William Owen O’Neill
got his nickname by “bucking the tiger”—gambling at faro, the most
popular game in the Old West—even though he knew the odds were against
But “Buckey” O’Neill didn’t much care about the odds,
whether he was sitting at a faro table or leading men in battle. The
dashing cavalry captain was just 38 years old when a sniper’s bullet
tore through his head in Cuba, just after he had defiantly refused to take cover.
At the time of his death, O’Neill was an accomplished writer, an
experienced lawman and had developed a reputation for ability and bravery.
Had he survived the Spanish-American War, it’s likely he would have been
elected governor of the Arizona
O’Neill was born in 1860, possibly in
Ireland, but more likely in St. Louis
His father, John, fought for the
during the Civil War and was severely wounded at the Battle of
O’Neill studied law at the
then lit out for the Arizona
in 1879. He bounced around a bit, but by 1882 or 1883 he’d settled in
Over the years he worked as a newspaper editor and writer, was a
court reporter and judge, and served as Yavapai
sheriff from 1890 to 1894. In 1897 he was elected mayor of Prescott.
In 1898, O’Neill founded the 1st Volunteer Cavalry,
which merged with similar outfits from around the Southwest and became
known as the Rough Riders. It’s often claimed that Capt. O’Neill was
the nation’s first volunteer accepted into federal service for the
Teddy Roosevelt, who served as the Rough Riders’ second in
command, under Col. Leonard Wood, admired O’Neill immensely for his
courage and sense of honor.
often told the story of how, as the volunteer group sailed to Cuba, O’Neill was the only man to dive into the sea and attempt to rescue
two Black soldiers who’d fallen overboard.
But he bucked the tiger one too many times. A week later, on July 1,
O’Neill had his men lie in a ditch at the base of Kettle Hill (next to
San Juan Hill) while he stood and paced. His men pleaded with him to take
cover, but he just laughed.
His widow, Pauline, later wrote that she’d been told that
O’Neill had said, “The Spanish bullet has not been molded that will
kill me,’’ just before a sniper’s bullet took his life. It’s a
fine story, even if most historians view it with skepticism.
At any rate, O’Neill was buried in
Cuba. On May 1, 1899, his remains were reinterred at Arlington
Cemetery. As he was a fervent and long-time advocate of statehood for Arizona, O’Neill’s marker includes the inscription: “Who Would Not Die for
a New Star on the Flag?’’
The dramatic sculpture of a Rough Rider astride a rearing horse at
is often said to represent O’Neill, but according to Mick Woodcock,
chief curator of Sharlot
Museum, that is a myth.
“It is the
Monument, not O’Neill,’’ Woodcock said. “But since he was the hometown
boy, people have come to associate it with him.’’
The monument was dedicated
July 4, 1907.
If you have visited the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, you
may have noticed Buckey O’Neill’s cabin between El Tovar Hotel and the
Bright Angel Trailhead. Built in the 1890s, it served as O’Neill’s
base of operations while he prospected in the area. Today, the oldest
standing structure on the South Rim is part of the Bright Angel Lodge and
is a popular rental, especially for those familiar with the story of one
of the Arizona
Territory’s most distinguished citizens.
Republic, May 18, 2014
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