This Date in Native History: On June 8, 1874, the great Apache Chief Cochise died in southeastern Arizona after fighting U.S. troops for 12 years and establishing the Chiricahua reservation.
Born in about 1810, Cochise in his prime was described as being five feet, 10 inches tall and 175 pounds with shoulder-length, jet-black hair. Although he was physically formidable, Cochise had a quiet, meditative personality, said Edwin Sweeney, a historian and author of several books about the Apache.
“People who knew him described him as physically well put together with a powerful build,” Sweeney said. “Personality-wise, he was a reticent man, a little provincial. He was very reserved, though he would become energetic when discussing the wrongs against the Apache.”
Cochise was chief of the Chiricahua Apache, one of four bands of Apache living in Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. Cochise fought the Mexicans, but he was generally friendly toward the Americans, Sweeney said. All of that changed in January 1861 when two parties of Apaches raided a white man’s ranch and kidnapped a 12-year-old boy.
Although his band was not involved in the raid, Cochise was blamed for the kidnapping and the U.S. Army sought him for questioning. When Cochise, his wife, two children, a brother and two nephews arrived at the camp of Lieutenant George Bascom, he was immediately arrested and the whole family held captive.
Cochise pulled out a knife and escaped by cutting through the tent, Sweeney said, but he left his family behind. He then captured four Americans and offered to trade them for his family. Bascom refused, saying he would only release Cochise’s family when the 12-year-old boy was returned.
Unable to do so, Cochise’s people tortured and killed their American hostages. In response, the U.S. Army hanged Cochise’s brother and his two nephews, an action that resulted in 12 years of war between the Apaches and the U.S.
During the wars, Cochise often sought refuge in a secluded location in Arizona’s Dragoon Mountains. The place, known as Cochise’s Stronghold, actually is a misnomer, said Michael Darrow, historian for the Fort Sill Apache Tribe of Oklahoma.
“Stronghold is a military word,” Darrow said. “In Apache it was called ‘favorite place.’ It was not a fort built for defense. It had trees and water and lots of traditional supplies that made it a pleasant place.”
Cochise, who led all four bands of Apache to battle, was at war with the U.S. until 1872 when President Ulysses S. Grant sent General Oliver Otis Howard to negotiate peace with the Apaches. Howard arrived in Apache territory without soldiers, winning Cochise’s approval, Sweeney said.
“One thing Cochise admired was courage and bravery,” he said. “This officer was pretty brave to march without troops. Cochise really liked this general, peace was made and there was successful peace for about four years.”
In December 1872, the Chiricahua reservation was established in the southeastern corner of Arizona, and Cochise reportedly said this: “Hereafter, the white man and the Indian are to drink of the same water, eat of the same bread and be at peace.”
The negotiation is notable because Cochise got what he wanted, Sweeney said.
“Cochise was one of few chiefs who got a reservation on his terms,” he said. “He got the land he wanted and the terms he wanted.”
Yet Cochise, who had been ill for several years, did not get to enjoy this peace. He died about 18 months later, probably of stomach cancer, and was buried in the Dragoon Mountains. He was 64 or 65.
The U.S. did not keep its side of the agreement, however. Two years after Cochise’s death, the Chiricahua reservation was dissolved and the people were moved to nearby San Carlos.
Cochise, whose wars with the U.S. coincided with the Civil War, still is known for his courage and honesty, Sweeney said.
“The most significant aspect of him as a leader is that when he was at war, he was always at the front of his warriors,” Sweeney said. “What set Cochise apart from most people was his respect of the truth. Once he gave his word, that was as good as gold.”
Apache chiefs were not determined by heredity, Darrow said. Cochise was selected because of his judgment, foresight and ability to look out for the best interest of his people. Those are attributes that continue to keep Cochise relevant.
“He was one of the most important leaders of the tribe,” Darrow said. “He was a notable person, a crusader for peace even when peace was not a feasible option. He is one of the leaders our tribal members can look up to as a role model for using skills for the well-being of the community.”