Facts, information and articles about Cochise, a Native American Indian Chief from the Wild West
Apache Wars; Bascom Affair, Battle of Cookes Canyon, Battle of the Florida Mountains, Battle of Dragoon Springs, Battle of Apache Pass
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Cochise summary: Cochise was an Apache Indian chief. His territory covered parts of present day Arizona and New Mexico. For many years, Cochise maintained peace with the Americans, even allowing them to set up a post in his territory. However, in 1861, a farm was raided and cattle and a child were taken. United States Army Lieutenant George N. Bascom was sent out with orders to find the child. He asked to speak with Cochise about the raid. Cochise, used to peaceful interactions with the Americans, met with the lieutenant, apparently without much concern. After being told what had happened, Cochise, who had taken several members of his family along to the meeting, promised to try to find out what had happened to the child. The lieutenant remained suspicious, however, and decided that he was going to hold Cochise’s family members until the child was returned.
Cochise was appalled by the lieutenant’s actions and escaped the meeting by cutting through the tent. The other Apaches were taken prisoner; by some accounts one was killed and another wounded. Soon, Cochise took some white men prisoner and tried to negotiate an exchange of hostages with Lt. Bascom, who refused. The Apaches killed their captives and mutilated the bodies. In retaliation, three of the male Apaches being held by the Army were hanged at the site of the white victims’ mass grave. Bascom, who had opposed hanging the three prisoners, released Cochise’s wife and son. In 1872, Cochise agreed to a treaty that granted his tribe land in Arizona, and he remained there until his death two years later.
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Chiricahua Chief Cochise
In the summer of 1872 a truly extraordinary development took place in our nation’s capital. President Ulysses S. Grant, hoping to bring an end to the Apache war in southeastern Arizona, dispatched Brigadier General Oliver O. Howard to Arizona to make peace with Cochise, the celebrated leader of the Chokonen band of Chiricahua Apaches. That his activities occupied the thoughts of America’s military and civil leaders would have come as a surprise to the aging chieftain, who was provincial and unpretentious by nature. Yet, Cochise’s reputation had convinced the top officials in Washington that he was the key to obtaining a lasting peace with the Chiricahua Apaches. At that time–except perhaps for Red Cloud, the great Lakota chief–Cochise may have been the most famous Indian in the West.
That designation would not have flattered him. After 12 years of war against the Americans–a bloody, merciless conflict that had begun after American troops had betrayed him in 1861–Cochise had come to the conclusion that he must make peace to ensure the survival of his people. Age was beginning to take its toll, his health was deteriorating, and the long war that he had waged against Mexico and the United States had taken the lives of many of his people. Accordingly, when General Howard rode into Cochise’s camp in the Dragoon Mountains in southeastern Arizona, accompanied by his aide, Lieutenant Joseph A. Sladen, and by Thomas J. Jeffords, a frontiersman trusted by Cochise, they found the chief ready to make peace.
Cochise and his Chokonen band ranged throughout southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico and northern Mexico. Born about 1810, he had matured during a relatively peaceful period of Apache-Mexican affairs. In 1831, however, relations deteriorated sharply, and treachery and war replaced harmony and tranquility. This precarious state of affairs with Mexico would continue throughout Cochise’s life, although truces and armistices occasionally interrupted hostilities. From time to time, Mexican officials, unable to defeat the Chiricahuas in combat, turned to mercenaries and scalp hunters to exterminate the Apaches. The infamous Johnson and Kirker massacres of 1837 and 1846, in which mercenaries slaughtered some 175 Chiricahuas, left indelible impressions on Cochise. He lost his father, an important band leader, in one of those premeditated massacres, probably during Kirker’s slaughter. Naturally, such chicanery and deceit served only to exacerbate hostilities, for revenge was an important factor in Chiricahua warfare.
In 1856 Cochise became the principal war leader of the Chokonen band after the death of its chief, Miguel Narbona. Two years later he experienced his first contact with Americans at Apache Pass (in present-day Arizona), where he met Apache Agent Michael Steck. He had no reason to act militarily against these newcomers, who had done nothing to earn his contempt and were then not a significant force in southern Arizona. Relations became strained in 1860 because of a few Chiricahua stock raids–raids that the Apaches did not consider to be warlike.
In February 1861, war between the Chiricahua Apaches and Americans erupted in a senseless and violent encounter at Apache Pass. First Lieutenant George N. Bascom, with a detachment of soldiers, arrived at Apache Pass and requested a parley with Cochise. Bascom, seeking a boy recently captured by Western Apaches, believed that Cochise’s people were responsible. Bascom ordered his soldiers to surround the tent when Cochise and his family came in to parley. Cochise, discovering that he was a prisoner, cut his way out of the tent to freedom (the Chiricahuas would forever refer to this incident as ‘Cut the Tent’). But five members of Cochise’s family were unable to escape. A few days later, Cochise captured a stage employee and soon after attacked a freighter train, killing all the Mexicans with the train and capturing three Americans. He offered to exchange the hostages for his relatives, but Bascom refused to budge unless Cochise returned the boy. Frustrated, Cochise tortured his prisoners to death. Bascom retaliated by hanging Cochise’s brother and two of his nephews. Later, Bascom released Cochise’s wife and son.
The execution of his relatives aroused in Cochise a passionate hatred of Americans and touched off the fierce conflict that was to last throughout the 1860s. It mattered little that only a few Americans had betrayed him; he hated them all. Initially he raided and killed for revenge; later, even as his rage abated, he continued to wage war, for the conflict had evolved into a bloody cycle of revenge–American counterstrikes and Apache retaliation. Cochise assumed an aggressive posture for the first five years of the war as he enlisted the aid of other Chiricahua bands, notably the Bedonkohes and Chihennes under his father-in-law, the 6-foot 5-inch statesman Mangas Coloradas (whom Americans had also driven to war).
During the summer of 1861, the Chiricahuas ambushed several parties at Cooke’s Canyon in New Mexico Territory and, on September 27, 1861, openly assaulted the mining town of Pinos Altos, N.M., but the miners repulsed their attack. By that time most Anglos had abandoned southern Arizona, leaving it virtually uninhabited by whites except those living in Tucson and at a few isolated mines. Cochise naturally concluded that his people had driven the Americans from his country. ‘At last your soldiers did me a great wrong, and I and my whole tribe went to war with them,’ he said. ‘At first we were successful, and your soldiers were driven away and your people killed, and we again possessed our land.’
In June 1862 the California Column under Brig. Gen. James Carleton halted at Tucson before resuming its journey east to drive the Confederate forces back to Texas. The column’s route lay through Apache Pass. Cochise and Mangas Coloradas, believing that the troops had come to punish them, prepared an ambush, hoping to prevent the whites from obtaining water at Apache Springs. Captain Thomas Roberts led an advance detachment that clashed with the Chiricahuas on July 15-16, 1862. Cochise had positioned most of his men on the hills overlooking both sides of the spring. The Americans finally drove the Indians from their breastworks when Roberts unleashed two mountain howitzers that lobbed several shells near the Indian positions. Both sides fought hard, and both lost men.
Cochise’s fury was ignited again in January 1863 when Americans duped Mangas Coloradas into a parley and executed him–which, to the Chiricahuas, ‘was the greatest of wrongs.’ For Cochise, the loss of his father-in-law and fighting ally was a deep and unquenchable grief. Mangas’ execution reminded Cochise that he could not trust Americans, especially soldiers.
In early 1865 the Chihenne band in New Mexico, under Victorio, discussed terms with Americans, but Cochise refused, declaring that he would never make peace. He still feared Anglo treachery. In fact, 1865 was destined to be one of his most active years in Arizona. He attacked ranches, travelers and troops on both sides of the border. Yet with the Civil War winding down, military affairs in Arizona were changing, and Cochise soon learned that American troops and citizens were more determined and better armed than their counterparts below the border. Therefore, from 1866 through 1868 he was forced to adopt guerilla warfare against Americans and Mexicans. By late 1868, however, Mexican campaigns had pushed him northward into Arizona, and now, for the first time, he reluctantly considered the prospect of making peace with the Americans.
Over the next four years (18691872), Cochise came to understand clearly the inevitability of peace. Yet he was fighting his own inner battle. He had never been a reservation Indian, and he still distrusted Americans. His first meeting with Americans since the Bascom Affair occurred in his beloved Dragoon Mountains in early February 1869. He wanted peace, but he refused to go near a military post to consummate a treaty. That fall his people fought two major battles in the Chiricahua Mountains against troops from Fort Bowie that cost the lives of several Chokonens. Soon after, Cochise sent word to the Apache Indian agent in New Mexico that he would discuss a truce once he was convinced of the Americans’ good faith.
In the summer of 1870 he visited Camp Mogollon in Arizona and admitted to an American officer there that he had killed ‘about as many as he had lost’ and that he was now ‘about even.’ Two months later he joined his Chihenne relatives at Cañada Alamosa, near today’s Monticello, and held talks with William Arny, special Indian agent for New Mexico. Cochise reiterated his desire for a truce with the Americans, declaring, ‘If the government talks straight I want a good peace.’ Yet he also revealed his contempt for reservation life by declaring his people’s desire ‘to run around like a coyote; they don’t want to be put in a corral.’ The idea of a reservation, with its inherent restrictions, was completely alien to an Apache warrior’s view of his universe.
After remaining a month, Cochise left Cañada Alamosa in November 1870, ostensibly to round up more members of his band. However, while he was absent, Washington assigned a new agent, and Cochise heard rumors that officials were planning to consolidate the Chiricahuas with the Mescaleros east of the Rio Grande. He therefore remained in Arizona, where, during the spring and summer of 1871, the troops allowed him, in his words, ‘no rest, no peace.’ In late September he returned to Cañada Alamosa and stayed until late March 1872, when the government relocated the agency to Tularosa, north of the Mogollons. At that point he returned to the Dragoon Mountains in Arizona, where in October 1872 General Howard met him and consummated a treaty, one that Cochise kept until his death in those same Dragoon Mountains on June 8, 1874.
In his day, Cochise embodied the essence of Apache warfare. But he was more than just a warrior–much more. He was an Indian who so loved his family, his people and the mountains in which he was reared that he would fight fiercely to protect and preserve all that was Apache. There can be no question that he was capable of unspeakable cruelties and violent acts of revenge upon innocent whites. The fact that Cochise was terribly wronged and misunderstood and forced to witness the disappearance of his homeland and his people perhaps cannot, in the view of history, justify everything that he did. Still he represents, probably as well as any single figure, a people’s natural resistance to the invasion of their land.
The warrior known as Cochise will enjoy forever a giant place in the history of the American Southwest. In consistently heroic fashion, he occupied his place at the head of his threatened people through the violent years. His physical skills were so extraordinary that those skills alone would have conducted him to the head of his Chokonen band. One American frontiersman who knew him well insisted that Cochise ‘never met his equal with a lance’; another frontiersman claimed that no Apache ‘can draw an arrow to the head and send it farther with more ease than him.’ And we have many eyewitness accounts to testify to Cochise’s prowess as a horseman. During one furious encounter on horseback, an American scout tried over and over again to dispatch Cochise, but his efforts were all in vain, for the Indian ‘would slip over to the side of his horse, hanging on the horse’s neck.’
Yet it was more than his strength and physical skills that inspired the warriors of Cochise. The Chiricahua chief had often expressed his great regard for those who displayed two attributes: courage and devotion to the truth. Nobody exhibited both more persistently and dramatically than did Cochise himself. His courage in skirmishes and battles is now legendary. He always led his men into combat and was frequently the central figure throughout the fight. One American officer reported that ‘many efforts were made to kill Cochise who [led] his mounted warriors’ in several charges.
Always during an engagement, no matter how chaotic and confused, Cochise managed complete control of his men. ‘A private soldier would as soon think of disobeying a direct order of the President as would a Chiricahua Apache a command of Cochise,’ one observer declared.
The warrior-chief also respected and much admired bravery when it appeared in his enemies. One reason that his friendship with General Howard and Lieutenant Sladen developed so quickly and so firmly was that they had the ‘courage to visit him when to do so [might] have caused their death.’
And Cochise scorned a liar. He held to a simple philosophy about the truth: ‘A man has only one mouth and if he won’t tell the truth he [should be] put out of
the way.’ He clearly had a great instinct for the truth and a keen capacity for distinguishing deceit and falsehood. All Americans, with but a few notable exceptions, he distrusted out of both instinct and experience. This distrust of Americans prevented him from revealing much of his career to inquisitive whites. He remained honest to his creed as he steadfastly refused to discuss the past. If pressured, he would simply say, ‘I don’t want to talk about that.’
In the end, Cochise came to the best terms ever really possible for him. His last years were a time of peace in America, the kind of peace that came only because the struggle was over. He obtained a reservation in his ancestral homeland, an agent in whom he could repose absolute and complete trust, and the promise of freedom from military interference. Today, he enjoys a hallowed place in the history of the great American Southwest: Cochise, the Chiricahua Apache, the leader of his people.
This article was written by Edwin R. Sweeney and originally appeared Wild West magazine.
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