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Cochise: Chiricahua Apache Chief

Cochise: Chiricahua Apache Chief

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by Edwin R. Sweeney

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When it acquired New Mexico and Arizona, the United States inherited the territory of a people who had been a thorn in side of Mexico since 1821 and Spain before that. Known collectively as Apaches, these Indians lived in diverse, widely scattered groups with many names—Mescaleros, Chiricahuas, and Jicarillas, to name but three. Much has been written about


When it acquired New Mexico and Arizona, the United States inherited the territory of a people who had been a thorn in side of Mexico since 1821 and Spain before that. Known collectively as Apaches, these Indians lived in diverse, widely scattered groups with many names—Mescaleros, Chiricahuas, and Jicarillas, to name but three. Much has been written about them and their leaders, such as Geronimo, Juh, Nana, Victorio, and Mangas Coloradas, but no one wrote extensively about the greatest leader of them all: Cochise. Now, however, Edwin R. Sweeney has remedied this deficiency with his definitive biography.

Cochise, a Chiricahua, was said to be the most resourceful, most brutal, most feared Apache. He and his warriors raided in both Mexico and the United States, crossing the border both ways to obtain sanctuary after raids for cattle, horses, and other livestock. Once only he was captured and imprisoned; on the day he was freed he vowed never to be taken again. From that day he gave no quarter and asked none. Always at the head of his warriors in battle, he led a charmed life, being wounded several times but always surviving.

In 1861, when his brother was executed by Americans at Apache Pass, Cochise declared war. He fought relentlessly for a decade, and then only in the face of overwhelming military superiority did he agree to a peace and accept the reservation. Nevertheless, even though he was blamed for virtually every subsequent Apache depredation in Arizona and New Mexico, he faithfully kept that peace until his death in 1874.

Sweeney has traced Cochise’s activities in exhaustive detail in both United States and Mexican Archives. We are not likely to learn more about Cochise than he has given us. His biography will stand as the major source for all that is yet to be written on Cochise.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Without solid knowledge of Southwestern geography and history, readers will find themselves overwhelmed by the wealth of detail in this well-documented, exhaustive biography. For more than 40 years, Apache bands fought Mexican and American troops in the borderlands between New Mexico and Arizona, Chihuahua and Sonora. In his first book, Sweeney gives a brief introduction to the Apaches and their culture, focusing on Cochise's band, the central Chiricahuas. Cochise was born about 1810, a time of relative peace in northern Mexico when the government supplied rations to the Indians. After the Mexican Revolution (1821), funds were not available, assistance was cut and Apaches started raiding ranches for cattle and horses. By the time Cochise reached maturity, hostilities were widespread. A resourceful and feared warrior, he became the undisputed leader of the Chiricahuas. Trailing Cochise through nearly every skirmish and battle of his career, the narrative is a veritable catalogue of persecution, treachery and cruelty on both sides. In the early 1870s, Cochise accepted peace; he died in 1874. Photos. (June)
Library Journal
The very name of Cochise, an extremely capable military leader of the Chiricahua Apache, evoked fear in the hearts of southwesterners and Mexicans during the 19th century. In this meticulously documented account, the author traces this noted Indian's rise to leadership of his Apache band, his daring and imaginative skirmishes with the military and others in both the United States and Mexico, and his successful negotiations for a reservation in the homeland of his peoples. The discussion centers around Cochise's career as a military leader and the impact of Chiricahua raids on settlers in New Mexico and Arizona. This is the first comprehensive treatment of Cochise's important role in southwestern history.-- Mary B. Davis, Huntington Free Lib., Bronx, New York

Product Details

University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date:
Civilization of the American Indian Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.72(w) x 9.34(h) x 1.14(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

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Chiricahua Apache Chief

By Edwin R. Sweeney


Copyright © 1991 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8728-0



The Apaches were a warlike and nomadic people who roamed the Southwest, preferring to live in rugged, inaccessible mountains but equally at home in the harsh desert. There are two schools of thought on derivation of the word Apache. The first holds it may be from the Yuman word e-patch, loosely interpreted to mean "man." The second and more likely possibility has it originating from the Zuñ word apachu, which means "enemy." The Apaches called themselves tinneh, dine, tinde, or inde, which translates to "man" or "people." These migrants to the Southwest from the Mackenzie River Valley of western Canada were members of the Athapaskan linguistic family, which is divided into three geographic divisions: Northern, Pacific Coast, and Southern. The Apaches belonged to the Southern. Anthropologists and historians disagree about the date of their appearance in the Southwest, some believing they had arrived by the late sixteenth century and others, notably Jack D. Forbes, arguing they were living in New Mexico and Arizona in the 1400s.

The Southern Athapaskans known as Apaches are divided into seven major groupings. The Jicarilla, Lipan, and Kiowa-Apache tribes form the eastern division, and the Navajo, Mescalero, Western Apache, and Chiricahua tribes comprise the western division. The word Chiricahua probably was derived from the Opata Indian word chiguicagui, meaning "mountain of the wild turkeys." The Chiricahuas are the focus of this study.

The Chiricahuas consisted of four bands. The easternmost, labeled by Morris E. Opler the Eastern Chiricahuas, were known to Mexicans and Americans as the Mimbres, Copper mines, Warm Springs, Mogollons, and the all-encompassing Gilas, names describing geographic locations where they lived. Their territory was west of the Río Grande in New Mexico, and they lived in the Cuchillo, Black, Mimbres, Mogollon, Pinos Altos, Victoria, and Florida mountain ranges. Their leaders from the 1820s through the 1870s were Mano Mocha, Fuerte, Cuchillo Negro, Itán, Mangas Coloradas, Delgadito, Victorio, Nana, and Loco. To the Apaches, they were the Chihennes, or Red Paint People.

The second band, called by Opler the Southern Chiricahuas, was known to Mexicans and Americans as the Janeros, Carrizaleños, and Pinery Apaches, each in reference to specific areas they inhabited. The mountains along the U.S.-Mexican border served as their homeland, although they also roamed deep into the vast Sierra Madre in the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora. Occasionally they wandered across the border into present-day southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. The Janeros people were so named for their friendly relations at Janos, a small town in northwestern Chihuahua. Their leaders from 1820 through the 1870s were Juan Diego Compá, Juan José Compá, followed by Coleto Amarillo, Arvizu, Láceris, Galindo, Natiza, and Juh. The Carrizaleños lived south of the Janeros people near Carrizal, Chihuahua. Their most prominent leaders in the 1820s and 1830s were Jasquedegá and Cristóbal. In the 1840s, Francisquillo, Francisco, and Cigarrito assumed leadership, followed by Cojinillín and Felipe in the 1850s. Both groups were hit hard by Mexican campaigns from the 1830s through the early 1860s, when the Carrizaleños were virtually wiped out as a distinct unit. To the Apaches, they were the Nednhis, or Enemy People.

Opler named the third band, the one of which Cochise was a member, the Central Chiricahuas. Their homeland was southeastern Arizona, particularly the Dragoon, Dos Cabezas, and Chiricahua mountains. They also ranged north to the Gila River, east into southwestern New Mexico, and south into the Sierra Madre. The mountains along the U.S.-Mexican border gave them sanctuary from Mexican and American troops. From the 1820s through the 1870s their leaders were Pisago Cabezón, Relles, Matías, Tapilá, Yrigóllen, Miguel Narbona, Carro, Posito Moraga, Esquinaline, and Cochise, who rose rapidly in the mid-1850s to become the leading chief of his band. To Anglos of the nineteenth century and to the Apaches of today, this was the band first referred to as Chiricahuas, known to the Indians as the Chokonens.

The Chiricahuas recognized one other band, the Bedonkohes, during historical times. Their territory was northeast of the Chokonens and northwest of the Chihennes in the vicinity of the Gila River and Mogollon Mountains. The notorious Geronimo was born into this branch. The smallest of the Chiricahua divisions, the Bedonkohes were assimilated into one of the other bands in the early 1860s, the majority opting to follow Cochise after the death of Mangas Coloradas.

The bands identified one another as related, having "linguistic and cultural bonds which identify them as one people." The tribal relationship was expressed in many ways: the three peoples were usually at peace with one another, visiting was frequent, and social dances, puberty rites, and marriages were reasons for assembling. The band served as the political unit of the tribe, and an individual remained a member of the one into which he or she was born, except when a man married outside his band. In this case, it was Chiricahua custom for the man to live with his wife's people, and his offspring were known by the affiliation of her band.

Each band consisted of three to five local groups, each made up of several families who camped together near a geographic site from which they usually took their name. For example, during Cochise's life, camps, or rancherías, were scattered throughout Chokonen country, perhaps in the Dragoon, Chiricahua, and Peloncillo mountains. Unlike the band, the local group was not a stable unit. The relationship between members was based primarily on residence and could be severed because of food scarcity, epidemics, internal conflicts, or the death of a leader.

Cochise towered over other leaders because in historic times he commanded allegiance from every Chokonen local group. In contrast, during the same period of the 1860s, the Chihennes recognized at least three local group leaders—Loco, Victorio, and Nana—and the Nednhis recognized at least two, Natiza and Juh. Chiricahua local groups often consisted of one or more rancherías, usually separated by some distance and scattered up and down high mountain valleys. These clusters, called extended family groups, were related through the maternal chain. A Chiricahua informant described the extended family as "a group of homes occupied by relatives. At the very least an extended family is a father and mother, their unmarried children, and the families of their married daughters." The subgroups were known by the names of the family leader.

Into one of the Chokonen local groups Cochise was born. When and where are not definitely known, although writer Frank C. Lockwood believed that Cochise was born in the Chiricahua Mountains about 1815.11 Samuel Woodworth Cozzens, a Mesilla lawyer, and army surgeon Bernard John Dowling Irwin, both of whom apparently met Cochise about 1860, had different estimates of his age. Cozzens thought the chief to be about forty-seven, and Irwin guessed about thirty. The latter estimate is clearly too low when one considers that an Apache identified as Chis, or Chees, almost certainly Cochise, was mentioned in 1835 as the leader of a party that was raiding in Mexico. Furthermore, Cochise was on the Janos ration lists in 1842 and 1843, at which time he had a wife and possibly a child. For what it is worth, during the 1860s, when he avoided American contact, sometimes he was referred to as Old Cochise, perhaps a term used more to show respect than to indicate age. In the late 1860s and early 1870s there were numerous estimates of his height, build, and age. In February 1869 an eyewitness thought Cochise to be about fifty. In another interview recorded by an army surgeon (they were usually good observers), he was thought to be fifty-eight in 1871, while still another credible report, this one from Arizona Governor Anson P. Safford, who visited Cochise in November 1872, put his age about sixty.

Apache accounts are sparse but in agreement. Asa Daklugie believed Cochise about seventy at the time of his death in 1874. Gillet Griswold's study of the Chiricahua Apaches supports Daklugie's statements, estimating Cochise's birth date at about 1800. I do not feel that the evidence supports such an early date; my best guess would place Cochise's birth about 1810, probably in northern Mexico or southeastern Arizona. It is quite conceivable that he was born in the Chiricahua Mountains as asserted by Robert Humphrey Forbes on the basis of information furnished by Thomas J. Jeffords, Cochise's best-remembered white friend.

Cochise's parents were Central Chiricahuas, or Chokonens, and his father was a leading man at the band level. A common legend, developed by Anglos because Apache oral history seldom recalled individuals or events beyond one generation, has Cochise descended from a long line of leaders. Whether this is true is another matter; again, Apache sources are lacking. Cochise himself claimed that his grandfather had been the leader of all Apaches, probably meaning the Chiricahuas. But this may have been translated or recorded in error; he probably meant his father. Asa Daklugie believed that Cochise was related in some manner to Juan José Compá, a Chiricahua leader of the 1830s. His opinion cannot be dismissed lightly; however, Juan José Compá was not a Chokonen and any relation was probably through marriage instead of blood.

The best contemporary information about Cochise's father was provided by James Henry Tevis, a station keeper at Apache Pass who became well acquainted with Cochise in the late 1850s. Tevis wrote that Cochise's father was the head chief of the Apaches (referring to the Chokonen band) who perished at the hands of duplicitous Mexicans. "The Mexicans invited Cochise's father and some of his noted warriors to a feast," he wrote, "and, by treachery, got him and his warriors drunk and killed them." It was a scene repeated several times in Chiricahua-Mexican relations. In 1875 the Arizona Citizen published a biographical article on Cochise, giving a version similar to Tevis's. An incident like the one Tevis described did take place in the summer of 1846 when notorious scalp hunter James Kirker and other mercenaries slaughtered 148 Chiricahuas near Galeana, Chihuahua. Among the dead was the Chokonen leader Relles and perhaps Pisago Cabezón, the most prominent Chiricahua in the first forty years of the nineteenth century. The none-too-reliable James Hobbs, who was a member of Kirker's party, described the incident years later and identified Cochise as one of the leaders of the band butchered by Kirker.

At this date it is extremely unlikely that these discrepancies ever will be reconciled. His father may have been Relles but more probably was Pisago Cabezón. In any event we know that Cochise's father was a leading man at the band level and that as his son Cochise was expected to assume a leadership role, although leadership was not inherited. It was earned, through one's actions and accomplishments; if these were combined with wisdom in counsel, the individual might become a chief. The son of a great chief, however, had an advantage in that he no doubt had received excellent training as a young man and normally would be more prepared than most to follow in the footsteps of his father.

Cochise was born in a peaceful period as far as relations between the Chiricahua Apaches and Mexico were concerned, yet this had not always been the case. For much of the eighteenth century, there had been war between most Apache bands and the Spaniards, who had adopted one policy after another, ranging from extermination to colonization, in an attempt to pacify the incorrigible Apaches. The conflict continued into the 1780s, with, according to Spanish estimates, six hundred Apaches (including some Chiricahuas) attacking Tucson on May 1, 1782, and occupying areas beyond its walled presidio before the garrison drove them off, claiming about thirty enemy killed. Two years later a Spanish force surprised a band of Chokonens at Dos Cabezas, killing nine men, three women, and four children and recapturing a Pima woman taken in the attack at Tucson. Finally, in 1786, recognizing the failure of its diverse policies, the royal crown issued yet another order, called the Instrucción.

The new order was based on Spanish experience of the previous quarter-century, which now accepted that extermination alone was impracticable; victory might be achieved by persuading the hostiles to live in peace near Spanish presidios, or forts. The Instrucción recognized that the Indian's economy consisted of gathering, hunting, and raiding, with the last also an important part of his society. Perhaps the way to pacify him was to turn him away from his culture, but first he must be subdued through unremitting war. After all, "a bad peace was better than a good war." The Instrucción addressed the fundamental issue of attempting to understand Apaches and proved to be the beginning of a forty-year period of generally peaceful but tenuous relations between the two races. It succeeded because it took a realistic, pragmatic approach in addressing the Indian problem.

By the early 1790s most of the Chiricahuas had been compelled to sue for peace, which was granted under the condition that they live quietly in designated areas. This they did, settling at the presidio of Janos in Chihuahua and eventually at other locations along the frontier. Almost at once the Spaniards introduced a systematic policy that was intended to disrupt and destroy the Apache social system. On the one hand, they issued rations of corn or wheat, meat, brown sugar, salt, and tobacco to a reported six thousand Apaches at an annual expense of twenty-three thousand pesos. On the other, they furnished gifts of guns, liquor, clothing, and other items with the duplicitous intention of making the Apaches totally subservient to and dependent on the Spaniards. The guns were inferior and prone to break down, necessitating the services of a Spanish gunsmith to repair them. Furthermore, it was hoped that the Apaches would neglect their bows and arrows, which they used more effectively than firearms. Intoxicating liquors were dispensed freely so that the Indians would acquire a taste for them. "It was at once a highly sophisticated, brutal and deceptive policy of divide and conquer, of peace by purchase, of studied debilitation of those who accepted peace and of extermination of those who rejected it," writes Max L. Moorhead. However cruel and immoral, he concludes, "it was ... a practical policy and one which offered both races the opportunity for survival."

At first the conditions were confining to the Apaches, who were accustomed to coming and going as they pleased. Eventually they were allowed to leave their peace establishments, provided that permission had been granted. Most historians agree that peaceful relations continued for the remainder of the Spanish period, that is, until 1821, and there is evidence to conclude that it prevailed until 1830. William B. Griffen estimates that perhaps two-thirds of the Chiricahua Apaches were involved with this system. He concludes that the presidio system was essentially a success because the cost in controlling the Apaches was far less than the damage hostiles would have caused and the tremendous expense that punitive military campaigns would have incurred. Consequently, Cochise's people had been at peace for fifteen to twenty years by the time of his birth. Frank C. Lockwood characterizes the period as a "nearer approximation to peace [between Apaches and Spaniards] than at any previous time.... It was during these years of respite that mines were opened and successfully operated, churches built and beautified, and ranches prosperously conducted."

Cochise was born during this season of amity. His immediate family eventually included at least two younger brothers, Juan and Coyuntura (Kin-o-Tera), and at least one younger sister. He probably had other brothers and sisters whose names were not remembered. One or two months after birth, when his parents were sure he would live, he received a name suggested either by the midwife or by an unusual event that distinguished his birth; the name bestowed upon him at that time is not known. It was probably as a young adult that he received the Apache name Goci, literally translated as "his nose," because of his prominent Roman nose. This information, provided by Morris E. Opler, seems more plausible than the accepted historical statement that Cochise's name meant "wood" or "a quality or strength in wood." Another explanation has the name bestowed upon him because he once supplied firewood to the Apache Pass stage station. This, too, seems improbable because there are references to Cochise in Mexican records dated some twenty years before the station was established.


Excerpted from Cochise by Edwin R. Sweeney. Copyright © 1991 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Retired as a professional accountant, Edwin R. Sweeney is an independent scholar and the author of Cochise: Chiricahua Apache Chief; Mangas Coloradas: Chief of the Chiricahua Apaches; and From Cochise to Geronimo: The Chiricahua Apaches, 1874–1886.

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