Captain William Owen “Buckey” O’Neill
Prescott, 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
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
Arlington National Cemetery
(Image source for view of O'Neill) Roosevelt, Theodore,
Rough Riders (Da Capo Paperback). (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons,
BACK TO HISTORICAL FIGURES
Copyright © Richard M. Perry, 2004-2022. All rights reserved. This web site, its text, and pictures may
not be copied without the express written consent of Richard