviar. But not just anyone could get an invitation to a quintessentially American experience — a luxury dinner while buffalo hunting on the Western frontier. After the Civil War, a customized journey to the Great Plains was an envied excursion for the fashionable man-about-town. Lacking the seamless organization of a modern Abercrombie & Kent safari, this sort of high-end wilderness party was not for the faint of heart or the poor of pocket: You had to combine a long journey on the new Pacific railway line with an extended horseback ride into the prairies led by experienced Western guides, taking your chances with horseback accidents and scalping as part of the holiday fun.
The most entertaining of these jaunts began in September, 1871, when 14 intrepid New Yorkers took a 10-day horseback tour from Fort McPherson, Nebraska, to Fort Hayes, Kansas, under the guidance of a little-known 25-year-old named “Buffalo Bill” Cody. At the time, Cody was the army’s chief of scouts, but the future celebrity was already an incorrigible self-mythologizer and hilarious storyteller.
One member of the party named Henry Eugene Davis wrote an account of the adventure and its climactic dinner party, allowing us to recreate its progress.
Scoring an Invitation: The tour was organized by the Civil War general “Little Phil” Sheridan, who invited a bevy of outdoor-loving scions of the East Coast elite to accompany him — former war buddies, lawyers, doctors, and Wall Street magnates like the brothers Lawrence and Leonard Jerome (the latter, known as the “King of Wall Street,” would become grandfather to Winston Churchill). Although it sounds at first like a tedious Old Wasp version of an executive retreat, they were a more entertaining bunch than they sound — larger-than-life characters, raucous, well-traveled, witty, erudite and with an avid amateur interest in zoology, ornithology, and geology.
Getting There: Most of the men left together on the train from Grand Central Station in Manhattan on September 16 and met Sheridan in Chicago, where they apparently filled a hotel foyer with their gun cases, ammunition boxes, and baskets of champagne. From Omaha, the Union Pacific train took them to tiny North Platte, where they disembarked and rode on horseback the 18 miles to Fort McPherson. Now they were on the genuine frontier, and the guests’ enthusiasm was whipped to fever pitch by the charismatic young guide introduced to them over drinks, Buffalo Bill Cody. Davis writes that they were all entranced by the dashing character with flowing golden locks, a goatee, and a snappy dress sense: They had expected him to be a Western “desperado,” but found him instead to be “straight and erect as an arrow… a mild, agreeable, well-mannered man… with strikingly handsome features.”
The next morning, after a 5 a.m. reveille, the hungover guests mounted their horses and began riding south with a 100-man cavalry escort. Cody was already exhibiting the flair that would one day make his stage career: He led the way on a white horse, wearing a suit of light buckskin with a crimson shirt and broad sombrero.
There were few hardships in the culinary department. The 50-year-old General Sheridan enjoyed his food and wine — in fact, he was now seriously overweight — and he had not skimped on luxury supplies from Fort MacPherson. But the most memorable dinner was held on September 27, toward the middle of the 10-day hunt, when the group stayed for two consecutive nights by the Republican River at a site they dubbed Camp Cody and the five army chefs had time to prepare a true frontier feast.
What to Wear: Clothing was casual during the day. But for this dinner guests, dressed up in complete black-tie outfits brought from New York, which happened to be the perfect weight for the crisp Nebraska evening.
The Menu: As the last rays of sun slanted across the prairies, the party gathered in Sheridan’s tent for an aperitif served by uniformed valets. Soon they repaired to the dining table, which was set in the open air and lit by a giant raging bonfire. Not surprisingly, the dinner was oriented around “wild food.” While most Westerners were subsisting on flour, beans, bacon, and coffee, Sheridan’s cooks had tinned fruit and vegetables as well as a full range of seasonings to give depth to the cuisine.
The bill of fare was recorded by Davis:
Buffalo tail soup. Cisco Broth (fish)
Fried Dace (fish).
Prairie Dog Sausage. Stewed Rabbit.
Filet of Buffalo aux Champignons. (Davis notes that buffalo “is fully equal to beef, and, indeed, hardly to be distinguished from it.”)
Elk, Antelope, Black Tailed Deer, Wild Turkey.
Teal and Mallard (both species of wild duck), Antelope Chop, Buffalo Calf-Steak,
Young Wild Turkey.
Sweet Potatoes, Mashed Potatoes, Green Peas.
(A milky dish similar to rice pudding).
Drinking Notes: Sheridan had ensured that the supplies included blocks of ice so diners could enjoy their champagne and Bass Ale chilled or au natural. The giant blocks had been harvested in Chicago, kept in giant ice houses, and sent by rail to the West.
Party Progress: Over brandy and cigars, the group’s several fine tenor voices entertained the others with singing around the campfire. Then came the games: After this particular meal, the guests staged a mock court-martial of one of their number (he remains nameless in Davies’ account), who had lost his horse that day after being thrown on the chase. The accused had also misplaced someone’s favorite Colt pistol and was known to be a “fiendish” snorer. Cody, who was actually a justice of the peace in Nebraska, presided: He found the accused guilty, although he suspended sentence. The night ended with Cody telling stories about his youth and Indian adventures, real and invented. A natural showman and raconteur, he was beginning to realize he had a knack for entertaining Easterners; here, in a sense, he was testing his material. • 23 March 2009
SOURCES/FURTHER READING: Dary, David A., The Buffalo Book: the Full Saga of the American Animal (Chicago, 1989); Davis, Henry Eugene, Ten Days on the Plains, (New York, 1871; reprinted in 1985, ed. Paul Andrew Hutton).