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Captain William “Buckey” O’Neill

William Owen O’Neil was born in St. Louis on Feb 2,1860, the first son of John and Mary Menimin O’;Neil. In 1862, the family moved to Philadelphia and later to Washington , DC. Little is known of his early years.


Buckley came from warrior’s stock. His father, John Owen O’Neil was born in 1834 in Ireland but emigrated during the early 1850’s exodus of Irish refugees fleeing the conditions of the great potato famine. He became a Captain in the 116th Pennsylvania Volunteers, a segment of the famous Meagher’s Irish Brigade which performed so magnificently in the War of Northern Aggression. It was said that during the course of the war, Cpt. O’Neil was hit a total of fourteen times. At the Battle of Fredricksburg, he was wounded so severely that he was prematurely but officially listed as dead. He receovered, but remained crippled and without vigor for the rest of his life dying in 1897.

Early in 1897 young William O’Neil was lured to the limitless possibilities and adventure of the Arizona Territory. For those not allergic to hard work, there was ever potential for fortune. In September of that year at the age of nineteen, and full of ambition, he rode a burro into Phoenix, looking for work.

Straightaway he was hired on as a typesetter at the Phoenix Herald. Some biographical sketches list William’s occupation as “lawyer” but no evidence exists documenting a legal education. He did occasionally make a claim to being an attorney. Apart from the normal public school courses, O’Neil learned the typesetter’s trade and legal shorthand.

O’Neil had a weakness for gambling and it was said he had a gift for winning. A habitue of the many gaming houses in Phoenix, he was drawn to poker, roulette and 7-up, but developed a particular passion for faro. moderation was not his failing. O’Neil had every unrestrained inclination to ” go for broke” or to use the popular expression of the day, ” bucking the tiger”. The rest of the gambling hall regulars started calling him ” Buckey”, a nickname that stuck throughout his eventual life.

Buckey drifted into Tombstone in 1880 and immediately found work as a reported for the fabled Tombstone Epitaph. During this period , other Tombstone notables were busy shaping western history and legend, and Buckey undoubtedly crossed bathers with Wyatt Earp and his brother, Bat Masterson, Doc Holiday and other Tombstone gambling hall addicts. It is believed that Buckey left town shortly before the shootout at the OK Corral in October of 1881.

In 1881 O’Neil left Arizona to tramp about in New Mexico, Hawaii, and southern California. he returned to Phoenix in the Spring of’82 and became a sheriff’s deputy. The criminal element thrived in those days and a steady schedule of hangings did little to thin the ranks of claim jumpers,stage holdups, assorted drifters, thieves and assorted evil doers. He left Phoenix in March of the next year bound for Prescott, the territorial capital.

There he again became involved in the newspaper business and gambling houses on Whiskey Row of this “faro and craps town”. Early in 1882, Buckey joined the staff of the Arizona Miner as a reporter. In September of 1883 he took a job as a court reporter. Three months into this job things livened up when O’Neil got caught in the middle of a courtroom brawl involving guns, knives a lot of blood and two dead men. This incident is still recalled as one of the most violent chapters in American Judicial history.

In 1885 Buckey joined the Prescott Greys, a local militia group who mainly looked sharp in uniform and stood attention while serving as guards at the local public hangings. He eventually became their Captain and commander. The time Buckey spent with the Greys never quite satisfied his aspiration for a more serious military experience.

In 1866 Buckey decided to dabble in politics and became candidate for the post of Yavapai County probate judge and was elected. In 1888 Bucket ran for sheriff of the same county and pulled off an upset. After three months in office the new sheriff that unfolded like a novel and in the end would secured his place in Arizona history.

Four robbers struck a train at Diablo Canyon and made off with the contents of the express safe and thousands in the passenger’s cash and jewelry. Buckey and a posse of three relentlessly followed the bandit’s trail on a six hundred mile, three week long chase that covered parts of four states. A few times the robbers were engaged at close range. The bad guys were eventually cornered and a exchange of gunfire killed O’Neil’s favorite horse before the four men were locked up on irons. Accounts vary with one reporting two men were packed out across their saddlehorses.

In recognition of O’Neil’s capture of the robbers and recovery of a third of a million of the railroads money, the territorial governor assigned Buckey to the honorary post of Adjutant General of the Arizona Militia. This ended with the governor’s replacement a few months later. Before his term in office was ended though, Buckey attempted to secure the approval of formation of a volunteer infantry or cavalry battalion from the military organizations of the Territory to serve in the Sioux Wars. This foreshadowed a eerily similar experience that was to profoundly impact Buckey’s life a few years later.

“William O’Neil was your nervy, no nonesense sort of lawman. Once he followed a desperado into a wild New Mexican settlement . his subject had just passed throughand Buckey caught up with him a short ways on the other side of town. The fugitive took a shot at the sheriff, whose return fire broke the man’s leg. Returning through town with the prisoner in tow, Buckey was confronted by mob convinced the man was a respectable gentleman on account of a kindness shown to a townswoman earlier in the day. Cunningly, the handcuffed criminal declared that he and the lawman had differences centering on the woman. That card having been played, the crowd moved in for a rescue. Backing the prisoner and the hose into a neaby dwelling, the Yavapai sheriff promised loudly. “when a man crosses that doorway, I’ll shoot him and then the prisoner”. Buckey got himself and the suspect both back to AZ in one piece. “

Buckey repeatedly demonstrated that he was not the type of individual who avoided confrontations. Once a gang of hardened troublemakers rode into town and alighted at one of the saloons. The word spread and Sheriff O’Neill came up to the bar and calmly announced his intention to arrest all of them. Hesitating longer than was good for him, the leader reached for his gun and found himself staring down the bore of Buckey’s six-gun. The man wisely gave up along with the others.

The whole country had felt a conflict with Spain was inevitable long before the Maine dropped anchor in Havana harbor. As soon as the news of the battleship’s destruction reached Prescott, Buckey became the self appointed main force behind a plan to recruit a volunteer cavalry regiment of a thousand men from AZ’s citizenry. Telegrams were sent to President McKinley and the territorial governor offering O’Neill’s services and requesting permission to pledge the troops. After the war was declared April 25, 1898, a presidential directive authorized Captain leonard Wood and Hon. Theodore Roosevelt to raise a volunteer regiment of mounted rifleman. Arizona was allowed a quota of only 200 men.

The first American to sign up for the volunteer force was Buckey O’Neill, enlisting as a common private. When someone protested their mayor signing on to such a lowly station, O’Neill was quoted as saying ” Who wouldn’t gamble for a star?” What that meant no one has ever figured out exactly. Everyone in the territory wondered whether the star he had in mind was Arizona territory’s admission to the Union through heroism of it’s citizens, Cuba, or perhaps a Brigadier’s star for his own epaulets. A Rough Rider present when the remark was made, was certain Buckey had his sights on a general’s star. The official interpretation of his intentions of his statement points to Arizona’s statehood and is carved into his grave marker. In any event he was quickly appointed Captain of the Rough Riders A Troop.

“Buckey’s Boys” boarded a train to Camp Wood, the rough rider training site just outside of San Antonio. From there, the regiment traveled to Tampa to await transport to Cuba.

After a particularly wearisome voyage from Florida to Cuba, on June 22nd, the American forces engaged in a misdirected and bungled landing at the unprotected port of Daiquiri. During this operation, two Tenth Cavalry troopers were thrown into the drink when their landing craft capsized. Fully uniformed, Buckey O’Neill dove into the water in an effort to rescue the men Despite a heroic attemp both men drowned. Steven Crane , author of The Red Badge Of Courage, witnessed the incident and wrote of the tragedy and O’Neill’s daring in an edition of the New York World. A report migrated back to Arizona where it was front page news. Col. Roosevelt standing on the jetty with Buckey and saw the whole thing from a range of only a few feet. After the war, Roosevelt recalled the event in “The Rough Riders”, his account of the War with Spain.

O’Neill exchanged rifle fire with the Spaniards during the campaign’s initial skirmish at Las Guasimas on June 24 1898. For a few days afterwards, he tended to his wounded and the affairs of the dead, foraged for tobacco, and rested his men. After a few days Col. Roosevelt ordered Buckey’s A Troop to move into position and prepare for the assault on Santiago’s most important eastward defenses that everyone knew was coming. unable to return fire, O’Neill and the rest of the Rough Riders were pinned down by a rain of Mauser bullets below Kettle Hill on the morning of July 1st, just prior to the celebrated frontal assault on the rifle pits and fortifications atop San Juan Heights. The American ranks were thinning noticeably by the minute. Pacing recklessly yet confidently, erect among his cringing command was Captain O’Neill, shouting words of encouragement over the pinging and snapping of near misses. After the example of Cols. Roosevelt and Leonard Wood, Buckey’s foolhardy disregard for his own safety, and display of fearlessness and apparent contempt for Spanish marksmanship and the spitzer bullet, reassured and instilled a sense of confidence in his men.

Ignoring continual warnings to take cover, O’Neill half jokingly replied ” The Spanish bullet that will kill me is not molded yet”. Moments later at 10Am July 1st, 1898 as he turned on his heel, a bullet struck him in the mouth and exited the back of his head. Buckey O’Neill stiffened and lost his grip on the Winchester 1895 he had been holding and fell over backwards.

Deeply saddened by the news, Roosevelt recorded these words: ” Even before he fell, his wild and gallant soul had gone out into the darkness .” A survivor of the charge up San Juan Hill later wrote of the vindictive spirit engendered by the death of Buckey. “Each man in the troop started out to do a little fighting on his own account to get even with the Spanish.

“A detail hastily dug a shallow grave in a meadow near the place he fell and buried this strange and independent character. In the Spring of 1899, a party headed by O’Neill’s brothers went to Cuba for the purpose of finding Buckey’s gravesite, and bringing him home. Buckey was disinterred and his remains sent to Washington, and buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on may 1st, 1899. A military squad fired three volleys next to Buckey O’Neill’s final resting place among his fellow Rough Riders in the topmost section of the cemetery.”

3 thoughts on “Captain William “Buckey” O’Neill”

  1. Thank you for this.

    I love learning bits of history that add depth to the broad sweeps we – if we are lucky – learned in school.

    Reply
  2. Interesting stuff. For a dude who seems to have cut a pretty big swath through AZ, I can’t think of anything around here named after him.

    Reply

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