The small but rugged Dragoon Mountains in southeastern Arizona became the fortified home of the great Apache chief.
As travelers speed west on Interstate 10 from Lordsburg, New Mexico, crossing the border into southeastern Arizona, they enter a land many of them only wish to leave behind. They soon reach the small town of Willcox, population 4,000, which was founded in 1880 and got its current name in 1889 (re- named after Brigadier General Orlando B. Willcox). These travelers may stop for a quick lunch or to gas their vehicles and then speed on west to Tucson and eventually the California coast. Very few of these modern-day explorers realize they have entered the ancestral home of the Chiricahua Apaches. More important, they are traveling through the Spirit World of arguably the most famous Chiricahua Apache chief in American history, Cochise.
The land they travel through is flat, stark and barren, with a perimeter of small mountain ranges, austere compared to more verdant areas of the United States. This land of playas, sagebrush, yucca and ocotillo is so inhospitable that only the most resolute would attempt to settle it. The Chiricahua Apaches of the 19th century called it home. Although never in great numbers, the Chiricahuas survived and thrived in this hard country, which demanded an equally hard and determined people. The Apaches of that era could survive in a harsh environment—with little water or vegetation and extreme temperatures—that challenged even the strongest.
As travelers proceed through Willcox, they encounter the Willcox Playa (or dry lake), lying at town’s edge and extending 30 miles to the west. At the western extent of the playa lies a relatively insignificant northwest-southeast-bearing mountain range called the Dragoons, about 15 miles long and 8 miles wide at the widest point. No signs identify the name of the mountains, but there is a small highway sign, with an arrow pointing south, that says “Cochise Stronghold.” Even 19th-century maps only gave a cursory notation of the range’s existence. However, it was home to Apache Chief Cochise and served as his fortress when he was a nemesis to territorial settlers and the U.S. Army.
The Dragoon Mountains rise from the Sulphur Springs Valley floor some 38 miles west and slightly south of present-day Willcox, which wasn’t around in the days of the great Cochise (who died in 1874). The mountains formed during the Cordilleran Uplift in Mesozoic time, approximately 65 million to 150 million years ago. The Dragoons stand as an eroded remnant of long ago volcanic activity, the rock formations consisting of highly weathered granite and basalt. Time, wind and water have taken their toll, leaving granite spires, deep crevasses, sharp precipitous ridges and a maze of boulder fields. With an average elevation of 5,000 feet and a high point of 7,100 feet, the Dragoons are small compared to the Rockies or the Cascades. But they are plenty rugged, and from them the Chokonen band of Chiricahua Apaches wreaked havoc on the armies of two nations (Mexico and the United States) and the settlers, miners and travelers of southeastern Arizona Territory.
Cochise’s Chokonens consisted of only about 1,000 people, with no more than 250 warriors. Subsistence in the Sulphur Springs Valley dictated that the band be relatively small and mobile. The Chiricahuas were hunters and gatherers, not agriculturalists; they survived on what the Sonoran Desert could provide them—deer and javelina were hunted, roots and natural vegetables gathered. They increased their chances of finding food by migrating between the Dragoons and the mountains of northern Chihuahua, Mexico. Other Apache bands to the north—Tonto, White Mountain and Coyotero—were nearby and sometimes frequented the territory of the Chiricahuas. Each band was led by its own recognized chief or headman. It was the Coyoteros, not the Chokonens, who instigated the incident that led to warfare with the United States.
War began in early February 1861. Inexperienced and overzealous 2nd Lt. George Nicholas Bascom had been in Arizona Territory only about three months. He had no background in dealing with Apaches; in fact, he had never even seen an Indian until he came West. The trouble stemmed from an incident on January 27, 1861, when a group of Coyotero Apaches raided the ranch of John Ward and not only stole cattle but also kidnapped 12-yearold Felix, who belonged to Ward’s Mexican mistress. (In the 1870s, Felix became known as Mickey Free, a prominent scout for the U.S. Army.) Lieutenant Bascom was charged with finding the guilty Apaches and recovering the kidnapped boy as well as the stolen stock.
With 54 men of the 7th Infantry, Bascom set out for Apache Pass, a frequently used low crossing between the Dos Cabezas Mountains and Chiricahua Mountains, some 40 miles east of the Dragoon Mountains. Cochise, having heard about the Coyotero raid on the Ward ranch, sent scouts from his band of Chokonens to observe the troop movement and inform him of their destination. Along with his wife, his youngest son, his brother and several other warriors, Cochise rode to meet Bascom to assure him that the Chokonens were not at fault. Under a flag of truce, the young lieutenant welcomed the Cochise contingent to his encampment, and after greetings were exchanged, the lieutenant invited the Apaches into his tent. By prearranged signal, the tent was soon surrounded by soldiers. Bascom informed Cochise that he and his party were under arrest and would be kept prisoners until the kidnapped Felix and stolen stock were returned. Cochise used a knife to cut his way out of the back of the tent, ran through the soldiers and escaped unharmed. His relatives were not as fortunate; the others all remained there as prisoners.
Over the next week, Cochise conducted several raids on freight wagons and stagecoaches, capturing four white men. These he intended to use as bargaining chips to secure the release of his relatives held by Lieutenant Bascom. At several parlays, Cochise offered to exchange prisoners. Bascom remained resolute in his demand for the release of the Mexican boy, while Cochise continued to declare he held no such prisoner. Angered over the stalemate, Cochise eventually executed the four white men in his custody and left them to be found under a cluster of oak trees on the western edge of Apache Pass.
Bascom, in turn, executed six men—three Chiricahua men from Cochise’s party (Cochise’s wife and son were released) and three Western Apaches captured by a relief force en route to reinforce Bascom—hanging them in the same oak trees that stood over the white men’s graves. Because of the Apaches’ taboos concerning the dead, the bodies of the Indians were kept hanging for months to slowly decay into skeletons. The Army left them as grisly reminders for the Apaches.
Ten men had been needlessly executed. The so-called Bascom Affair led to even greater consequences, however, as it set in motion a ferocious, no-quarter-asked-and-no-quarter-given war that lasted more than a decade. The war would see no pitched battles between standing armies but was full of the slashing, burning and killing characteristic of guerrilla fighting. Cochise would finally come to a peaceful settlement with the Army in 1872, but before then, chasing him was like chasing a shadow. He raided with a passion and between raids slipped back into the bastion of the Stronghold. His killings paralyzed much of the territory.
The Cochise Stronghold actually consists of two strongholds—an eastern one and a western one, separated by the spine of the Dragoon Mountains. Both strongholds have ample water, wood, grazing and game, as they did in Cochise’s day. The rugged terrain safeguarded these camps. If the Cochise band was attacked from the east, the Apache leader would spread skirmishers throughout the boulder fields, while the rest of his people would follow a trail over the crest of the Dragoons and down into the western stronghold. If the attack came from the west, the tactics were reversed. In short, the Cochise Stronghold was virtually impregnable, certainly against small Army patrols.
Even when soldiers did make it into the Dragoons, they could not capitalize on it. For instance, in April 1871, Captain Gerald Russell and 30 other men from Fort Bowie followed an Indian trail into the Dragoons from the west but soon found themselves surrounded and under fire. “This was one of Cochise’s tricks,” Russell later said, “for he is positively the only Indian in the country who waits for troops and resorts to this kind of strategy.” Although there were no casualties, Russell knew it was foolish to continue deeper into the mountains, so he sent for reinforcements. On April 19, Russell’s force, now numbering more than 60 men, climbed a high peak just north of Cochise’s two strongholds and saw Apache campfires. But that night, Cochise’s band slipped away, some members going as far west as the Whetstone Mountains. By early May, Cochise was back in the Dragoons, keeping an eye out for any further Army intrusions.
During this period of hostilities, one white man made a name for himself by entering the Cochise Stronghold and making it out alive. In 1867 Thomas J. Jeffords, a mail contractor for the route between Tucson and Mesilla, New Mexico Territory, boldly went to the Dragoons because at least 14 riders had been unable to collect their $125-amonth salaries—Cochise’s warriors had seen to that. Jeffords wanted to assure the safety of his employees, so he did something that most white men would have considered suicidal. After riding into the Stronghold, Jeffords presented his weapons to one of Cochise’s wives and conferred with the chief. Cochise, obviously impressed with this white man’s boldness and cool demeanor, not only didn’t harm Jeffords but also promised not to attack any more of his mail riders. Cochise kept his word. In 1872 Jeffords escorted General O.O. Howard to Cochise’s camp in the Dragoons, and Howard promised the Chiricahuas a large reservation in southeastern Arizona Territory.
Cochise remained at peace with all Americans until his death (perhaps from stomach cancer) in 1874, and his friend Jeffords was the only white man present at his burial. The bones of Cochise, along with his favorite war pony and dog, remain to this day hidden in a deep crevasse somewhere in the Stronghold of the Dragoons. Jeffords lived until 1914.
After Cochise was gone, other Apaches of course continued the fight against the U.S. Army and other white intruders. The entire Sonoran Desert, and much of the Chihuahuan Desert, served as the scene of conflict. Through the turmoil, almost all the Chiricahua leaders used the Cochise Stronghold as a place of refuge at one time or another. Also, some of them launched lightning raids from that natural fortress. The Apache people would not forget the deep gorges and weathered spires of the Dragoons, even after Geronimo’s final surrender in 1886.
The Cochise Stronghold has changed little through the years, even though roads, ranches, homes, power lines and campgrounds have slowly encroached to the edges of the Dragoons. The fortresslike structure of the eastern canyon becomes apparent to any modern traveler who ventures there. A road winding along the canyon floor leads to a peaceful U.S. Forest Service campground. How many of these travelers are aware of Cochise’s story—his fierce, though perhaps justified, fight against the white man and the ensuing peace—is uncertain. But at least they see more than the ones who speed through the Sulphur Springs Valley on Interstate 10 with hardly a glance at the jumble of granite and sparse vegetation known as the Dragoons. Lucky are those that venture into the canyon of the Stronghold today.
Layton L. Hooper writes from Fort Collins, Colo.Suggested for further reading: A People Called Apache, by Thomas E. Mails; Cochise: Chiricahua Apache Chief, by Edwin R. Sweeney; Once They Moved Like the Wind, by David Roberts; and Roadside Geology of Arizona, by Halka Chronic.
Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.