Cochise, the man of Oak

Cochise was an Apache chief, but more than that, he was the last chief to retire undefeated. The Floyd Mayweather of the Wild West, as it were. He made peace on his terms and died naturally on his land, not land set aside for him by the United States. He was big; he stood about 6 feet tall, which was even bigger then than it is now. He stood 5 to 7 inches taller than the average Apache.

He was one of three great chiefs of the Apache, with the other two being Mangas Coloradas and, of course, Geronimo. He was buried in secret in the Dragoon Mountains south east of Tucson, on his land, in an area known as Cochise Stronghold, so that he could forevermore keep watch over Apache land. Cochise is believed to have been born in 1804, in the Chiricahua lands then under control by the Spaniards.

Their area ranged from Sonora, Mexico into New Mexico and Arizona. Spain tried to keep the Chiricahua in line by giving them liquor and guns and leaving them alone. When Mexico took over, however, all that changed. The Mexicans gave nothing to the Apaches, who resorted to raids to get what the Spaniards used to give. As a young man, Cochise would have taken part in these raids, which were viewed with alarm by the Mexican government.

Their reaction was swift, sharp and brutal: they began killing every Apache in sight, whether a warrior or civilian. The Mexican army was aided by American and Native American mercenaries, who crossed the border into then-Mexico, hunting for scalps.

Cochise’s father was killed in one of the retaliatory strikes, which deepened his hatred of Mexicans. He hated them for good reason,for as brutal as Americans were, the Mexicans were even more savage. In 1848, Cochise was captured by the Mexican army, but being a valuable captive, he was not harmed. He was traded for a dozen Mexican soldiers. The United States acquired the Chiricahua Apache lands after the war with Mexico ended and at first everything was fine between the two nations, mostly because there was no reason to try and force the Chiricahua off their territory.

In 1861 that began to change when Cochise was accused of a kidnapping raid likely carried out by Coyotero Apache. A Lt. Bascom tried to arrest Cochise on the matter, but Cochise fought his way out and escaped. Bascom took hostages, Cochise’s relatives to use as leverage. Cochise took hostages of his own, his fury rising like his impatience. Negotiations broke down with the arrival of Army reinforcements and both sides ended up killing their hostages. Cochise’s brother and two nephews were among those killed and Cochise declared war on the United States. Cochise’s war would last 11 years and result in hundreds, possibly thousands of dead Mexicans and Americans.

The U.S. was distracted by the Civil War and Cochise, aided by his father in law, Mangas Coloradas, conducted countless raids throughout their territory. Coloradas, duped by a false flag of truce, was captured and killed in 1863. Determined, Cochise continued his revenge. In 1872, the United States sued for peace and signed a treaty with Cochise. Even in old age, possibly 67 or 68, Cochise was a fearsome presence: back straight and clear-eyed. The war ended. Cochise retired to his lands, dying, possibly of abdominal cancer, in 1874.

He was buried in the Dragoon Mountains, overlooking the lands of the Chiricahua. The general area is known as Cochise Stronghold. The specific place of the burial was known only to Cochise’s loyal men and Tom Jeffords, his only white friend (and who helped negotiate the peace treaty). When those few died themselves, the location of Cochise’s final resting place passed into the wind. Cochise is remembered for his strength and implacability, his refusal to surrender to inevitability. He has come to be respected for his stand against the encroachment of the United States.

Cochise County, Arizona was named after him; it was the middle of Chiricahuan land in Arizona, encompassing the town of Tombstone, Arizona as well. He was a complex man: compassionate to his people, yet unspeakably cruel to enemies, honest enough to admit thievery and warm and personable when met in camp. Cochise was a strong leader at a time of unprecedented pressure upon the Apaches, a time when the United States arrived to stake the claim it had won from Mexico and Cochise held them off. 2 years later, in 1876, the United States closed the Chiricahua Reservation; silver was in the area, and it needed mining. The Chiricahua went back to war, but 10 years later they lost and were ultimately resettled in Eastern New Mexico. It is not on Chiricahuan land.

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