1871 One Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

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On September 28 Cochise, chief of the Chiricahua Apaches, surrendered to government agents at Cañada Alamosa in southwestern New Mexico Territory. The capitulation ended a decade of bloody fighting between the Chiricahuas and the Southwest’s growing white population. The two groups had been on fairly good terms at first, but in February 1861, as the rest of the country was falling to pieces, the situation in Arizona unraveled as well. Federal troops, mistakenly suspecting the Chiricahuas of kidnapping a young boy, took some of them hostage in what was either “an astoundingly stupid piece of treachery” (by one account) or “a procedure that was common on the frontier” (by another). Cochise escaped, took hostages of his own, and began ambushing white travelers. Both sets of hostages were killed, and from then on things only got worse.

When the soldiers went East that summer to fight the Confederates, Cochise’s band eagerly descended on the defenseless ranches, farms, and mines left behind. Within months Arizona’s white population was down to about five hundred, almost all of them cowering behind the walls of Tucson. After returning the next year, the Army grimly pursued a policy of Indian extermination, while the Chiricahuas and other Apache bands continued raiding settlements and butchering whites in Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico.

In the early 1870s the government began peace overtures. Cochise’s band was wearing down after ten years on the run, and with the help of Tom Jeffords, a trader who had befriended the chief, the Chiricahuas were offered a reservation where they could live unmolested in return for an end to the fighting. The memory of white men’s broken promises remained fresh, so Cochise was reluctant to accept the offer, but by now he had few options. After some negotiation the chief, ill and approaching sixty, reported to the government’s Southern Apache Agency with two hundred bedraggled followers.

The Chiricahuas’ surrender did not end the Southwest’s Indian troubles. Cochise made a Napoleon-like escape early the next year to avoid being sent to barren Tularosa, New Mexico. He returned only after agents had agreed to restore his ancestral lands, where he died in 1874. But the Apaches had never been farmers, and reservation life did not mesh with their nomadic ways, so hostile bands continued to slip into the mountains and resume their plunder. Not until 1886 was the final large group of recalcitrant Chiricahuas, led by Geronimo, finally rounded up.