Rim Country Cowboys Returned As Vets



As we come to another Veterans Day we recall that Rim country residents have served in every war and conflict since settlement.

Many ranchers and prospectors who were the first to arrive here had served in the Civil War, both Union and Confederate armies.

The first war to recruit soldiers from here after settlement was the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Arizona cowboys signed up as the first contingent for Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders.

At that time, Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The leader of Arizona's company "A" was the mayor of Prescott, William "Bucky" O'Neill.

This eclectic Irishman was respected throughout Arizona for championing school districts in the Territory, pressing for statehood and being the "bring-em-back alive" sheriff of Yavapai County.

When he gave a call for Arizona cowboys to saddle up and become Rough Riders, they were eager to serve.

Many in the Payson area dropped their branding irons and rode to an encampment at the courthouse plaza in Prescott.

There they were inducted into Troop A, First U. S. Cavalry. These cowboys were ideal recruits. They could ride, shoot, camp out, speak some Spanish, and were already used to a hot climate. Many of them had seen action in the Apache wars.

However, a number of the cowboys were rejected because of too many broken legs and old injuries from years of riding the range.

The call had come on April 24, and by May 4 the troop was departing from Prescott.

They joined their regiment in San Antonio, Texas. The regimental mascot was a half-grown mountain lion named Josephine, brought from Prescott. She saw them through, but was mysteriously lost in Chicago on the return trip.

The cowboys from the Rim country objected at first to the name Rough Riders, boasting they rode smooth and good, not rough. When they learned that the name "rough rider" was synonymous in the East for "cowboy," that made it all right.

In San Antonio, they trained. But almost every horse had to be broken because they were mustangs rounded up from the plains. This made Rim country cowboys feel right at home, starting their adventure with a regular rodeo. In fact, they were paid $10 for every horse they broke for other inexperienced troopers.

Before the Arizona contingent left San Antonio by train for Florida, the adjutant general toasted their venture, "Death or a star." The star referred to the one on an officer's uniform. Bucky O'Neill quickly responded, as he raised his glass. "Who wouldn't gamble for a star." For him, it had a double meaning, including Arizona's anticipated star in the United States flag. He had been lobbying for the Territory to be admitted as a state, and he knew the gallantry of Arizona's rough riders would contribute to that goal.

On May 29, they embarked for Cuba. The colorful and buoyant O'Neill was Roosevelt's kind of man, and on shipboard the two became personal friends.

O'Neill's agenda for Arizona statehood was later rewarded, in no small part as a pay-out for the cowboy's role with the future President Roosevelt.

Three quarters of the Rough Riders were recruited from Arizona and New Mexico.

The home-sewn flag of Arizona's "A" troop led the way on the first landing craft and actually became the first American flag on Cuban soil. Sadly, O'Neill was killed just hours before Roosevelt and the Arizona Rough Riders made their famous charge up San Juan Hill. After that, the "A" troop ceased to exist as the soldiers joined other companies. Most of them rallied around Roosevelt himself.

By summer, the short campaign was over, and on Sept 16, 1898, the Arizona cowboys were mustered out of service. Of "A" troop, only 30 men were able to walk off the ship unattended. Many cowboys brought back wounds and fevers which followed them to their graves. A number of them are buried in Payson's Pioneer Cemetery.

Now for the rest of the story.

Roosevelt Dam in the Tonto Basin can trace its existence directly to the participation of Arizona's Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War.

When Vice-president Roosevelt ascended to the Oval Office after the assassination of President McKinley, he did not forget his Arizona cowboys.

After pushing through Congress the land reclamation bill in 1902, he took up the cause of Arizona and made sure the highly contested funds went first to this project.

On March 18, 1911, when the Roosevelt Dam was dedicated and the water began to flow, promising farms and ranches a relief from drought, it was pay-off time for Arizona's Rough Riders.

They were there for the dedication, personally invited by the president. Then, one year later, Arizona was awarded statehood with the President's support.

Bucky O'Neill is buried in Arlington Cemetery, and on the plaza in Prescott, where the cowboy troops had assembled, his likeness rides again in the Rough Rider monument erected July 4, 1907.

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