By Tom Morrow
Out of the untamed Wild West came a number of tales, legends, and an equal amount of true stories. Few of those accounts would top the ones told about William Owen “Bucky” O’Neill – newspaperman, town marshal, judge, county sheriff, local militia leader, city mayor, and, captain in the famed “Roosevelt Rough Riders” of 1898.
O’Neill was born the first of four children on Feb. 2, 1860, in St. Louis, Missouri. During the first part of 1879, when he was 19years old, O’Neill answered an item in the Washington Star newspaper calling for men to migrate to the Arizona Territory. He arrived in Phoenix riding a burro in September that same year. Upon arrival he was hired as a printer by the Phoenix Herald newspaper. By late 1880, O’Neill had become bored with the position and sought to experience the “Real West” in the boomtown of the notorious Tombstone in southern Arizona.
In Tombstone, O’Neill took the opportunity to experience the local saloons before taking a job with The Tombstone Epitaph newspaper. Just where he ventured to next is unknown. But, in early 1882, he was back in Phoenix working as a deputy marshal. Later that year, O’Neill moved to Prescott, his home for the next 15 years.
O’Neill arrived in Prescott and rapidly progressed in his journalistic career, starting as a court reporter. He soon founded his own newspaper, Hoof and Horn, a paper for cattlemen and ranchers. In 1886, he became captain of the Prescott Grays, the local unit of the Arizona Militia. That year he married Pauline Schindler and had a son, but the child died shortly after in a premature birth. In 1888, while serving as Yavapai County judge, he was elected county sheriff, running on the Republican ticket.
After his term a county judge was up, O’Neill was elected unanimously Mayor of Prescott. In 1894 and 1896 he ran for Delegate to the Legislature of the Arizona Territory.
During this time, one of his best friends was the infamous cattle regulator Tom Horn.
In 1897, after years of speculating on mines, he sold a group of claims near the Grand Canyon to Chicago backers, who also proposed building a railroad from Williams to the mines and the south rim. In 1897, O’Neill helped introduce a bill in the Territorial Legislature allowing women to vote in municipal elections, however the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the bill.
In 1898, war broke out between the United States and Spain. O’Neill joined Teddy Roosevelt’s all-volunteer Rough Riders, becoming Captain of Troop A.
The Rough Riders landed at Daiquirí, Cuba on June 22, 1898. On July 1, 1898, the Rough Riders and the 10th Cavalry were stationed below Kettle Hill where O’Neill was killed. Col. Theodore Roosevelt, commander of the Rough Riders, wrote in his report about the death of his captain:
“The most serious loss that I and the regiment could have suffered befell just before we charged. O’Neill walked up and down his troops. His men begged him to lie down, and one of the sergeants yelled, ‘Captain, a bullet is sure to hit you.’”
As the story was told by his men, O’Neill took his cigarette out of his mouth, and blowing out a cloud of smoke laughed and said, “Sergeant, the Spanish bullet isn’t made that will kill me.” Soon after a bullet struck him in the head killing him instantly.
O’Neill’s men buried him on the slope of San Juan Hill. After the war, his family and friends asked the War Department to find and recover his body. Despite it being eight months since his death, O’Neill’s well-preserved body was found, exhumed, placed in a coffin, and returned to the United States. He was reinterred in Arlington National Cemetery. The epitaph on his gravestone reads: “Who would not die for a new star on the flag?”
On July 3, 1907, a monument by sculptor Solon Borglum was dedicated to O’Neill and the other Rough Riders in their memory on the lawn of the Yavapai County courthouse in Prescott. Some 7,000 people gathered to witness the unveiling. Borglum’s dynamic sculpture of O’Neil depicts a “Rough Rider” on horseback. This monument is a “must-see” when visiting Prescott, the one-time capital of the Arizona Territory.