September 29, 2015

The Colorful, Short Life of Mayor Buckey O'Neill

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. (*1) 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. (*2)  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. (*1)

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." (*3)

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." (*4)

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. (*5)  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." (*1)

Story of gun control in the 1930's in Prescott, Arizona. Children were misusing them!

"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." (*4)

"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." (*4)

In 1886, he married Pauline Schindler and became captain of the Prescott Grays of the Arizona Militia. (*3)

"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." (*1)

In 1888, while serving as Yavapai County judge, Buckey was elected Yavapai County Sheriff. (*3)

"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." (*6)

"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." (*4)

"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." (*4)  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." (*4)  Buckey grew "prosperous from developing onyx mines near Mayer, Arizona." (*1)

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)." (*1)  He also wrote fictional stories set in Arizona which "appeared in the San Francisco Examiner or Argonaut magazine between 1891 and 1910." (*1)

"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." (*4)

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." (*7)

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." (*6)

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." (*1)  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." (*2)

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." (*2)

This final chapter of Buckey's life was written about in a previous article on this blog:

"Teddy's Rough Riders Originated in Prescott"
Click the link above to read it.

Ultimately, it was on Kettle Hill in Cuba where O'Neill "bucked the odds" one too many times. (*2)  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." (*8)

"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.'" (*2)

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.

Tourist Tips:
Click Here for Info on Staying at the Buckey O'Neill Cabin

Click Here for Info on the Grand Canyon Railway

(*5) Prescott Daily Courier 2/6/2000 page 8A; col. 1



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