In the spring of 1871, white men made contact with the Apache chief Cochise, and invited him to Washington, D.C. In 1861 Cochise had been ambushed by American soldiers and forced to order his warriors to return cattle they’d stolen from a white rancher. However, he escaped the soldiers, and then executed white prisoners in an act of revenge.
Cochise was another typical chief of the post-Civil War era in America—he responded in kind to the aggression and violence of the U.S. army.
For the next ten years, the Apaches—led by Chief Cochise, as well as his father-in-law, Mangas Colorado—waged violent war against white men in the Southwest. They attacked wagon trains and mining towns. But as the decade dragged on, Mangas came to realize that his people could never defeat the U.S. military. He came to a military base, waving a truce flag. However, the soldiers took him captive, tortured him, and then murdered him and mutilated his body. The military report falsely stated that Mangas was shot while trying to escape.
Mangas’s murder marked another low-point in the history of Native Americans relations with the U.S. Furthermore, it represented another insulting cover-up by the U.S. military, which tried to frame the murder as retaliation for attempted escape (not that murdering someone who is fleeing is particularly honorable in itself) rather than a brutal and sadistic execution.
After the end of the Civil War, the government made peace overtures to Cochise and the Apaches. Cochise refused to cooperate with a peace delegation. Apache fights continued to attack white settlers. In 1871, the government was more eager than ever to get in contact with Cochise.
Even though the U.S. government had the power to wage war against the Apaches, it wanted to get in touch with Cochise—in part because it believed Cochise could pacify his own people and convince them to be obedient.
Also in the spring of 1871, an Apache leader named Eskiminzin came to see Lieutenant Royal E. Whitman. He explained to Whitman that his Apaches had no home, since American soldiers were always shooting at them. He proposed a peace treaty. While Whitman claimed he had no authority to accept a treaty, he offered Eskiminzin’s men jobs harvesting and cooking mescal. Eskiminzin accepted, and within a few months, hundreds of Apaches had joined the mescal farm.
Whitman is another complex character in Brown’s book. He seems to have believed that he had a personal duty to help the Apaches by giving them jobs and a home. But it’s also unclear if he had any real respect for the Apaches, or if he was only trying to ensure lasting peace in the Southwest.
In April 1871, Apaches raided a town near Tucson and killed several white men. In retaliation, a group of white residents formed a small army of fighters and burned an Apache village to the ground, killing and mutilating women and children.
The Apaches were locked in a bloody guerilla war with white settlers on their territory—without a doubt, there was blame on both sides, even if the white settlers had encroached on Apache territory.
Whitman was concerned that the massacre would reflect badly on him, and he launched an investigation to bring the white killers to justice. In the ensuing trial, the killers were acquitted. Whitman’s crusade to punish the killers ended his career: he was court-martialed on trumped-up charges, and later resigned.
Whitman again seems to have felt it was his duty to be fair and impartial to the Apaches, despite the strong racial prejudice in his society at the time. Indeed, it was this same racial prejudice that ended Whitman’s career—Whitman was drummed out of office because he “dared” to be fair to Apaches.
In June 1871, Commissioner Vincent Colyer met with Eskiminzin in order to persuade him to remain peaceful. Colyer was accompanied by General George Crook. Colyer promised that he would express Eskiminzin’s need for food to the president. Colyer met with other chiefs, but never spoke to Cochise. He arranged for a courier to find Cochise, but the courier failed to find him. Meanwhile, General Crook sent scouts to find Cochise.
Colyer and Crook’s priority was preserving peace in the Southwest (although, it’s crucial to remember that “peace” by their definition meant slowly and systematically eliminating the Apache population). It’s notable that the Native Americans’ concern is, at this point, food rather than sovereignty.
After months, General Crook’s agents tracked down Cochise. By this time, Cochise was an old man. Crook’s agents offered to move to Apaches to a new reservation. Cochise angrily replied that he would never leave his ancestral land. On a later visit, Cochise negotiated with government representatives, who offered to move the Apaches to the Rio Grande, but Cochise refused. In the end, the government representatives said they were “won over” by Cochise’s “courtesy and direct simplicity.” They agreed to give the Apaches a reservation in the Chiricahua Mountains.
This is one of a couple passages in the book where Brown says frustratingly little about an exceptionally odd event. Why, exactly, did the representatives find Cochise so persuasive, where hundreds of previous representatives had taken a hard line against Native American negotiators? Brown doesn’t say, but it’s hard not to wonder. Perhaps the broadest answer is that, in the long term, the government knew it could afford to give up some additional land to the Apaches, since it was secure in its plans to expand westward.
While Cochise’s agreement gave the Apaches good land, some of the Apaches continued to defy the U.S. military and attack white settlers. In the summer of 1873, Apaches killed an American lieutenant and then fled. For the next few months, General Crook tracked the Apache aggressors. Later on, two separate mercenaries presented Crook with a severed head supposedly belonging to the leader of the Apache uprising. Crook decided that at least one head must be the real one, and declared the uprising defeated.
Even after Cochise’s negotiations, some Apaches continued to rise up against the military. This confirms that, by the 1870s, there were many Native Americans who refused to trust white men at all: they would rather die than cave in to treaties or compromises with U.S. representatives.
In 1874, Cochise became ill. Without a strong leader, the Apaches were mostly confined to their reservations, or else fled into Mexico. “A forced peace” had been imposed in Apache country.
Without a strong leader, the Apaches had nobody to negotiate on their behalf, meaning that their future was precarious at best.