Little is known of Cochise’s early life. By the mid-19th century, he had become a prominent leader of the Chiricahua band of Apache Indians living in southern Arizona and northern Mexico. Like many other Chiricahua Apache, Cochise resented the encroachment of Mexican and American settlers on their traditional lands. Cochise led numerous raids on the settlers living on both sides of the border, and Mexicans and Americans alike began to call for military protection and retribution.
War between the U.S. and Cochise, however, resulted from a misunderstanding. In October 1860, a band of Apache attacked the ranch of an Irish-American named John Ward and kidnapped his adopted son, Felix Telles. Although Ward had been away at the time of the raid, he believed that Cochise had been the leader of the raiding Apache. Ward demanded that the U.S. Army rescue the kidnapped boy and bring Cochise to justice. The military obliged by dispatching a force under the command of Lieutenant George Bascom. Unaware that they were in any danger, Cochise and many of his top men responded to Bascom’s invitation to join him for a night of entertainment at a nearby stage station. When the Apache arrived, Bascom’s soldiers arrested them.
Cochise told Bascom that he had not been responsible for the kidnapping of Felix Telles, but the lieutenant refused to believe him. He ordered Cochise be kept as a hostage until the boy was returned. Cochise would not tolerate being imprisoned unjustly. He used his knife to cut a hole in the tent he was held in and escaped.
During the next decade, Cochise and his warriors increased their raids on American settlements and fought occasional skirmishes with soldiers. Many panicked settlers abandoned their homes. By 1872, the U.S. was anxious for peace, and the government offered Cochise and his people a huge reservation in the southeastern corner of Arizona Territory if they would cease hostilities. Cochise agreed, saying, “The white man and the Indian are to drink of the same water, eat of the same bread, and be at peace.”
The great chief did not have the privilege of enjoying his hard-won peace for long. In 1874, he became seriously ill, possibly with stomach cancer. He died on this day in 1874. That night his warriors painted his body yellow, black and vermilion, and took him deep into the Dragoon Mountains. They lowered his body and weapons into a rocky crevice, the exact location of which remains unknown. Today, however, that section of the Dragoon Mountains is known as Cochise’s Stronghold.
About a decade after Cochise died, Felix Telles—the boy whose kidnapping had started the war—resurfaced as an Apache-speaking scout for the U.S. Army. He reported that a group of Western Apache, not Cochise, had kidnapped him.