Arizona Rough Riders


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We're all familiar with Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, but most people may not know that the idea for the Rough Riders started right here in Arizona.


Narrator: We've all heard of the Rough Riders and their connection with former President Theodore Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War. The iconic image of Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill is part of our national heritage. But less known is the story of how the Rough Riders got started by a group of Arizona cowboys, most from Prescott. They were led by a Prescott man by the name of Alexander Brodie.

Charles Herner: And he suspected, or assumed, that the president of the United States, McKinley, would call for volunteers as they did in the Civil War. So he came up with the idea of a regiment from Arizona composed of cowboys. Of course, himself as the colonel. And he made this public on February 22, 1898, which was the first public announcement of any volunteer regiment. Roosevelt had nothing to do with that at all. All that was done completely away from any of Roosevelt's influence or probably even knowledge, really.

Narrator: Originally, Arizona was allocated 170 men for the Rough Riders on April 26, 1898. That number grew to 200 by May 4th of that year when the men gathered in front of the bandstand in Prescott for a grand send-off. The men were given a mascot, a mountain lion named Josephine.

Charles Herner: They had a little ceremony in the town plaza and the troops marched in from Fort Whipple with the barracks, and they lined them up there in the plaza. And it was cold and snowed the night before. This is May the 3rd. The governor came up, Governor McCord, gave them a flag, which they carried through the campaign. It became the regimental flag.

Narrator: They then boarded a train headed to San Antonio for training, where the troops were bolstered to a total of 255 men.

Charles Herner: Most of them had very little military experience, although New Mexico had a lot of national guardsmen in it, and so did Oklahoma. Arizona had very few. They were an older group. The Arizona men were about 28 years of age. Some had served in the regular Army. They were intelligent, they were very dedicated, they were also hard to deal with because they were individualistic. So you had to have good officers that could handle the individuality of these men. But they were very aggressive, very intelligent, had extremely high morale. Part of that was due to Roosevelt's influence. They were good, and they knew they were good.

Narrator: The next stop for the Arizona Rough Riders was Tampa, Florida, the departure point for Cuba. Not all of the men could go to Cuba because of a lack of transportation. One entire troop of 85 men plus 21 others from two other Arizona troops stayed in Tampa. The first battle for the Rough Riders, who, despite their name, fought on foot, was the skirmish at Las Guasimas on June 24th.

Charles Herner: The newspaperman said he was ambushed. Well, they weren't ambushed at all; they knew exactly where the Spaniards were. The Spaniards were waiting for them. And actually it was a Rough Rider who fired first, fired the first shot. Saw a Spaniard, took a shot at him, and then all hell broke loose. It was a serious little battle. Arizona -- there were two Arizonans killed. Lasted about three hours on June 24th.

Narrator: The next battle is the most famous, the Battle for San Juan Heights, usually referred to as the Battle for San Juan Hill.

Charles Herner: The Rough Riders went first up Kettle Hill, and then they crossed a little valley and up on San Juan Ridge. San Juan Hill was captured by an American infantry division to their left. It was a nasty battle. This was not a common affair. The Spaniards had Mauser rifles, they were well-trained soldiers, experienced soldiers. They could fire those Mausers very rapidly, and they put down a pretty good volume of fire on the American forces. Arizona lost 9, killed, and, I believe, 24 wounded in those two engagements.

Narrator: The most well-known Arizona incident was when former Prescott Mayor Buckey O’Neill was killed by a Spanish bullet. That was something he allegedly said would never happen. Herner says he confirmed in an interview with the last surviving Arizona Rough Rider Arthur Tuttle that O’Neill never said that.

Charles Herner: Tuttle was about 15 feet away from him, from Captain O’Neill, when he was shot. And he said he was talking to a regular Army officer and then he turned as the conversation ended and was hit in the mouth and went down. But he said he didn't say anything about a Spanish bullet being molded that will never kill Buckey O’Neill.

Narrator: This is an authentic Rough Riders uniform, made from yellow canvas. The shirt is blue wool. It was worn by George Truman, the only Rough Rider from Pinal County. Margaret Truman Baker is his granddaughter. She never knew her grandfather. He died in 1929. But she knows about his time as a Rough Rider. Baker was from New York and came to Florence in 1890, following family that had arrived earlier.

Margaret Truman Baker: He was one of the very first to make it to the top of San Juan Hill. He was a track star, I think, back in his private academy at home, and so maybe he was a fast runner. The family told stories that he was right next to Roosevelt, and of course, the family was always very thrilled that he, you know, rubbed shoulders with someone who became so important.

Narrator: Truman Baker says family lore is that Truman told Roosevelt to get off his horse to avoid being shot. He wrote letters home about the conditions faced by Rough Riders.

Margaret Truman Baker: He talked about the diet, that they had the wrong kinds of food for the jungle environment, and that it was very hot there and a lot of mosquitoes and very steamy and they just had heavy potatoes and things to eat where they should have had -- or they would have been better off to have lighter fare to eat.

Narrator: For Truman and other Rough Riders, their time in Cuba was short. By August 15th of 1898, they were back in Tampa. Over the years, the Rough Riders kept in touch through reunions like this 50th reunion in 1948 in Prescott. Many of the men went on to positions of power in early Arizona. Brodie had a close relationship with Teddy Roosevelt, who appointed him territorial governor of Arizona. Roosevelt Dam resulted from Brodie's ties to the president. It may have also led to Arizona itself.

Charles Herner: There's a good possibility that Arizona would have been joined with New Mexico as a state except Brodie convinced Roosevelt not to support that. Now, he couldn't convince Roosevelt to come out and support separate statehood, but he convinced him to stay neutral on the sidelines. And as a result of that, and finally, of course, when Taft became President, then Arizona got separate statehood.