Cochise and the Bascom Affair

Jay W. Sharp

When God made the world he gave one part to the white man and another to the Apache. Why was it? Why did they come together?… The white people have looked for me long. I am here! What do they want? They have looked for me long; why am I worth so much?

Cochise, chief of the Chokonen band of the Chiricahua Apaches, statement made during peace talks with General Gordon Granger, 1866. From Peter Nabokov’s book Native American Testimony.

Seeds of War

On January 27, 1861, Coyotero Apaches raided John Ward’s squalid ranch headquarters on Sonoita Creek, some 11 miles southwest of Fort Buchanan, in southeastern Arizona’s broken and arid basin and range country. They ran off 20 head of Ward’s cattle and abducted his Mexican mistress’ 12-year old red-haired and one-eyed son, Mickey Free.

Ward, a drunk according to some and "in all respects, a worthless character," according to T. E. Farish in his History of Arizona, reported the raid to the Fort Buchanan commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Pitcain Morrison. Ward, some said, seemed more worried about the loss of his livestock than the whereabouts of Mickey Free. Ward blamed the raid, not on the Coyotero Apaches, but on the Chiricahua Apaches, specifically, Cochise’s band of Chokonens.

The next morning, Morrison, a seasoned officer who may have been more concerned about the nation’s emerging Civil War in the east than in Ward’s losses in Arizona, dispatched an inexperienced 24-year-old second lieutenant, George N. Bascom, with a detachment of troopers on a reconnaissance of Ward’s ranch. Bascom, who had graduated next to the bottom of the U. S. Military Academy’s class of 1858, had arrived in Arizona only some three months earlier. He knew little if anything about Apaches, which was a dangerous thing, especially when dealing with the Chiricahuas. Charles D. Poston, the "Father of Arizona," said that Bascom, who wore a beard to mask his youth, "was a fine looking fellow, a Kentuckian, a West Pointer, and of course, a gentleman, but he was unfortunately a fool..."

On the evening of January 28, the young Bascom and his detachment returned to Fort Buchanan. He reported to his commanding officer that the tracks of the raiders’ ponies led eastward from Ward’s ranch toward the Chiricahua Mountains, he assumed, the home range of Cochise and his band. Bascom’s evidence seemed to point to the Chokonens. Ward, the officers concluded, must have been right in his accusation.

Cochise and Lieutenant, George N. Bascom

Strike a Blow

According to Ed Sweeney in his fine book Cochise, Chiricahua Apache Chief, Morrison decided to fulfill the Army’s resolve "to pursue and if possible chastise such marauding parties..." He would "strike a blow." The next morning, January 29th, Morrison dispatched Bascom eastward toward Apache Pass, the ancient trail between the Chiricahua and Dos Cabezas mountain ranges and the heart of Cochise’s territory. He gave Bascom a force of 54 newly arrived, mounted troopers plus an interpreter named Antonio. A inexperienced officer would lead inexperienced men. Morrison ordered Bascom to "pursue the Indians and recover a boy..., demand the immediate restoration of the stolen property..., and [if necessary] use the force under his orders..." John Ward rode with Bascom’s party.

Meanwhile, Cochise, for the moment unaware of either the raid at Ward’s ranch or of the approach of Bascom’s forces, had taken winter camp with his Chonoken band in the pine and oak country at the north end of the Chiricahua Mountains, close to Apache Pass. The camp, or "rancheria" as Apache camps were called, lay near one of the way stations for John Butterfield’s Overland Mail stagecoach service and near Apache Springs, the only year-round water source in the region.


Cochise’s Chonoken band had been forged as a people by the Chiricahua Mountains, a home range which the pioneering anthropologist and historian Adolph Bandelier described as "a formidable chain, and terribly rugged, abrupt ledges, cut up and twisted, pinnacles, crags, and precipices." The products of a hard life in a hard land, Cochise and his Chonokens gave new dimensions to the terms "warrior," "raider," "ambush," "vigilance," "endurance," "naturalist" and "tracker." They represented the core – the flint heart – of all the Chiricahuas, whom the western journalist Charles Lummis called, "The deadliest Fighting Handful in the calendar of Man," during his coverage of the Apache wars in 1886.

Cochise, probably about 50 years old in that winter of 1861, "towered over other [Chiricahua] leaders," according to Sweeney.

Born into leadership and imbued with charisma, "Cochise became chief of the [Chonokens] by election when he was a very young man," Asa Daklugie, son of Juh, another Chiricahua chief, told Eve Ball in an interview for her book An Apache Odyssey: Indeh. "That meant that his ability as a fighting man was well established and that he was respected by his people. But a chief’s election was just the first step toward ruling his people. If challenged for his position, he must fight for it... Moreover, the chief was responsible for not only their safety but for supplies of food, clothing, and weapons and for transportation. All of these things Cochise provided."

In his chronicle about an 1872 peace conference with Cochise ("Making Peace with Cochise," Bisbee, Arizona, Mining and Historical Museum), Captain J. A. Sladen said that the chief "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 (sic)... 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 always treated by those about him with the utmost respect and, at times, fear."

Moreover, he had a profound sense of honor. "Cochise was very proud of making his word good...," said Daklugie. "Apaches hated liars."

Cochise’s scouts almost certainly watched Bascom’s column of troopers, all mounted on mules, as they approached Apache Pass. Cochise would, without doubt, have been alerted, but he felt little concern. Army detachments routinely crossed the pass, often in escort of wagon traffic, stopping for water at Apache Springs. Cochise certainly had no reason to anticipate a showdown or any attempt by the blue-uniformed soldiers to strike a blow. He and his band raided, not in the United States, but primarily in Mexico, where he hated the people who had put bounties on the scalps of his men, women and children.

Bascom, A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing
vs Cochise, A Wolf in Wolf’s Clothing

On Sunday, February 3, 1861, Bascom led his force into Apache Pass, where he encountered a detachment of 13 troopers who were returning west after wagon train escort duty. Bascom received a briefing from Sergeant Daniel Robinson, commander of the escort, about the location of Cochise’s rancheria. Bascom joined Robinson’s troops to his own, bringing the total number to 67, plus the interpreter Antonio and the rancher John Ward.

Bascom’s reinforced column crossed the mile-high west summit of Apache Pass and followed the trail eastward to Butterfield’s stagecoach way station, where he met Charles W. Culver, the station keeper, and James F. Wallace, a stagecoach driver. Bascom learned that they both knew Cochise. While his men and their animals watered at Apache Springs, Bascom told Culver that he was en route to the Rio Grande—deliberately misleading information which he hoped would reach Cochise and eliminate any possible suspicions. Meanwhile, he sent word to Cochise’s rancheria, calling for a parley. Bascom then moved his force about a mile beyond the stage station, pitching tents and making camp on the right bank of the trail. He waited for Cochise.


Early the next afternoon, he still waited. Impatient, he rode back to the stage station. He persuaded a reluctant James Wallace to go to Cochise’s rancheria to reiterate the call for a parley. In the early evening, the chief finally appeared with a small party at Bascom’s camp. John Ward said, "There comes Cochise," hoping the prospect for recovering his cattle and the boy Mickey Free came, too. The chief apparently felt no anxiety about the meeting. He only brought three warriors, all close relatives. He brought his wife. He even brought two of their children. He believed that the Bascom column was simply crossing on routine patrol through Apache Pass to the east. He may have been told by Wallace or station master Culver that the soldiers were headed for the Rio Grande. He had no idea that he would be called to account for the raid at John Ward’s ranch. He regarded the parley as a social gathering.

Greetings done, the raw young Bascom invited the distinguished, but unsuspecting, Cochise and his warriors to step inside a tent. Now begins a story which has been told and re-told and embroidered around Apache campfires and in EuroAmerican ink for generations, with a consequent blurring of the truth.

Apparently what happened, however, is that with a signal from John Ward, Bascom’s soldiers quietly surrounded the tent. Inside, Bascom – through his interpreter, Antonio – began to interrogate Cochise about the raid. Cochise soon realized that Bascom had come, not on a routine patrol to the east or the Rio Grande, but specifically to demand the return of Ward’s cattle and the boy Mickey Free. Cochise had been deceived. Bascom had lied about his purpose and destination. ("Apaches hated liars," Daklugie said.) Bascom, convinced by Ward and by the initial investigation, of Cochise’s guilt, apparently accused the Chonoken band of the raid. Offended, Cochise rejected the accusation. The persistent young Bascom accused Cochise of lying. ("Cochise was very proud of making his word good...," said Daklugie.) Undoubtedly offended by this green second lieutenant, Cochise nevertheless offered to go to the Coyotero Apaches – 80 or 100 miles away – and try to persuade them to return Mickey Free. Bascom, in his ignorance of the Apaches and their separate and independent bands, apparently thought that Cochise had the authority to simply order another band to return the boy. Bascom – aware that his soldiers surrounded the tent – declared that he would hold Cochise, his warrior relatives, and his wife and children hostage until the chief returned John Ward’s cattle and Mickey Free.

Quick as a startled antelope, Cochise snatched a knife from its case, sliced through the canvas tent wall, and burst through the opening, with his warrior and relative Coyuntura immediately behind. Bascom screamed, "Shoot them down!" Cochise raced past the inexperienced and startled soldiers and toward the mountains. Coyuntura stumbled and fell, and the soldiers found presence of mind enough to capture him. John Ward, seeing his opportunity to recover his losses disappearing into the gathering darkness, fired his weapon at Cochise. Soldiers, recovering their wits, fired dozens of wild shots in the general direction of the fleeing form. Only a single ball found its mark, inflicting a minor wound in Cochise’s leg. While Cochise escaped, Bascom still held the family members, now prisoners.

"This affair became known to the Apaches as ‘Cut Through the Tent,’" said the old warrior Jason Betzinez in his autobiography I Fought With Geronimo. " aroused much indignation and interest even on the part of the Apaches of bands distant from the Chiricahua country."

The Dogs of War

In ways which lay beyond Bascom’s comprehension, the dogs of war were about to slip their leashes.

Within an hour after his escape, said Sweeney, who gives the best account of the events over the next few days, Cochise appeared at the crest of a hill, asking about his warrior and relative Coyuntura. Apparently in a show of anger, Bascom responded with a volley of fire. Cochise disappeared. Bascom, sensing an impending siege, moved his force back to the stagecoach station, where he could capitalize on the protection of stone walls. Apache campfires burned on nearby peaks through the night.

The next morning, Bascom and Cochise met on neutral ground to negotiate. The stubborn Bascom demanded the return of Mickey Free. Cochise demanded the release of his family. Gunfire ended the parley. Shooting from both sides would continue intermittently throughout the day. The Apaches captured the stagecoach driver Wallace. Darkness fell. Apaches campfires again burned through the night, this time to the accompaniment of the drums of war. Bascom sent for reinforcements from Fort Buchanan.

The next morning, Cochise made one more effort to keep the peace. He brought Wallace, arms bound, to the crest of a hill. Cochise asked for his family back in exchange for the stagecoach driver. The hard-headed Bascom, defying advice from his own troopers to make the trade, rejected the offer and again demanded the return of Mickey Free. After all, he had his orders from Lieutenant Colonel Morrison:

"pursue the Indians and recover a boy..., demand the immediate restoration of the stolen property..., and use the force under his orders..."

He meant to carry out those orders even if Mickey Free was 100 miles away, in the hands of another Apache band.

The next day, February 6, Cochise upped the ante. He captured a wagon train, which happened to be on the trail through the pass a couple of miles to the west of the stagecoach station. He stole the draft animals and burned the wagons. He tortured, then killed nine hated Mexicans. He captured three Americans, whom he meant to add to the offer he would exchange for his family. He sent Bascom a note, written by Wallace, with the new terms. Meanwhile, he sent his band’s women and children south, deep into the Chiricahua Mountains, out of harm’s way. He received reinforcements (including the warrior Geronimo) from other Chiricahua bands. The next evening, February 7th, having gotten no response from Bascom to offers for exchange, Cochise tried but failed to capture a stagecoach and take still more captives. He had meant to up the ante again. He would have use the captives he had as collateral for negotiations. Deep into the night, while snow fell, the Apaches danced around their campfires and prepared for battle.

The next day, February 8th, Cochise struck, first at Apache Springs, where several soldiers had been detailed to water the mounts. He drove off all of Bascom’s animals. Both sides inflicted several casualties. Cochise threatened the stagecoach station, but he could see that Bascom’s guns would inevitably kill many warriors. He learned that fresh troopers would soon reinforce Bascom. Seeing no hope for more negotiations and giving up on recovering his family, Cochise withdrew. He tortured and killed his four American captives, leaving their mutilated bodies to taunt Bascom and the Americans. He then dispersed his forces, though not his fury. There would be another day.

Bascom hunkered down, not even sending out scouts, while he awaited reinforcements. The new forces began arriving on St. Valentine’s Day, with one detachment bringing three Apache warriors (probably Coyoteros) captured en route. Bascom now held six warriors, including Cochise’s relatives, and he still held Cochise’s wife and children.

On February 16th and 17th, "...troops were sent out to search for us," said Geronimo, "but as we had disbanded, it was, of course, impossible for them to locate any hostile camp. ...while they searched we watched them from our hiding places and laughed at their failures."

On February 18, troops saw circling turkey vultures, which led them to the bodies of Cochise’s four captives, "riddled with lance holes," according to an officer named Irwin. In anguish and fury, the soldiers buried their fellow Americans under four oak trees.

Realizing that Cochise had given up the fight and dispersed into the mountains, Bascom assigned a small detachment to guard the stagecoach station, and he and the other forces left, heading west, toward their home forts. He released Cochise’s wife and children, but at the urging of enraged soldiers and civilians, he hung the six captive warriors from the limbs of the four oak trees whose roots embraced the murdered Americans—grisly reminders of his conflict with Cochise at Apache Pass. The bodies swung on their ropes for months, decaying, unrecovered by their Apache brethren, who lived in terror of the dead.

"This affair changed a prominent, highly-thought-of chief and his band from Indians who had been friendly and cooperative with the Government to a bitterly hostile group," said Betzinez.

The dogs of war were now on the loose, and at the worst possible time. The military forces would soon be withdrawn from Arizona and redeployed to fight in the great war between the states. The civilian population would be left at the mercy of Cochise and the Apaches.

A Decade of Agony

Cochise, "incomparable as a leader and a strategist," according to Frank C. Lockwood in his book The Apache Indians, struck back swiftly, setting the stage for a decade of conflict. "From his impregnable strongholds," said Lockwood, "he dispatched far and wide small bands of his picked warriors to plunder wagon trains, stampede cattle and horses, and murder unprotected settlers." In Conquest of Apacheria, Dan L. Thrapp said that "Within sixty days one hundred and fifty whites were killed..."

"This was the beginning of the first drama of blood and rapine which devastated Southern Arizona," according to a manuscript, "Bascom, George Nicholas," in the Manual Gandara file in the archives of the Arizona Pioneers Historical Society.

In Explorations and Adventures in Arizona & New Mexico, Samuel W. Cozzens, an early historian of the Apache wars said, "There is scarcely a mile on any road in the Territory where the traveler is not pointed out some spot which the Apaches have consecrated with the blood of a victim; nor is there a family that has not suffered in some manner from the depredations."

The Apaches, Cozzens said, "...have desolated Sonora and Arizona, which latter place, in 1860, had a population of thirty-four thousand, while in 1870 it had less than ten thousand."

In Adventures in the Apache Country, John R. Browne, who crossed southern Arizona in 1864, said, "Tubac is now a city of ruins—ruin and desolation wherever the eye rests."

"Gravestones, or rather head-boards, stand by the road-side like sentinels," said Cozzens, "bearing the invariable inscription,—


In Once They Moved Like the Wind, David Roberts said that one of Arizona’s "first historians claimed, ‘Bascom’s stupidity and ignorance probably cost five thousand American lives and the destruction of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property.’" Almost certainly the historian exaggerated, but his estimates give a sense of the suffering and devastation which Bascom and his forces triggered during those cold winter days at Apache Pass in 1861.


Mickey Free, the unwitting pawn in the drama which led to war, never saw John Ward nor his mother again. He grew to adulthood among the Coyotero Apaches. One of few in the territory who could speak Spanish, English and Apache fluently, he became a valued scout for the army, although some believed he was a psychotic killer. He died in 1915, on the Apache reservation in southeastern Arizona.

Cochise’s health failed him in the early 1870’s, as a peace of sorts finally settled over Apache country. He died on June 8, 1874, in his mid-60’s. His closest relatives dressed his body and painted his face for war. His Chonoken band carried his body in procession to a remote crevice in the Dragoon Mountains, west of the Chiricahuas, and they buried him in secrecy with his horse and dog and weapons. Across their range, the Chiricahua people – "The deadliest Fighting Handful in the calendar of Man" – cried.

Second Lieutenant George N. Bascom, the "fine looking fool," transferred to the Union force at Fort Craig in central New Mexico, where he led Company C of the Seventh United States Infantry against Confederates in the vicious Civil War Battle of Valverde on the banks of the Rio Grande on February 21, 1862. He died that day on a sandbar in the middle of the stream. No one ever accused George Bascom of cowardice. (By coincidence, my wife’s great grandfather, 18-year old private Thomas Ed Jackson, fought in the same battle, on the side of the Confederates, with Company I, Seventh Regiment – Texas Mounted Volunteers.)

If you want to learn more about Cochise, read top authority Ed Sweeney’s Cochise, Chiricahua Apache Chief, my principal source for this article. You will discover nuggets of information in Dan L. Thrapp’s The Conquest of Apacheria, Frank C. Lockwood’s The Apache Indians, Dave Robert’s Once They Moved Like the Wind, Samuel W. Cozzen’s Explorations & Adventures in Arizona and New Mexico, John R. Browne’s Adventures in the Apache Country, Geronimo’s Geronimo: His Own Story, Jason Betzinez’ I Fought With Geronimo, and Eve Ball’s An Apache Odyssey: Indeh.

You will find a visit to Fort Bowie (initial construction begun in mid-1862) – now a National Historic Site which includes Apache Pass, Apache Springs, the stagecoach station ruins, the fort ruins and other historic sites – to be a meaningful and moving experience. It lies about 15 miles east-southeast of Wilcox, Arizona.


Desert People and Cultures Index
General George Crook
Geronimo: His Own Story
Fort Bowie National Historic Site
Chiricahua National Monument
Hiking Apache Pass to Fort Bowie



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