Captain William Owen “Buckey” O’Neill

(1860 - 1898)
By Norm Tessman, Sharlot Hall Museum  
To link to more information on "Buckey" O'Neill, click here! 
 General:

William Owen "Buckey" O'Neill served as the captain of Troop A, First United States Volunteer Cavalry, known as the "Rough Riders." He lost his life in Cuba.

Biography:

Buckey O'NeillPrescott, Arizona never had another hero like William Owen "Buckey" O'Neill. One-hundred years after  his death, local businesses still adopt his name, from "Bucky's (sic) Casino," to "Bucky (sic) O'Neill Sporting Goods." Probably part of his long-lived popularity is due to the prominence of the "Captain William O'Neill Rough Rider Monument" on the Yavapai County Court House Plaza. This heroic-sized bronze by Solon H. Borglum was dedicated on July 3, 1907, and has become a Prescott landmark.

Buckey was born on February 2, 1860, either in St. Louis, Missouri, or Washington, D.C., although he sometimes listed Ireland as his birthplace (e.g. the Great Register of Yavapai County, 1894). This last is doubtful since his parents had been in the United States since the 1850's. During the Civil War, his father, John, served as a captain in the 116th Pennsylvania Volunteers of the "Irish Brigade," and was severely wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg.

William Owen O'Neill came to Arizona Territory in 1879, and arrived in Prescott in the spring of 1882 after stopovers in Tombstone and Phoenix. He rapidly progressed from court reporter to editor of the Prescott Journal Miner, then founded, edited, and published Hoof and Horn, a paper for the live stock industry. He was elected Yavapai County Probate Judge and School Superintendent, tax assessor-collector, Yavapai County Sheriff, and finally, Mayor of Prescott. He ran twice (1894 and 1896) for territorial delegate to Congress as a populist, losing both times to major party candidates.

Buckey grew prosperous from developing onyx mines near Mayer, Arizona, and promoted copper mining in the Grand Canyon as well as a railroad to its South Rim. In 1894, he led a Smithsonian expedition to explore the prehistoric Sinaguan ruin called "Montezuma's Castle" on Beaver Creek in the Verde Valley. He was Captain of the "Prescott's Grays" militia, and a volunteer fireman on the "Toughs" hosecart team. As Adjutant General of Arizona Territory, he helped to organize its National Guard.

On top of these accomplishments, O'Neill found the energy and time to write. He created much of the copy for Hoof and Horn, as well as pamphlets boosting Arizona including, "Resources of Arizona" (1887) and "Central Arizona For Homes For Health" (probably 1888). Perhaps Buckey's least known talent was fiction, which he is said to have written at night, as his wife Pauline played the piano. Apparently all of his stories (about ten are known) followed dark themes set in Arizona Territory, and appeared in the San Francisco Examiner or Argonaut magazine between 1891 and 1910.

At least one of Buckey's stories reflects an incident of his life. On February 5, 1886, the Prescott Grays, commanded by Captain O'Neill, stood as honor guard at the hanging of murderer 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. An apparent effort to clear the air, "A Horse of the Hash-Knife Brand," appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on February 15, 1891. In it, a member of a cowboy posse admits to nearly fainting at the hanging of a horse thief.

In 1898, together with Alexander Brodie and James McClintock, O'Neill founded the First United States Volunteer Cavalry, later famed as Roosevelt's Rough Riders. Through the spring of 1898, as relations worsened between the United States and Spain, the three planned an entire regiment of Arizona cowboys. Eventually, two (later three) troops were authorized, and on May 29, 1898, Buckey became the first  man to volunteer for the regiment. On July 1, 1898, Captain O'Neill was killed in combat below Kettle Hill while commanding Troop A of the Rough Riders.

Recently, Buckey O'Neill, lived and died again. Turner Network's "Rough Riders" featured Sam Elliott  as Buckey. Only this time his name is B-u-c-k-y  O'-N-e-i-l, his wife wears striped pants (no proper Victorian lady ever wore trousers), and he departs with his troops from a railway station called "Sidewinder" rather than the Prescott depot.

In general, the movie presents the story of the Rough Riders and the Cuban phase of the Spanish American war reasonably well, although the sequence and events of the battles are jumbled. But when it comes to people, and particularly our own Buckey O'Neill, historical accuracy takes a very rough ride.

Among T.N.T.'s many factual blunders: "Bucky" commands Rough Riders Troop G, and says, "The Governor put me in charge of all the Arizona men."  In fact, he commanded only Rough Riders Troop A, while Major Alexander Brodie was in overall charge of the three Arizona troops. The real Troop G were New Mexico men, captained by William Llewellen of Las Cruces.

O'Neill, who earned his nickname "bucking the tiger" at faro games, was a restlessly energetic "black Irishman", and was only thirty-eight years old when he died. Gray-mustached Sam Elliott seems miscast as the dynamic O'Neill as he croaks out, "I'm getting too old for this sort of thing."  "Bucky's" Chiricahua Apache drill instructor, who intimidates the new recruits, is completely fictitious. Similarly, the television "Bucky" claims to have killed over 30 men - there is no record of the real Buckey shooting anyone, although he did exchange shots with the Canyon Diablo train robbers in 1889.

An interesting side plot of the television special revolves around the stage coach robber called "Nash." Fleeing a posse, which includes both Sheriff "O'Neil" and his pistol-packing wife, "Nash" joins the Rough Riders. In Cuban combat, he panics at first gunfire, is wounded, but redeems himself by leaving hospital to rejoin the fighting. The true-life Sergeant Henry Nash was a school teacher from Strawberry, Arizona. Apparently, "Nash" is based upon William Sterin, one of the Canyon Diablo train robbers who Yavapai County Sheriff O'Neill captured in 1889. Legend claims Sterin joined the Rough Riders under a fictitious name, and was killed on San Juan Hill.

"Bucky's" television death perpetuates the myth that he said "The Spanish bullet is not molded that will kill me" just before the bullet struck. Private Arthur Tuttle (A Troop), interviewed by historian Charles Herner in the 1960s, denied that Buckey said this. The movie's dramatic ending has "Nash" visiting his captain's grave in a white picket-fenced grave yard on the prairie. The real Buckey O'Neill lies in Arlington National Cemetery where he was buried on May 1, 1899 after his body was returned from Cuba.


A statue of O'Neill astride his horse. The statue is located in Prescott, Arizona.



 Bibliography:

(As a service to our readers, clicking on title in red will take you to that book on Amazon.com)

(Image source for view of O'Neill) Roosevelt, Theodore, The Rough Riders (Da Capo Paperback). (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1920). 16


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