Cochise: Arizona’s legendary Chiricahua Apache leader

Photo of the Dragoon Mountains, home of Cochise Stronghold (Photo by: Tombstone Epitaph).
Photo of the Dragoon Mountains, home of Cochise Stronghold (Photo by: Tombstone Epitaph).

Edward R. Sweeney’s fascination with Cochise began at 10 years of age.

As a little boy, Sweeney says he read a biography about the tribe leader and became captivated by him as a warrior, man and leader of his people.

Now, the author of three books on Cochise, Sweeney has dedicated his own life to learning about Cochise’s life. Sweeney’s 40-year dedication to his studies on Cochise has impacted the legacy of one of the most controversial Native American leaders in Arizona.

Today, Sweeney is nationally recognized and referred to by journalists, researchers, and other historians as the head authority of Cochise, who Sweeney calls one of the bravest and most courageous Chiricahua Apache of all time.

Fascinated by Cochise, soon after graduating college, Sweeney decided it was time to seriously pursue researching the figure he had been intrigued about since such a young age. So at the age of 25, knowing he couldn’t study Cochise at home in Massachusetts, Sweeney made a bold decision to leave everything he knew and headed to the desert town of Tucson.

Sweeney’s research began in 1975 when he found information at the University of Arizona Libraries and from the Arizona Historical Society. Sweeney says national archives in Washington, D.C. along with in Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico, also served as a key resources in his studies of Cochise.

The more Sweeney learned about Cochise, the greater appreciation he developed. Notably, he has also come to discover and realize the adversity and struggle Cochise and the Apaches experienced after the Spanish and the whites came to their ancestral lands.

From the time the Chiricahuas settled in Arizona by the late 1600s, Sweeney says they began experiencing issues. One of the first peoples the Chiricahuas encountered were the Spanish, who Sweeney says had been traveling around the Southwest at the time, and likely arrived in the Arizona territory a few years after the Chiricahuas. Looking to conquer and Christianize people, the Spanish became an enemy of the Chiricahuas, says Sweeney. As a result, the Chiricahuas raged war against the Spanish in the 1700s.

Others who have studied the Apache Indians, such as Jay W. Sharp, a retired journalist who worked for multiple news and media companies including Desert USA, will be quick to say that these natives weren’t so innocent themselves. Sharp says the Apaches were often “raiders” of their time.

“If let’s say a Mexican family had 30 horses, the Apaches would steal 15 of them and leave the others there to breed and produce more horses so they can go back in a few years and steal again,” says Sharp.

For this reason, Sweeney says in the 1790s, the Spanish adopted a policy where they fed the Apaches to deter continuous raids. This worked for about 30 to 40 years, until the Mexicans threw the Spanish out of the land. By 1821, the Mexicans were now in charge and still attempted to maintain the policy. With Mexico ending the rationing system 10 years later due to expense, the Chiricahaus took offense and warfare with the Mexicans would not end until the Geronimo period, which Sweeney says began in 1876.

The attention this type of warfare brought to the Apaches fails to reflect the values Cochise brought to his tribe.

This type of history is where Sweeney believes the values Cochise brought upon his tribe can get lost in translation. The actions of a few members of his people and the hostility of the times could have had an impact on how Cochise was viewed from outsiders.

Sweeney says the Apaches in general always tried to be friendly with the whites when they arrived beginning in 1846.

At this time, these would-be settlers entered into the tribe’s territory to fight in the Mexican war.

Sweeney says it was also Cochise’s father-in-law who greeted these Americans and were willing to serve as allies.

“The Americans really didn’t want anything to do with them though,” says Sweeney.

As chief of the Chokonen band of the Chiricahua Apache beginning in 1857, Cochise maintained a friendly relationship with the Americans, says Sweeney.

The infamous Bascom Affair in 1861, in which Cochise’s band was wrongly accused of kidnapping a white-Mexican boy in Southern Arizona, changed the relationship.

The U.S. Army deceived Cochise and his family by inviting them to share a meal at Apache Pass, located in Cochise County today. Cochise accepted the invite and brought his wife, two children, brother and two nephews. Chaos unfolded.

Cochise and his guests found themselves locked in a tent and threatened to remain detained until the missing boy was returned. Using a knife, Cochise cut his way out. As Cochise vanished into the hills with gun shots firing, Sweeney says Cochise urged his family to go with him. His brother was the only other member who got out of the tent, but was captured and wounded on the spot. Sweeney believes his two children and wife had remained in the tent the entire time.

From there, his wife, two children, brother, and two nephews would be kept under guard.

Later that day, Sweeney says Cochise gathered a band of Apaches and came back. By yelling from a hilltop, Cochise discussed with Lt. George N. Bascom how to get his family released. Bascom only agreed if the boy was safely returned.

After a few more days of talking, further hostilities broke out between Cochise and the soldiers. Frustrated and upset, Cochise took four American’s hostage and after a week of fighting the Chiricahuas abandoned the area but killed the four prisoners and left them in the area, Sweeney said.

Once the army found the dead bodies, Sweeney says the Americans took revenge by taking Cochise’s brother, his two nephews, along with three other captured Apaches and hanged them at the western side of Apache Pass.

All these events unfolded in a week.

“His brother was the closest friend Cochise had. For the next decade, he really grew an extreme hatred for Americans,” says Sweeney.

This hostility towards Americans continued until Cochise came across U.S. Capt. Thomas Jonathon Jeffords in 1867, who Sweeney says was a white man and would serve as Cochise’s agent on his tribe’s reservation.

Jeffords sought to make peace with Cochise. Despite Cochise’s bitterness at first, the men formed a remarkable friendship, which consisted of an unconditional trust for one another.

“He admired courage in his enemies also and that’s why he got to know Jeffords,” says Sweeney.

With the Americans and Mexicans killing off a lot of his people, along with meeting Jeffords, it marked the beginning of Cochise’s last years (early 1870s). Sweeney said he realized he needed to overcome his differences with the Americans and make peace.

“He was getting old (early 60s) and he knew he needed to make peace for his people to survive.”

With U.S. General Oliver O. Howard sent out specifically by President Ulysses S. Grant to visit Cochise, peace became established in 1872, just two years before Cochise’s death. In the agreement, Cochise agreed to stop committing raids and all or any war-like actions. In return, Cochise got a reservation in Southeast Arizona and the agent he had insisted on having, which was Jeffords.

“The remarkable thing about the peace was that he got everything he wanted in terms of negotiations. He got the agent he wanted, the area he wanted, and also got a stipulation that the military could not interfere with anything on his reservation. To me, he’s one of the few Indians who were actually able to achieve that.”

Sweeney notes the biggest issue during the reservation years surrounded the boundaries by Mexico. With some of Cochise’s warriors entering Sonora from the reservation during the first years of the peace treaty, Mexicans experienced raids and complained to the United States about what was occurring.

Cochise explained by saying these young men’s parents were killed by Mexicans and were still seeking vengeance. However, he pledged that he had counseled these men not to go down and raid.

To stop the raids, Sweeney says, in 1873 Cochise took it upon himself to gather all the Apaches on the reservation and strictly ordered for the raids to come to an end.

“Cochise was an extremely sensitive man. He wanted peace and he didn’t want war,” says Marybeth Dawson, who has lived on the Cochise Stronghold for 15 years and has become an admirer of Cochise and the Apaches.

Cochise presumably died in 1874 from stomach cancer.

Although his cause of death is well documented, his exact burial location in the Dragoon Mountains continues to be an ongoing mystery today.

Sweeney says he believes Cochise is most likely buried in the east stronghold, as the west stronghold was where Cochise settled during times of war.

Sharp said because Cochise was a significant leader, grave robbers were an additional concern when burying Cochise.

“There’s no way to know but apparently they stashed his body in a little ditch in a side of a canyon in the mountains,” says Sharp.

Sharp does not believe there would be any sources today that would have any connection or clues to where he is exactly buried.

According to Dawson, she suggests something different.

“There’s a hidden alleged pictograph that depicts his burial. People would never find it. It’s impossible to find in the Dragoon Mountains.”

Sweeney takes exception to both assumptions.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s still a mystery. I don’t think anything has proven to be definitive here, were talking 140 years ago.”

Although his exact burial location is something that keeps talks of Cochise alive, Sweeney believes the attention should focus on the great leader’s efforts in making peace.

Zach Pleeter is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at zpleeter@email.arizona.edu.

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