The Colorful, Short Life of Mayor Buckey O'Neill

By Drew Desmond

With small addition from the webmaster

Mayor William Owen "Buckey" O'Neill, 1860-1898

Even renowned western fiction authors could not dream up a more interesting character than the real-life story of Buckey O'Neill.

Although modern spellings of his nickname drop the "e", William Owens "Buckey" O'Neill was a gambler, lawyer, newspaperman, miner, Sheriff of Yavapai County, Mayor of Prescott, and finally, a Captain in Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders.

Buckey got his nickname from his days as a gambler.  He enjoyed the poker game "faro" where going against the odds was called "bucking the tiger."  Buckey had a penchant for going against the odds, but ultimately it would cost him his life at age 38.

There is confusion as to Buckey's place of birth in 1860. He, himself, listed three different locales on official documents over the years: Washington, D.C.; St. Louis; and Ireland. However, Ireland is highly doubtful since his parents had been in the United States since the 1850's.  The Arlington National Cemetery, where Buckey is buried, lists his birthplace as St. Louis.

Even as a teenager, Bucky showed his intelligence.  He "studied law and graduated from National University, entering the bar in the District of Columbia, where his father was then provost marshall" all by age 18.   But Buckey was bored with this life and longed for more adventure.

So, O'Neill came to Arizona in 1879 where his first years in the territory were spent in Tombstone and Phoenix.

Sheriff Buckey O'Neill

"He settled in Tombstone in 1880, where he went to work for the Tombstone Epitaph during the days of the Earp brothers, Doc Holliday and the Clanton-McLaury Gang. He may have been the man to report on the scene at the famous shootout at the O.K. Corral."

Shortly after that event, O'Neill spent time in Phoenix as a special deputy for Phoenix City Marshall Henry Garfias. "One night in 1882, three drunken cowboys...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."

In the spring of 1882, Buckey moved to Prescott and his days of drifting about came to an end.  Instead, he would settle down in Prescott and compile a resume worthy of a man twice his age.

He rapidly progressed from court reporter to editor of the Arizona Miner.  He then founded, edited, and published Hoof and Horn, a monthly for the live stock industry, for 4 years.

He was elected  School Superintendent, tax assessor-collector and Yavapai County Probate Judge.  Additionally, he was a volunteer fireman on the "Toughs" hose-cart team and as Adjutant General of Arizona Territory, he helped to organize its National Guard."

"Prescott was the territorial capital in those days and...most of the important legislation was decided at the expensive parties thrown for the purpose of promoting various schemes."

 "O’Neill was reputed to have been one of the most popular party throwers at the 1885 session of the territorial legislature--an infamous body of lawmakers known as the 'Thieving Thirteenth' because of their...spending habits."

In 1886, he married Pauline Schindler and became captain of the Prescott Grays of the Arizona Militia.

"On February 5, 1886, the Grays, commanded by Captain O'Neill, stood as honor guard at the hanging of murderer (named) Dennis Dilda. When the trap dropped, Buckey fainted. This must have been a tremendous loss of face for a Victorian gentleman and officer, and he probably took considerable kidding about it."

In 1888, while serving as Yavapai County judge, Buckey was elected Yavapai County Sheriff.

"O'Neill had been sheriff for just three months when four armed bandits robbed a train at Canyon Diablo, east of Flagstaff, then disappeared into the vastness of the Colorado Plateau. (Back then, there was no Coconino county and Flagstaff was part of Yavapai county.)  O'Neill and his posse rushed to the scene of the holdup, picked up the trail and galloped off in pursuit across the Painted Desert."

"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."  Buckey was considered a hero.

When his term as sheriff ended, "O’Neill chose not to run again for (that office) and over the next few years engaged in various mining ventures."  Buckey grew "prosperous from developing onyx mines near Mayer, Arizona."

During this time, Buckey revisited writing, authoring pamphlets that promoted the Arizona Territory including: "Resources of Arizona (1887) and Central Arizona For Homes For Health (probably 1888)."  He also wrote fictional stories set in Arizona which "appeared in the San Francisco Examiner or Argonaut magazine between 1891 and 1910."

"When (the) Walnut Dam collapsed in 1890, killing more than 100 people in what was Arizona’s greatest natural disaster, he directed search and rescue operations."

The Buckey O'Neill Cabin

Also in 1890, O'Neill built a cabin on the Grand Canyon's South Rim.  "It was used as an office for tourist accommodations in the area during the 1890s, which eventually evolved into the Bright Angel Hotel.  It is "the oldest extant structure on the South Rim.

yes…. you can actually rent it !

Ever since first laying eyes on it, Buckey was very much interested in promoting the Grand Canyon for its scenery and mineral deposits.  he "poured his energy into making the geological wonder more accessible." A big step in accomplishing this came when "the Grand Canyon Railroad Co. was formed in 1897 and O'Neill became president."
Buckey still maintained a desire for politics and was quite popular, but as with every politician, he had his political enemies.  "He ran twice (1894 and 1896) for territorial delegate to Congress as a populist, losing both times to major party candidates." However, "his fame was such that he was able to overcome the enmity of Arizona's Governor McCord to win his election as Mayor in 1897. 

With the sinking of the USS Maine, "when the war with Spain came in 1898, Buckey raised a company of volunteers and became their Captain. They were mustered in as company A, 1st US Volunteer Cavalry, a regiment better known to history as, "The Rough Riders."

Ultimately, it was on Kettle Hill in Cuba where O'Neill "bucked the odds" one too many times.   He was only 38.

"In July of 1907, nine years after his death, Prescott's leaders unveiled (a memorial of Buckey and the Rough Riders) to a crowd of thousands in the town square. The next day the local paper reported: Tears filled the eyes of many of those who had known him in days gone by. And with bared heads, while the band played "America," those present did homage to the memory of the brave Bucky O'Neill."

"It was a testament to the respect of the people of Arizona for O'Neill that even many of his political enemies of the past worked at making the monument to him a reality. Chief Justice H.D. Ross, an old political opponent of O'Neill's said, 'Had Buckey returned from Cuba, he could have had any political office that Arizona could offer.'"

Just as Rough Rider fame propelled Teddy Roosevelt into the White House, everyone was certain that had he lived, William Owen "Buckey" O'Neill would certainly been the State of Arizona's first governor.

But what about those Rough Riders????

Teddy's Rough Riders Originated in Prescott

When news arrived of the explosion and sinking of the USS Maine, William "Buckey" O'Neill was Mayor of Prescott. Buckey, (that is how O'Neill spelled it,) like most Americans, was infuriated by the disaster and hungry to to join the fight.

While discussing the situation with Alexander Brodie and James McClintock, an idea occurred to them to raise up a volunteer calvary from the Arizona territory.  Buckey wanted to raise a regiment of hardcore Arizona frontiersmen. Men who were already able to survive under harsh, dangerous and deadly conditions would make excellent soldiers.

O'Neill would call them "The Rough Riders." And the men they would recruit would become the origin and core of the First US Volunteer Cavalry which would win great fame and glory under Teddy Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War.

Buckey wired President McKinley for authorization to muster 1000 Arizonan "rough riding" soldiers. McKinley wired back authorizing a number he thought was more realistic for the sparsely populated territory, 250 men.  O'Neill was named Captain of "Troop A" of the 1st Volunteer Calvary and immediately resigned his position as Prescott's Mayor.  Together with Brodie and McClintock, the three had little trouble recruiting the allotment of men.

Throughout the spring of 1898, the volunteers trained at Fort Whipple, just a mile outside of Prescott. Then on May 4th, 1898, the troops shipped out.

"TR" with his beloved Rough Riders

For the city of Prescott, the departure day was a well attended, bitter-sweet affair. "The entire town seemed to be on the streets, in the plaza, and at the depot to see the brave boys off and the remark was frequently heard that it was not known where they all came from."

The parade from the plaza to the depot was well choreographed. First was the Prescott Brass Band playing patriotic songs. They were followed by veterans of both sides of the Civil War; the Prescott Fire Department; Gov. McCord and his staff; the city's school children; and lastly the citizens.

Indeed, the entire territory of Arizona was full of patriotic pride at the troops departure. Although US troops had often entered into the territory to protect its people and interests; "it (was) the first time in history that soldiers have departed from (Arizona's) borders to fight the battles of our country."

Additionally, "Arizona (had) the honor of being the first in the United States to muster in her men and (was) also the first to have her volunteers leave for the conflict."

For the well-wishers that were seeing-off loved ones, the departure was described as "tearful" with "some of the partings being very pathetic."

During the send-off ceremony, the troops were not only presented a battle flag, but a young mountain lion named "Josephine" was also presented as a mascot.

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 Rough Riders' mascot Josephine

Over $500 was raised in a matter of hours to outfit the volunteers with supplies of all sorts.

Included were:
A "large number" of hams
"A lot of fresh mutton"
A barrel of pigs' feet
Pickles "by the case"
"Canned fruit of all kinds"
"A cart load or so of bread"
And other items "far too numerous to mention."

"Luxuries" were also packed onto the train including 300 corn cob pipes, (a decidedly high number considering only 250 soldiers were shipping out);  several caddies of tobacco and three barrels worth of bottled beer!

"As the train was about to depart, the volunteers expressed themselves as being overwhelmed with the rousing farewell demonstration accorded them by our people and said it would ever be remembered by them wherever the fate of war might carry them."

The train's engineer "pulled out very slowly until the train had passed through the cut in the yards, while a perfect sea of handkerchiefs and parasols were waved in the air and a chorus of shouts went up from hundreds of voices."

First, they would go to San Antonio, Texas where their number swelled to 1250 and they met their new Lt. Commander, Teddy Roosevelt.  Roosevelt wholly embraced the idea of "rough riding" horsemen going to war and instructed all his men to behave as such.

After a stop in Florida, they went to Cuba to fight with a great distinction and glory that is still well remembered to this day.

But the name and concept of "Rough Riders"?  That's pure Prescott.


 P.S. (by the Webmistress)

You that know me will of course understand how I had to know more about  ‘the mascots’.  There wasn’t much.  However I did get a couple of paragraphs out of this book:



The regiment had three mascots: the two most characteristic – a young mountain lion brought by the Arizona troops, and a war eagle brought by the New Mexicans – we had been forced to leave behind in Tampa.  The third, a rather disreputable but exceedingly knowing little dog, named Cuba, had accompanied us through all the vicissitudes of the campaign.  The mountain lion, Josephine, possessed an infernal temper; whereas both Cuba and the eagle, which had been named in my honor, were extremely good-tempered.  Josephine was kept tied up.  She sometimes escaped.  One cool night in early September she wandered off and, entering the tent of a Third Cavalry man, got into bed with him; whereupon he fled into the darkness with yells, much more unnerved than he would have been by the arrival of any number of Spaniards.  The eagle was let loose and not only walked at will up and down the company streets, but also at times flew wherever he wished.  He was a young bird, having  been taken out of his nest when a fledgling.  Josephine hated him and was always trying to make a meal of him, especially when we endeavored to take their photographs together.  The eagle, though good-natured, was an entirely competent individual and ready at any moment to beat Josephine off.  Cuba was also oppressed at times by Josephine, and was of course no match for her, but was frequently able to over-awe by simple decision of character.

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