Notes From The Frontier
Cochise, Great Apache Warrior and Chief
Proud, Avenging Leader Who Remained Undefeated
Cochise was born an Chiricahua Apache, who became a larger-than life leader in physical and legendary stature. He was born in 1805 (it is believed) in Chiricahua country in what is today southeastern Arizona, but at the time was Spanish territory. His name Shi-ka-she, meaning “strength of an oak,” was shortened to Cochise by whites. The Apache adopted the name, as cheis means “oak” in Apache. He would grow into a large and very powerful man, at least six feet tall, who towered over most white soldiers at the time. Cochise was one of several famous and fierce Apache chiefs, along with Geronimo , who is believed to have served as his interpreter as a young man, and Mangas Coloradas, who was Cochise’s father-in-law.
The land of the Chiricahua sat squarely between warring European factions representing the interests of the United States and Mexico. As the United States and Spain, then later Mexico attempted to gain control of Chiricahua lands, the Apache began to fight both factions. Because of their extraordinary warrior traditions and guerilla warfare tactics, the Apache were for decades very successful in arresting settling of their lands. When Mexico won its independence from Spain in the 1830s, the Chiricahua resumed raiding Mexican territory. The Mexican government began military operations against the Apache, during which Cochise’s father was killed, then Cochise was captured. He was later exchanged for a dozen Mexican prisoners.
For a time, around 1850, Mexico and the Apache co-existed and even traded peacefully. But in 1861, the Bascom Affair ignited warfare again, when Cochise and his people were wrongly accused of raiding a rancher’s cattle and kidnapping a 12-year-old white boy. Lt. George Bascom invited Cochise under a white flag to talk but Cochise became suspicious. (There are differing accounts about what happened.) He escaped, slashing his way out of the Army tent. The Army then captured some of Cochise’s family, took them hostage and tortured them. Cochise took Mexican hostages in retaliation. The stand-off resulted in all the hostages on both sides being killed.
For the next 11 years, Cochise waged war on both American and Mexican forces. Because the Apache were tremendously well adapted to living and fighting in their harsh terrain and climate of the Southwest and were excellent guerilla fighters, they were largely successful in battle. It was not until some years later, that the U.S. Army began to adapt Apache tactics themselves, first by General George Crook, then General Nelson Miles, before they learned to effectively combat the Apache on their own lands.
Cochise married Dos-teh-seh, the beautiful and spirited daughter of Apache Chief Mangas Coloradas. They would have two sons, Taza and Naiche. The young man and his father-in-law joined forces and inflicted a long series of successful raids and battles on both American and Mexican forces. One the major battles was Apache Pass in 1862, in which Cochise and Mangas, with around 500 warriors, battled successfully against forces five times their size—2,500 soldiers under General Henry Carleton. They were only repulsed when carriage-mounted mountain howitzer cannons finally arrived to drive the Apache from the rocks above.
In January 1863, General Joseph West, under orders from General Carleton, lured Mangas Coloradas into a meeting under a flag of truce, then violated the truce by taking him prisoner, torturing him, then murdering him in captivity. After that, Cochise unleashed a scourge of wrath against the U.S. forces and settlers for the next nine years. Eventually, Cochise and his fighters were driven back by greater and greater U.S. forces to Arizona’s Dragoon Mountains (located north of Tombstone). The area became known as Cochise’s Stronghold, and was marked by spectacular rock formations, spires and extremely rough country, nearly impenetrable by U.S. Army formations. From there, Cochise continued fighting, raiding and evading capture. But his forces had dwindled from many years of incessant fighting.
In 1871, legendary Civil War General turned Indian fighter, Oliver Howard was ordered to find Cochise and engineer a treaty. For a year, he attempted to meet with Cochise and finally, with the help of Cochise’s white settler friend, Tom Jeffords, met with the General, only because he trusted Jeffords. On October 12, 1872, a treaty was struck between Cochise and the Apache and General Howard, with Jeffords’ help.
After the treaty, Cochise moved with this warriors and their families to the short-lived Chiricahua Reservation, located on the ancient ancestral land of the Cochise’s people. Tom Jeffords became the Indian agent, since he was the only white man Cochise trusted. It is believed that Cochise was already suffering from some serious sickness, probably abdominal cancer. Two years later, in 1874, Cochise died of the disease.
According to accounts from Tom Jeffords, who was present, and some Apache in Cochise’s band, Cochise’s wife, Dos-teh-she, and his two sons, Naiche and Taza, and his other followers began preparing his body for burial. They bathed his body and dressed him in his best regalia. They marked his face and the body of his war horse in war paint. They place him on his horse and was held in place by another Apache warrior. They gathered his weapons and regalia of war and began a procession deep into the Dragoon Mountains of Cochise’s Stronghold. The procession took him to a deep crevice. There, they killed Cochise’s war horse and favorite dog, who would accompany him to the afterworld, and lowered them into a nearly bottomless crevice. Then finally, they lowered the body of Cochise into the crevice.
The Apache, and their friend Tom Jeffords, promised to never divulge the burial place of Cochise. And they took that secret to their graves. Today an area of the Dragoon Mountains has become a canyon nature retreat that can be hiked. At the trailhead, a stone monument with a bronze plaque was placed at the trailhead of the retreat, honoring Cochise.
The reservation on Chiricahua land lasted only two years after Cochise’s death. Then his people were shipped off to reservations far from their ancestral lands, where most died. Some of Cochise’s younger warriors broke away to freedom. One of them was Geronimo. He and his small band continued fighting for another 14 years after Cochise’s death and finally surrendered in 1886.
Cochise has become an icon in American history, known for his honesty, toughness and strong will. As with so many Native chiefs, his most famous words asked only for justice and truthfulness of whites:
“You must speak straight so that your words may go as sunlight into our hearts. Speak Americans… I will not lie to you; do not lie to me.”
NOTE: Look for future posts on “Famous Apache Warriors,” including several famous female warriors and separate profiles about those warriors.
You may also enjoy these related posts:
• The Tragic Mystery of Geronimo's Skull
• Native Warrior Women
"Cochise, Great Apache Warrior and Chief" was first published on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com April 3, 2021.
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