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Buckey O’Neill and the A&P Train Robbery

Buckey O’Neill had been a newspaper reporter with the Tombstone Epitaph when the OK Corral shootout occurred in 1881. The following year he moved to Prescott and worked as a court reporter and founded his own newspaper, Hoof and Horn, serving the livestock industry. He became captain of a local unit of the Arizona militia in 1886 and was elected Yavapai County sheriff in 1888.

Within two months of taking office, the A&P train was robbed. It had stopped for fuel at Canyon Diablo (about halfway between Flagstaff and Winslow) on the evening of March 20 when four cowboys from the Hashknife outfit came on board. They were William Sterin, John Halford, Daniel Harvick and J.J. Smith, and they weren’t there for a pleasure trip. They held up the train, taking more than $7,000 in cash and jewelry, and then headed north toward Lee’s Ferry.

O’Neill and Deputy Jim Black were in Flagstaff when word of the holdup came the next day. O’Neill immediately formed a posse and took off after the robbers. At Lee’s Ferry the lawmen were told the fugitives had passed through two days before, heading up into southern Utah. In Utah they learned the men had gone back south to Wah Weap in Arizona. At Wah Weap, after a chase that had taken nearly three weeks and covered over 500 miles, they finally captured the robbers.

To get the prisoners back to Prescott, the lawmen had to box the compass, first heading north to Marysville, Utah to catch the train to Salt Lake City and then training east to Denver, south to New Mexico and back west to Prescott. Outside Raton, N.M., fugitive J.J. Smith escaped. He was later captured in Texas and returned to Prescott, where the robbers pleaded guilty and were sentenced to 25 years in the Yuma Territorial Prison. An additional five years was added to Smith’s sentence for the escape.

In those days a sheriff paid his own expenses and then was reimbursed by the county. It cost $8,000 to bring the robbers to justice. The Yavapai County Board of Supervisors refused to pay more than $5,800, so O’Neill sued them. He won a judgment in superior court, but the tight-fisted supervisors wouldn’t quit. They appealed to the Territorial Supreme Court and won, so in the end, O’Neill had to pay after all.

All four men were pardoned in 1897. The following year, one of the men, William Sterin, enlisted in the First United States Cavalry Regiment (later known as the Rough Riders) under the assumed name Henry Nash. He served as a sergeant under O’Neill, who commanded A Troop. O’Neill apparently was never aware of the man’s past.

On July 1, 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the Rough Riders were below Cuba’s Kettle Hill, an intermediate summit on the way up San Juan Hill, awaiting orders to advance. The unit was taking heavy fire from Spanish troops entrenched at the summit, and O’Neill was fatally injured.

Shortly after O’Neill’s death, regiment commander Teddy Roosevelt, without orders from brigade headquarters, ordered a charge that took Kettle Hill and then the main summit at San Juan Hill. By the end of the campaign, the Rough Riders had suffered a 76 percent casualty rate from battle and disease.

— Bonnie Greer. Photo courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society Pioneer Museum.

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