Antonio “Tony” Esquivel, Jr., cowboy and trick rider in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, was born in February 1862 in Texas—possibly in Bandera County in the Texas Hill Country northwest of San Antonio. Sources differ regarding the exact date of his birth. He was the son of Mexican immigrant Antonio Esquivel, Sr., and Karoline (Jarzombek) Esquivel from Poland. His father was a rancher in the vicinity of San Antonio, and Tony grew up learning the work of cattle ranching. He apparently had some form of education, because he could read and write, and, according to family descendants, he could speak Spanish, English, and Polish. He eventually also spoke Lakota. By the early 1880s Tony and his brother Joe were driving cattle herds north to Nebraska. On one such drive, as they arrived in North Platte, Nebraska, they met William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who was recruiting cowboys to perform in his newly-organized Wild West show. He selected the Esquivel brothers, and Tony was designated “boss” of the Texas cowboys, while Joe became “boss” of the various teams of cowboys selected from several states.
With his brother, Antonio Esquivel became one of the original members of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in 1883. They were cast at various times as Mexicans, Rough Riders, gauchos, and “white cowboys.” Noted for his excellent horse skills and showmanship, Tony Esquivel was billed as “Champion Vaquero of Mexico,” and, as part of Cody’s “Cow-Boy’s Fun” exhibition, he entertained audiences with bronco busting, trick roping, and other feats of daring horsemanship. His dramatic entrances included riding into the arena on a large ornately-saddled black horse that reared up and walked on its hind feet. Esquivel added an extra element of danger by training the horse to fall—amidst the gasps of spectators. Then the horse and rider recovered, made a “graceful bow,” and galloped again to the cheers of the crowd. Esquivel performed in stagecoach attacks, Pony Express demonstrations, and various other Western reenactments. Programs of the show portrayed him in dramatic (if not erroneous) fashion:
Born in Mexico, and is descended from the best Castillian and native stock, dating through the history of the section along the Rio Grande. He possesses all the sterling qualities that the higher bred rancheros are famed. As a Pony Express Rider, Herdsman, and Horseman, he stands unexcelled.
The Esquivel brothers toured the United States and accompanied Cody when he took his show overseas on an extended tour of England. Tony Esquivel gained wide acclaim for Cody and the show when he rode in a relay race in Manchester, England, in 1888. The race pitted Cody’s “American Broncho Horses” against English thoroughbreds in a ten-mile relay race. Esquivel competed against British jockey J. Latham in front of approximately 20,000 spectators and eventually surged to the lead with his superior remounting. “The difference between the two riders in remounting was very marked,” the Manchester Times commented. “Latham’s method was to place one foot in the stirrup in the usual way, while Antonio with a single bound leapt astride his horse….” Esquivel won the relay race in twenty-two minutes and by some 300 yards.
In 1892, while he was performing in England, Esquivel met Clara Emma Richards. The young English teacher and pianist had been hired as a governess for the children of Wild West show manager Nate Salsbury. In this capacity, Richards had access to the family’s box seats for the Wild West performances and choice seating to view Tony Esquivel’s horsemanship. They married in New York in 1893, and, at his wife’s urging, Esquivel left the Wild West show, and the family settled in San Antonio. They had five daughters—Bessie, Pauline, Florence, Clarita, and Janet. The eldest was born in New York, and the rest were born in Texas.
Tony Esquivel reportedly trained polo ponies in San Antonio; however, the 1900 census listed his occupation as a sanitary officer. Family tradition holds that William Cody himself later traveled to San Antonio and asked Esquivel to return to his Wild West show and tour Europe. Cody apparently persuaded Clara Esquivel to take the children and stay in England during this time. Esquivel resumed his performance career and toured with Cody from 1902 to 1905.
Esquivel then returned to Texas. According to the 1910 census, the family was living in Orange, Texas, where he worked as a carpenter in a sawmill. Antonio and Clara Esquivel separated in 1912, and they eventually divorced. By the beginning of World War I (1914) Clara Esquivel and four of their daughters had returned to England, where they remained for several years until returning to Texas.
In 1916 Esquivel performed with the 101 Ranch Wild West Show based out of Oklahoma; Cody’s show had gone bankrupt in 1913. At some point he returned to Bexar County and was listed in the 1930 census as living with his brother Joe and his family on their farm. Antonio Esquivel died of pneumonia on November 9, 1938, in San Antonio. According to his death certificate, he was buried in San Fernando Cemetery No. 2. In 2011 artifacts from the 101 Ranch and its Wild West Show were auctioned off, including Esquivel’s traveler’s trunk, ornate costume, sombrero, and revolver. Family descendants purchased the items and planned to one day exhibit them in a museum.