Hiking Back in Time

In the Mountain Stronghold of Cochise

In the Western United States, the past is always present, waiting around every turn in the trail, lurking behind every approaching hill, ready to pull us back in time. In the Dragoon Mountains, an isolated range of 7,000-foot mountains 90 miles southeast of Tucson, the past does more than wait; it permeates the air. In this range’s magnificent canyons, one sees few signs of modern life; there are no telephone wires, no satellite dishes. The past inhabits a silence broken only by the call of a bird or the rustle of a chipmunk in the underbrush, as one hikes along utterly deserted trails in these rugged and remote mountains.

Here the past becomes even more palpable because somewhere, in an unknown crevasse, the great Apache chief Cochise lies buried. One hundred and thirty years ago, these mountains were Cochise’s stronghold, a sanctuary and fortress for the chief and the Chiricahua band of Apaches who, from 1861 to 1873, waged war against American settlers and eluded the U. S. Army. No one knows today which of the hundreds of crevasses holds his remains. Yet his warrior presence still pervades these mountains and canyons.

We have arrived here accidentally. Heading along I-10 to another destination, we see a small highway sign with the words “Cochise Stronghold.” Vague, patchy memories of Cochise eluding the U.S. cavalry in his stronghold for years compel us to turn off and go exploring. We drive south on Arizona highway 191, skirting the western edge of Sulfur Springs Valley. To our left, we see the outline of an ancient lake that is now dry; every spring, thousands of cranes return to the seasonal waters that briefly cover the land. Beyond, to the east, the alkali flats of the valley stretch for forty miles to the Chiricahua Mountains. The valley’s scrub and sagebrush have been baked brown by the incessant Arizona sun.

We turn right onto a gravel road with a washboard surface for an eight-mile journey to the Dragoons, which cut a jagged profile against the crystal blue sky as their desolate ridges rise and drop. Standing guard at the foot of the mountains are enormous cream-colored boulders. For a moment we are afraid that the road will crash directly into those guardian boulders, but suddenly it curves left around them, enters a canyon, passes a handful of residences, and ends at a nearly deserted campground. At the trailhead into the stronghold, we see a monument that reads:

Chief Cochise
Greatest Of Apache Warriors
Died June 8, 1874
In This His Favorite Stronghold

It is at this instant, on the edge of the stronghold, that history and geography begin to intersect. Towering canyon walls surround us. The silence is profound, but then the mountains slowly begin to speak. A breeze whispers through the leaves of the surrounding sycamore and walnut trees and stirs the dry brush that carpets the canyon. High overhead, a crow caws.

The trail begins by winding through a desert garden of alligator juniper, yucca, and prickly pear. It heads south along a dry riverbed and enters a canyon that winds through the eastern section of the stronghold and gradually bends to the northwest. The sides of the canyon are steep and lined with more of the monumental boulders, which stand like sentries as we venture further into the stronghold and farther from today. In this canyon and the smaller canyons that diverge from it like tentacles, one can easily get lost.

To walk this trail is to gain a more intuitive understanding of the Chiricahua people—to see reflected in this wild topography their fierce desire to remain free. To walk here is also to gain a deeper insight into a key piece of history that unfolded here in 1872, when General Oliver Otis Howard of the U.S. Army journeyed to negotiate a peace with Cochise that finally ended the Apache wars, which had been spreading violence throughout Arizona for the preceding twelve years.

The conflict between the Chiricahua and the United States ignited in 1861 with a series of bungled events known as the Bascom affair. On February 4, 1861, Second Lieutenant George N. Bascom summoned Cochise to his tent at the army encampment in Apache Pass, some forty miles east of the Dragoons, and accused him of kidnapping Felix Ward, the adopted son of an American rancher (Roberts, 22-23). Cochise responded that the accusation was false and gave his solemn word that he would do all he could to have the boy returned to his father. Historians believe that Cochise was telling the truth and that Ward probably had been kidnapped by a different band of Apaches. (Sweeney, Cochise 146). Bascom, who had no experience with Indians and knew nothing of Cochise’s reputation for honesty, insisted on holding the chief and his party (Cochise’s wife, brother, two nephews, and two children) as prisoners until the boy was returned (Roberts, 22). Cochise quickly grasped a hidden knife, slashed a gash in the tent, and escaped. Over the next several days, the chief took several Americans hostage and, after fruitless negotiations, killed four of them. In retaliation, the army hanged Cochise’s brother, his two nephews, and three Apaches who had recently been captured while rustling cattle (Roberts, 28).

When Cochise heard of the hangings, he became enraged and swore revenge against the U.S. Army and American settlers. From 1861 to 1870, the Chiricahua attacked wagon trains, ranches, and settlements in the territory. Historians estimate that during this period, the Apaches killed approximately 400 Americans and Mexicans (Roberts, 55). The battles took an enormous toll on the Chiricahua people as well. In 1869, Cochise told an Army officer, “The Americans killed a good many. I have not one hundred Indians now. Ten years ago I had one thousand” (Arizona Miner, March 20, 1869). By the late 1860s, Cochise realized that, if his people were to continue to exist, he would have to reach some kind of peace agreement with the U.S. government.

In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant intervened in the crisis and tapped General Oliver Otis Howard, a hero of the Civil War, to negotiate a peace with Cochise. Howard was a deeply religious and humane man, known as the Christian Soldier during the war. Howard empathized with the plight of the American Indians, an attitude that set him apart from other Army officers of the time. His mission was clear: to make peace with Cochise and the Chiricahua.

That year, Howard journeyed to Arizona with his trusted young aide, Lieutenant Joseph Alton Slade. In late summer, they arrived in southeastern Arizona, where Howard learned of Cochise’s whereabouts in the Dragoons from Tom Jeffords, the Indian scout who had formed a close friendship with the chief. When the general asked Jeffords to take him to Cochise, Jeffords agreed to do so if no soldiers accompanied them. (Howard, 188).

The expedition was arduous, as the small group, which included only Howard, Sladen, Jeffords, and two Apache guides, crossed the desolate flats of western New Mexico and eastern Arizona. They crossed the Chiricahua Mountains, with their beautiful forests of ponderosa pine, and traversed the Sulphur Springs Valley, which Howard noted “was a broad, dry, sagebrush stretch of country” (Howard, 197).

In September, the small company reached the eastern stronghold, where we are now standing. We have walked about a mile into the stronghold on trails that date back to the time of the Chiricahua, and we sit to rest by a spring and wonder aloud if this is the same spring that General Howard described as “abundant . . . a rivulet of clear, cool, most acceptable water” (Howard, 199). The water is now stagnant and brackish. We talk about how Cochise’s stronghold was the only place where the negotiations between the two men could have been successful. Because of its remoteness, it was the perfect place for two men to meet each other as individuals, set aside their cultural roles, and earn each other’s trust.

Following a dry river bed, we climb another mile to Half Moon Tank, a small reservoir that reflects the surrounding canyons in its quiet waters. We are surrounded by tall, irregular rocks, balanced one upon the other and backed by towering cliffs. We sense we are being watched. It is not an uneasy feeling—more like a heightened awareness that is somehow drawing us into closer communion with the spirits of this extraordinary place. We look up at two enormous rock pillars that appear to have heads, shoulders, and torsos, and one head is bent toward the other in a gesture of supplication and empathy. Further along stands another cluster of rocks that resemble an entire family, with the mother and father on either end and their children between them. Like a family, the rocks look alike yet have distinctive shapes. The parents lean protectively over their children, who speak to each other in a silent language about their adventures that day in the twisting canyons. The mother cradles two infants. This one has a cleft in the top of its head, that one, a fissure all the way down, nearly dividing it into two. Another has thin legs that rise into a sturdy torso and broad shoulders.

Most distinctive is the mother. Her face is square and angular, her jaw strong and confident, her nose flat, her shoulders broad and strong. Her arms reach out to prevent the young children from tumbling down the steep canyon walls. These rock-ghosts cast a spell, as if time has been frozen, as if the Chiricahua who once populated the stronghold have been turned to stone and will remain here for eternity. Later, we will compare a picture we take of this place with a photograph taken years earlier of Cochise’s eastern camp and find that they match perfectly.

After another mile of climbing, we reach the divide, a ridge that separates the eastern sector of the stronghold from the western sector. As we stand at this, the highest point on the trail, we see how Apaches could keep watch over the entire region, up to a distance of forty miles. Warriors could see the dust raised by cavalry riding across Sulfur Springs Valley from Camp Bowie to the east or across San Pedro Valley from Fort Huachuca to the west. It becomes clear to us how the Chiricahua could resist the army for so many years.

The two-mile descent into the western stronghold begins with a series of steep switchbacks that descend into a rock fortress. The western stronghold, which is much less frequently traveled by hikers today, feels very different from the eastern sector. It is dominated by a large valley with a flat bottom that is well-protected from the weather. Groves of oaks and alligator junipers are interspersed with open areas, and it was here that Apache families established camps. Throughout the valley are plentiful agave plants, which the Chiricahua used for food and for their strong fiber. High-reaching domes surround the valley and afford views toward the west and the north that are as far-reaching as those in the eastern stronghold.

The negotiations between Cochise and Howard took place here, in the western stronghold. General Howard initiated the negotiations by offering the Chiricahua a reservation in New Mexico at Cañada Alamosa, which would include all of the different Apache tribes. But Cochise did not want his people closed up on a reservation, particularly one that was so far from their homeland. The chief made an alternative proposal: that the Chiricahua receive Apache Pass and its surrounding territory. If they received this land, Cochise promised that no one’s property would be taken by Indians (Howard, 207)

At that point, the negotiations were deadlocked, for Howard continued to insist on moving the Chiricahua to Cañada Alamosa. Cochise said that he wanted to call in his subchiefs for a council, and Howard agreed to return to Fort Bowie to warn the cavalry not to fire on Cochise’s warriors as they rode to the stronghold. Cochise accompanied Howard to the end of the canyon in which they had been meeting, and the Chiricahua chief paused and gazed at the landscape. After a few moments, he turned to Howard and exclaimed, “Shi-cowah!—“My home!” (as quoted in Howard, 209). The two men, who had grown to trust each other through the days of negotiations, then parted ways.

After completing his mission at Fort Bowie, Howard returned to the stronghold, where he, Sladen, and Jeffords awaited the arrival of Cochise’s captains. They finally arrived and emphatically rejected removal to New Mexico. Howard, though, was determined not to allow the chance for peace to slip away; he modified Cochise’s original proposal, offering a reservation that would stretch from the western part of the Chiricahua Mountains, across Sulfur Springs Valley, to the Dragoons (Howard, 219). The proposal encompassed much of the Chiricahua homeland, and Cochise and his warriors agreed to consider the offer. They retreated to a ceremony in which they consulted the spirits and ultimately decided to agree to the reservation, with Tom Jeffords as agent.

The reservation, though, was fated to last only a few years, undermined by economic interests that pressured the government to remove the Apaches and open up southeastern Arizona to mining and ranching. General George S. Crook, the commanding officer of the troops in Arizona, regarded the Chiricahua reservation as an unjustified giveaway to Cochise and lobbied the federal government to disregard Howard’s treaty and remove the Chiricahua (Sweeney, Cochise 376). Moreover, young warriors of the Chiricahua and other Apache bands played into the hands of Crook and other opponents of the reservation by raiding ranches and towns across the border in Mexico.

Although Cochise made efforts to stop the raids, the government quietly began to plan the removal of the Apaches from southeastern Arizona. In 1874, Levi Edwin Dudley, the superintendent of Indian affairs in New Mexico, traveled to the Dragoons to gauge Cochise’s reaction to the idea of removal (Sweeney, Cochise 391). Dudley rode with Jeffords to the Dragoons, where they found Cochise to be very ill, probably from stomach cancer (Sweeney, Cochise 395). In spite of his failing health, the chief remained strong in spirit, and when Dudley raised the subject of removing the Chiricahua to New Mexico, Cochise replied that he wished to live out the rest of his days in his stronghold. Dudley convinced the government to set aside plans for the relocation of the Chiricahua for the time being.

Jeffords returned to the Dragoons later that year for what he must have known would be his final visit with Cochise. Reaching the Dragoons on June 7, he went immediately to the chief’s camp and knelt beside him. At one point, Cochise looked up at Jeffords and asked, “Do you think we will ever meet again?”

Jeffords answered, “I don’t know. What is your opinion about it?”

Cochise said, “I have been thinking a good deal about it while I have been sick here, and I believe we will; good friends will meet again—up there.”

Jeffords asked, “Where?”

“That I do not know—somewhere; up yonder, I think.” And with those words, he pointed to the sky (quoted in Lockwood, 128-9).

The next morning, he was gone. An observer in Tucson reported the Chiricahua deeply mourned the death of their greatest leader, whose courage and respect for the truth had bound his people together in their fierce resistance to the forced removal from land on which they had roamed for centuries (Sweeney, Cochise 395). Neither Jeffords nor any of the Chiricahua ever revealed which of the Dragoons’ crevasses held the chief’s remains.

With Cochise gone, the government moved rapidly to break up the Chiricahua reservation, forcibly moving most of the Chiricahua to the San Carlos Reservation (east of today’s Phoenix), where the conditions were deplorable. A group of some 700 warriors rebelled against the removal and renewed the war against the United States for the next ten years, until they were finally defeated in 1886. The leader of that last band of insurgents was Geronimo (Roberts, 157).

As we hike back through the western stronghold, up to the divide, and through the eastern stronghold, we feel with deep poignancy the fact that the Chiricahua no longer call this stronghold their homeland. Yet their spiritual presence has lived in these canyons for more than 100 years and can be felt to this day. The Chiricahua formed a spiritual bond with this land. It was sacred to them. It is this continued presence of spirit that makes visiting the stronghold today such a powerful melding of past and present. As we walk these trails, the Apache past reaches out, sounding the force of history and telling the story of a people and a leader who drew strength from this land.

Now the day is turning to dusk, causing the shadows cast by the rocks to grow longer and resemble apparitions. We are caught between light and darkness, and a profound silence settles over the canyon. Then, faintly at first but growing steadily louder, the sound of a drum glides through the dusky air and reaches us; it comes from somewhere to the right, somewhere in the eastern ridge of hills that divides the Dragoons from Sulphur Springs Valley. It is like the earth’s heartbeat—slow, regular. Deep and solemn voices begin to accompany the drum. The sounds continue to echo even as we drive along the road that twists its way out of this hidden canyon. As the road approaches the exit, it passes a small cluster of houses that remain near the stronghold. One of the houses is very near the dirt road, and from its eaves hangs a wooden sign with four words carved carefully and deeply into the wood: “Apache Spirit Lives Forever.”