In the spring and early summer of 1874, the fabled Chiricahua Apache chief Cochise knew that death would come soon for him. He could feel the coals in his belly. He could feel the flames rise when he drank the brew called “tiswin” in a repeated reach for euphoria. He felt himself slip in and out of comas, with consciousness disappearing and re-appearing like the sun. At about 50 years of age, he lay in that twilight between life and death, beyond the reach of the medicine men.
He probably knew, too, that Taza, his son and presumed successor, and his band, the Chokonens, believed that a witch had inflicted this terrible sickness. He may have had a moment’s hope when his followers hauled the witch to his bedside to use Apache magic to lift the sickness. “If [the witch’s] medicines were not successful,” Dilth-cleyhen, an Apache woman, said in Ruth McDonald Boyer’s and Narcissus Duffy Gayton’s Apache Mothers and Daughters, “we would hang him upside down from a tree and light a fire beneath his head. We would burn that witch to death.” (I have found no record that the Chokonens ever actually burned the witch.)
Cochise, the Legend
Cochise, chief of the Chokonens, had become a towering figure of the desert, seen by the Hispanic and Anglo settlers as a vengeful demon of pillage, destruction and death and by his raiding and war-making people as a revered leader of transcendent courage and vision. For both the settlers and his people, Cochise exuded charisma and commanded respect. In his book The Apache Indians, authority Frank C. Lockwood said, “…I consider him the most powerful and tragic figure in Apache history.”
In his journal, Making Peace With Cochise (edited by Edwin R. Sweeny), Captain Joseph Alton Sladen said that Cochise “was a remarkably fine looking man fully six feet tall, as straight as an arrow, and well proportioned, the typical Indian face, rather long, high cheek bones, clear keen eye, and a roman nose. His cheeks were slightly painted with vermillion. “A yellow silk handkerchief bound his hair, which was straight and black, with just a touch of silver. “He carried himself at all times with great dignity, and was treated by those about him with the utmost respect and, at times, fear.” “Cochise was a man of distinction,” said Lockwood. “he had the same qualities of person, intellect, and decision that mark our leaders among the civilized nations of men. All public men who met him testify to a certain poise and dignity of character that was at once natural and masterful.”
Cochise unleashed his warriors among the most ferocious guerilla fighters in American history against the U. S. Army and the settlers with good reason. In a drama that played out at Apache Pass, between the Dos Cabezas and Chiricahua Mountains, in early February of 1861, Cochise found betrayal at the hands of the army.
Cochise had come, in good faith, accompanied by his wife, young son, brother and two nephews, to a military encampment at the invitation of the commanding officer, a young second lieutenant named George N. Bascom. Cochise promptly found himself accused, falsely, by Bascom of abducting a young boy and stealing a rancher’s cattle. He outwitted Bascom’s attempt to take him prisoner, escaping, with a leg wound, through a hail of gunfire, but he, and his warriors, could not rescue his relatives.
Cochise took civilian captives, proposing to exchange them for his family members. Bascom refused. Over the next several days, Cochise laid siege to Bascom and his force. He attacked a wagon train and a stagecoach and ambushed Bascom’s soldiers, taking more prisoners. He burned men alive. Still Bascom refused to release Cochise’s relatives. Meanwhile, Cochise learned that the military had dispatched a large force from Tucson and Fort Buchanan to rescue Bascom. He probably knew that, en route to Apache Pass, the soldiers had captured three Coyotero Apaches who had been part of a raiding party. Cochise and his Chokonens melted into the mountains, giving up the attempt to rescue his family members. In the coming days, Cochise would learn that the soldiers, vengeful in their own right, had hung his brother, his two nephews and the three Coyoteros from the limbs of a large oak tree along the trail, a grisly symbol of a gathering storm. (The army did release his wife and young son.)
Reuben F. Bernard, a sergeant under Bascom’s command said, in a quote in The Apache Indians, that Cochise “was at peace until betrayed and wounded by white men. He now, when spoken to about peace, points to his scars and says, "I was at peace with the whites until they tried to kill me for what other Indians did; I now live and die at war with them."
For the next decade, Cochise and his band, with Apache allies, cast a demonic shadow across the northern Sonoran and northwestern Chihuahuan Deserts, reaching from southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico southward into Mexico’s Sierra Madres. They struck like lightening, decimating and plundering settlements.
Cochise and his followers, along with other Apache bands, left a tableau of desolation in their wake. As John Ross Browne said in his book Adventures in the Apache Country, “No white man’s life was secure beyond Tucson; and even there the few inhabitants lived in a state of terror.
“I saw on the road between San Xavier and Tubac, a distance of forty miles, almost as many graves of the white men murdered by the Apaches within the past few years. Literally the road-side was marked with the burial-places of these unfortunate settlers. There is not now a single living soul to enliven the solitude. All is silent and death-like; yet strangely calm and beautiful in its desolation. Here were fields with torn-down fences; houses burned or racked to pieces by violence, the wall cast about in heaps over the once-pleasant homes; everywhere ruin, grim and ghastly with associations of sudden death.” The year was 1863, only two years after Cochise learned of his relatives swinging from ropes in Apache Pass.
During the decade of warfare, Cochise became renowned as a strategist and tactician. Preparing for a peace conference with the General O. O. Howard and famous scout Captain Thomas J. Jeffords in 1871, Cochise prepared his reception by stationing the women and children where they could immediately “be taken out of the camp beyond possible danger” should things turn bad. “The braves, in the meantime, were placed in a position to resist any attack,” according to Lockwood. When General Howard arrived, “he looked over Cochise’s defensive arrangement, and said that no General in the Army of the United States could have made a better disposition of his men to resist an attack from a superior force.”
In a followup meeting, Howard, quoted by Lockwood, said, “Cochise located his men with such skill that everyone of them could, in two minutes, have been safely under the cover of a ravine, and in three minutes more have escaped behind a projecting hill, and so have passed to the mountains without the least hindrance.”
Cochise would forge a peace with Howard, but it would not come easy. “We were once a numerous tribe, living well and at peace,” Cochise said to Howard, according to Lockwood. “But my best friends were taken by treachery and murdered. Apache Pass is the worst place. There six Indians were killed by Bascom and their bodies were left hanging until they were skeletons.” After several days, with negotiations finally concluded, Cochise said, “Hereafter the white man and the Indian are to drink of the same water, eat of the same bread, and be at peace.”
Staring at the Face of Death
As peace took hold, Cochise’s health began to fail, probably because of a stomach disorder, possibly cancer, according to authority Edwin R. Sweeney, Cochise: Chiricahua Apache Chief. With a condition that no witch could alter, Cochise made things worse by swilling tiswin, descending into repeated drunkenness.
He knew that his band would not speak directly of his coming death. “The topic of death is sedulously avoided,” according to Morris Edward Opler, An Apache Life-Way. In his waking hours, Cochise likely thought of the owl, in the Chiricahua mind, a terrifying agent of evil and sickness, a physical conveyance of the ghosts of the dead. During his comas, he may have peered into the “underworld,” the Chiricahua notion of paradise. He would have expected that, when he died, he would to pass bodily, with his possessions, into the underworld.
Once there he could expect to find, according to one of Opler’s informants, “lots of good things to eat. Affairs go on in the same way, but better. Those who are there just go on living happily. Life means more. It is always the same life, the hunting, the raids, and all, as in the old days. There are the same puberty rites, masked dances, and sacred mountains… Each person is with his own group. And each does the same things he used to do when he was on earth. As the story goes, if you were an arrow-maker, you are there making arrows. If you were a good hunter, you are over there hunting. If you were a great warrior on earth, you are out at war.”
Good Friends Will Meet Again
Even as he lay dying, Cochise welcomed Tom Jeffords, who had become a close and trusted friend, into the Chokonen encampment deep in the Dragoon Mountain stronghold on June 7, 1874. Cochise asked Jeffords, said Sweeney, “Do you think you will ever see me alive again?” In the frank way of the frontier, Jeffords said, “No, I do not think I will. I think that by tomorrow night you will be dead.”
“Yes, I think so, tooabout ten o’clock tomorrow morning. Do you think we will ever meet again?”
“I don’t know. What is your opinion about it?”
“I have been thinking a good deal about it while I have been sick here, and I believe we will; good friends will meet againup there,” Cochise said, pointing toward the sky. Cochise died the following morning about 10:00 o’clock, as he had predicted.
A Primal Pageant
Close relatives prepared Cochise’s body for burial. In their fear of death, all others stayed away. By tradition, “The body [of an Apache warrior] is bathed, or at least the face of the dead person is always washed,” said one of Opler’s informants. “The hair is combed, and red paint is put on his face to make him look nice. The dead person is dressed up in his best clothes for the burial. The burial always takes place in the day, on the same day that death occurred if possible. They bury the corpse quickly and far from the settlementsin the mountains, if they are near.
“The best horse, the favorite horse of the dead person, is used. The dead person’s robes or blankets are tied to the horse, and the horse is loaded with his belongings. His good saddle is put on the horse. Then the corpse is mounted on the horse and is held there by his relatives as the funeral procession makes its way up the canyon to the place where the burial is to be. As the funeral procession passes near the camps, the people cry for the dead man, if he was their good friend.”
Jeffords reported, according to Lockwood, that Cochise’s relatives, in accordance with their traditions, had clothed his body in his finest war garments and a feathered headdress. They decorated his face, for the final time, in the paint of the warrior. They shrouded him in a fine woolen red blanket given to him by a military officer. They placed his body on a favorite pony, with a warrior mounted behind to hold him secure. Followed by the Chokonens, they led the horse with its burden to a deep chasm in the Dragoon Mountains. They killed the horse and Cochise’s dog, dropping them into the chasm. They hurled his arms into the fissure. He would need his animals and weapons in his new life, in the Apaches’ underworld paradise. “If you were a great warrior on earth, you are out at war.”
Finally, using his lariats, they lowered Cochise’s body into the rocky sepulcher, to a burial site that would be known only to the Chokonens and by Jeffords. None would ever speak of the location.
Fortunately, we have a treasure trove of material about the Apaches. A few of the classics include: Cochise: Chiricahua Apache Chief by Edwin R. Sweeney; The Apache Indians by Frank C. Lockwood; The Conquest of Apacheria by Dan L. Thrapp; An Apache Life-Way by Morris Edward Opler; Adventures in the Apache Country by John Ross Browne; Apache Mothers and Daughters by Ruth McDonald Boyer and Narcissus Duffy Gayton; I Fought with Geronimo by Jason Betzinez with Wilbur Sturtevant Nye; and Making Peace With Cochise by Captain Joseph Alton Sladen (edited by Sweeney). I have used all of them as sources for this article. Sweeney ranks as the foremost authority on Cochise, Explore Cochise’s Homeland.
If you are going to explore Cochise’s homeland, I suggest that you begin with Apache Pass. There, in the northern foothills of the Chiricahua Mountains, you will discover the sites where the drama triggered by Bascom’s betrayal of Cochise played out, and you will find the ruins of Fort Bowie, which became the U. S. Army’s centerpiece in the decade-long struggle against the Apaches. To learn more, see Fort Bowie National Historic Site.
To the west, across the desert basin called Sulphur Springs Valley, you will find Cochise’s Dragoon Mountain stronghold, presumably near his burial site. You can follow the old Apache trail into the stronghold. You can explore interpretive and nature trails. You can camp. You will find convenient places to stay in Willcox, Arizona.
If you would like to explore the natural history of the Chiricahua Mountains, a major part of the homeland of Cochise, I would recommend a visit to Cave Creek Canyon, on the east side of the range, where you will discover outstanding birding opportunities. You will find both camping and rustic lodging in the area.