The Story of Buckey O’Neill: Arizona’s Happy Warrior
Prescott is one of Arizona’s most historically-conscious communities. Public-spirited citizens have worked long and hard to keep the rich cultural heritage alive. Standing in front of the old Yavapai County Courthouse is a bronze statue of a soldier on a spirited horse. This monument honors a group of young Arizonans who gallantly served their country during the Spanish-American War in 1898. It is also a shrine to one man, Captain William O. “Buckey” O’Neill.
Frontier sheriff, newspaperman, adventurer, politician, and soldier, Buckey O’Neill, was all these and more. There was an aura of romantic daring about him that attracted legions of followers, both men and women. He was a born leader whose hectic career and many-sided personality embraced a lifelong idealistic quest for glory. In short, Buckey O’Neill was a reflection and reincarnation of the gallant knights of old. When war with Spain broke out in 1898, it was only natural that he be chosen to lead Northern Arizona’s Company A of the First United States Volunteer Cavalry, better known as the “Rough Riders.” Perhaps, in some poignant way, it was also a fitting climax that he died while participating in one of the most glorious charges in United States military history.
Buckey O’Neill came to Arizona during the wild heydays of the silver boom towns. He worked as a newspaperman for John Clum’s Epitaph in the early 1880s during the time of the Earp-Cowboy feud around Tombstone. He was a member of the Prescott Volunteer Fire Department when famed Whiskey Row burned. As newly-elected captain of the Prescott Grays honor guard, he took much good-natured ribbing from his contemporaries when he fainted dead away at the hanging of notorious murderer Dennis Dilda. When Walnut Dam collapsed in 1890, killing more than 100 people in what was Arizona’s greatest natural disaster, he directed search and rescue operations. He was court reporter when defendant Patrick McAteer went berserk with a double-bladed Bowie knife and tried to exterminate half the courtroom, including the court reporter. He had just become Sheriff of Yavapai County when outlaws held up the train at Canyon Diablo. Following the pursuit and capture of the train robbers, a contemporary judge wrote these prophetic words nearly nine years before O’Neill’s heroic death near San Juan Hill: “Yavapai County’s young sheriff with his rough riders . . . has scarcely a parallel for daring and pertinacity in this or any other country.”
The darkly-handsome Irishman epitomized those halcyon days known as the “gay nineties.” His ego was fairly full-bloomed, his nature gregarious, witty, self-confident, and he was a daring, devil-may-care gambler. He earned his illustrious nickname in the gambling casinos along Whiskey Row by constantly “bucking the tiger,” a term used for a faro player betting against the house.
Until he reached Prescott, Buckey was a kind of romantic vagabond who drifted from town to town in search of adventure and excitement. He never really settled for long anywhere until his arrival in the “Mile High City.” The beautiful mountain backdrop, mild climate, scented pines, culture and elegant ladies got hold of him and for the last 16 years of his life, he called Prescott home.
The future Rough Rider captain received his first baptism of fire while serving as a special deputy for noted Phoenix City Marshal Henry Garfias a few years prior to his moving to Prescott. One June night in 1882, three drunken cowboys decided to whoop it up and went on a shooting spree along Washington Street. When O’Neill, Garfias and two other officers tried to arrest the trio, they set up their horses and made a mad dash towards the policemen, firing their revolvers as they came. Garfias dismounted and calmly fired two shots at the leader. The first one knocked the pistol out of his hand, the second blew the surprised cowboy right out of the saddle. The other two, reasonably sobered by the death of their comrade, surrendered meekly.
Prescott May or William O. “Buckey” O’Neill was reputed to have been one of the most popular party throwers at the 1885 session of the territorial legislature, that infamous body of lawmakers known as the “Thieving Thirteenth” because of their ultra-liberal spending habits.
Prescott was the territorial capital in those days and when the legislators were in session the town was not wanting for excitement. Days were spent engaging in such nefarious activities as fist fighting, wrench swinging and dueling. This all occurred, incidentally, in the hallowed halls of the legislature, and by the delegates, not the ruffians they represented. Nights were spent in carousing among Prescott’s many pleasure palaces around Whiskey Row. Most of the important legislation was decided at the expensive parties thrown for the purpose of promoting various schemes.
Buckey is generally credited as being responsible for Prescott retaining the territorial capital, in spite of the tireless campaign by citizens of Tucson to “steal” the capital and return it to the “Old Pueblo.” (Prescott had been the territorial capital 1864-67. Tucson was capital 1867-77, before losing it back to Prescott. Phoenix became territorial capital in 1889. Read more about the state capital political shenanigans.)
As far as can be determined, money did not change hands in these dealings. Lavish parties were thrown by the various delegates seeking political plums for their constituents. At these social gatherings, deals were made and trades were given. Phoenix sought and received an “insane asylum.” Tempe was given a normal school. Prescott wanted to keep the capital. Tucson wanted the capital but was awarded the University of Arizona, as a consolation prize. Tucson’s delegates had taken the long way around to Prescott by railroad, via Los Angeles, and had not arrived in time to “out-party” Buckey’s gala affair, so the capital remained in Yavapai County. In the unhappy aftermath, Tucson’s delegates were pelted with rotten vegetables upon their homecoming by an ungrateful constituency. The “you can’t fool mother nature” award went to the delegates from Florence. They asked for and received monies to build a bridge over the Gila river. Soon after completion of the project, the fickle Gila changed her course and left the bridge standing forlornly in the desert.
O’Neill pulled a mild political upset in 1888 when he sought and won the election for sheriff of Yavapai County. Newspapers began calling him the “Conquistador of Yavapai County,” and the public loved it.
He had been in office only three months when four men robbed the Atlantic and Pacific Eastbound Number Two, a few miles east of Flagstaff (then a part of Yavapai County). The passenger train had halted to take on firewood at about 11 o’clock in the evening. The bandits, all cowboys in the employ of the famous Hashknife outfit near Holbrook, took more than $7,000 from the express box at gunpoint, then fled north across the vast Colorado Plateau and into Utah.
Sheriff O’Neill organized a small posse, rushed to the scene of the holdup, picked up the outlaws’ trail and followed it into the heart of the Painted Desert. When he was sure of their direction, he sent a young Navajo down to the railhead at Winslow, informing the agents of his whereabouts and requesting that they wire the communities in southern Utah to be on the lookout for the bandits.
Meanwhile, the outlaw band had doubled back towards Arizona in hopes of throwing the posse off their trail. After nearly three weeks, O’Neill and his men caught up with the cowboys-turned-train-robbers near Wahweap Canyon on the border.
When one of the bandits tried to make a run for it, Buckey opened fire, shooting the horse out from under the rider. In the exchange of shots that followed, a bullet struck Buckey’s horse, pinning him underneath temporarily. The gunfire had taken the rest of the band by surprise. Their other horses ran off, leaving them afoot, and in short order the posse had them in irons.
The outlaws were returned to Arizona in a roundabout manner. First they were taken north to Salt Lake City, then east to Denver, then south on the Santa Fe line. Near Raton, New Mexico, one of the prisoners slipped out of his irons and escaped. He was later recaptured and reunited with his cronies at the Yuma Territorial Prison. One of the train robbers, Bill Sterin, served his term, and in 1898 enlisted in the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment under an assumed name. He is believed to have died at the Battle of the San Juan Heights in Cuba.
Had he never ridden among the exalted ranks of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, Buckey O’Neill would still have been assured a place in the Valhalla of Arizona heroes for his relentless pursuit and capture of the Canyon Diablo train robbers.
O’Neill chose not to run again for sheriff and over the next few years engaged in various mining ventures. He didn’t vacate the political scene, taking time twice to run unsuccessfully as delegate to Congress. In 1897 he ran for mayor of Prescott and won handily. It was just a short time later that the battleship “Maine” made that fateful voyage to Cuba to pay a courtesy call. While anchored in Havana Harbor, she mysteriously blew up.
Almost before the smoke had cleared from the wreckage of the “Maine,” America was at war. Buckey was sure his services would be needed and he immediately began recruiting a regiment of cowboys and frontiersmen. His personal army of volunteers was ready to go when the official call to arms came in late April, 1898.
In the meantime, the irrepressible Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Teddy Roosevelt, had received permission to raise a force of volunteer cavalry. Roosevelt, a self-styled cowboy of sorts (what he lacked in ability he more than made up in enthusiasm), was in the market for just the kind of cowboy cavalry that O’Neill had organized. Thus, the First Volunteer Cavalry Regiment was born. The outfit was made up of Southwesterners from Oklahoma, Indian Territory, New Mexico and Arizona, along with a sprinkling of adventuresome eastern college “dudes.”
The regiment was a mixed bag of rogues, short on discipline and long on energy. Under the leadership of Teddy Roosevelt and Alexander Brodie (the Arizona regiment commander and future governor), the volunteers, or Rough Riders as an adoring press preferred to call them, became a crack fighting outfit. Captain O’Neill, commanding Company A, was the regiment’s most popular officer. The men idolized the dashing former frontier lawman, and each man in Company A tried to model himself as a veritable reflection of their leader’s colorful personality. His noble sense of justice made him a favorite among the enlisted ranks. During the brief training period at San Antonio, Texas, Buckey not only won the unqualified respect and admiration of his charges, but that of his brother officers as well, especially Roosevelt. To “TR,” the handsome Irishman was the personification of the beau ideal Rough Rider.
In a few short weeks the regiment left for Tampa, Florida, the final staging area prior to shipping out to Cuba.
Much to their disappointment, part of the regiment was ordered to remain in Tampa. There were more soldiers wanting to join the fight to free Cuba than there were transports to take them. Not wanting to miss this “splendid little war,” many of the volunteers left behind did their best to bribe those shipping out to exchange places.
There was no room for the horses, either, and Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” became “weary walkers.” The entire regiment for that matter might not have arrived in Cuba in time for the war had not the forceful Roosevelt commandeered a transport just in the nick of time.
Captain O’Neill had a chance to display his bravery before the troops hit the beaches at Daiquiri when a landing craft carrying members of the famed black “Buffalo Soldiers” capsized. Buckey leaped into the water in a vain attempt to save two men who had been pulled under by the weight of their equipment.
The Rough Riders had their baptism of fire at Las Guasimas on June 24, and when the smoke had cleared, 16 were dead and 52 had been wounded. Included among the casualties were Arizona Commander Major Alexander Brodie and Captain Jim McClintock of Company B. It was a few days later, however, at San Juan Heights, in what Roosevelt later called “my crowded hour,” the Rough Riders had their rendezvous with destiny.
“An officer should never take cover,” Buckey had often said. Time and time again he had defied the Spanish sharpshooters, walked up and down the lines shouting encouragement to his troopers. At Las Guasimas, the flat, brittle crack of the Spanish Mauser rifles had kept the troops pinned down for hours, yet O’Neill walked through the gunfire untouched, increasing the awe of the men in his command. “The Spanish bullet has never been molded that will kill Buckey O’Neill,” he had said jokingly on several occasions. Several years earlier Buckey had written an article called A Horse of the Hash Knife Brand, in which he expressed what must have been his own philosophical feelings toward death. It read in part, “. . . the Indians were right. Death was the black horse that came some day into every man’s camp, and no matter when that day came, a brave man should be booted and spurred and ready to ride him out.”
As the battle raged, he paused now and then to chat or joke with his men, trying to soothe their nerves as the Spanish sniper fire was beginning to take its toll. There was no doubt his calm demeanor had a calming effect on the soldiers. The captain continued to defy death. He turned towards the Spanish lines and began to roll another cigarette. An officer suggested he take cover, but he stubbornly refused. Ignoring the gunfire, he continued to pause and chat with his men. He had just rolled another cigarette and turned to speak to an officer when a Mauser slug, fired from somewhere in the dense jungle, struck him in the mouth. Ironically, Buckey, with his strong sense of destiny, would not make what would have been the crowning achievement of an eventful life—he didn’t get to make that dramatic charge up San Juan Hill. The men of Company A stared in shock and disbelief at the body of their gallant captain lying dead on the battlefield. It was said Company A ceased to function as a unit, as the stunned troopers “went off on their own.” Some attached themselves to other units, while others rallied around Roosevelt. In time, the shock of Buckey O’Neill’s death wore off. The war was brief and soon the troops came home to the cheers of hero-worshiping Americans. In 1907, a magnificent bronze statue was unveiled on the courthouse lawn at Prescott. The monument, a creation of noted artist Solon Borglum, was dedicated to the memory of Captain O’Neill and in honor of the Rough Riders and should, rightfully, be called the Rough Rider statue, but to Arizonans who know his story, it will always be a lasting tribute to their happy warrior, Buckey O’Neill.
Excerpt from Arizona Adventure by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.