Monthly Archives: August 2016

Pinkertons: Policing labor in the American West

Written December 2, 2015


Policing in the American West began as corporate security in the mid-1800s. The philosophies that shaped that initial endeavor were a powerful force in American policing nationally, through the 19020s and into the early 30s. The first big businesses in the West were the railroads, crossing wildernesses that, for their European-American owners, had no preexisting social structures with which to impose order on their workers. The only authority available in those wild places, was the authority of the company. Investors in the railroads had taken a great financial risk, and their relative lack of control over the men building their railroad agitated their concerns. As Frank Morn noted, “By the mid-1850s a few businessmen saw the need for greater control over their employees; their solution was to sponsor a private detective system. In February 1855, Allan Pinkerton, after consulting with six mid-western railroads, created such and agency in Chicago.”[1] The Pinkertons became a successful means of company control that ran under the guise of creating law and order. Private security for corporations was a lucrative business, even when the agencies came under scrutiny from the public and from the government. The conflict between the public, the government, and the Pinkertons was no small thing. “The emergence of private police … profoundly undermined the American legal order and the public order generally. It underscored the political untouchability and irresponsibility of big business in America.”[2]

Private police forces began in Chicago with the railroads and the Pinkertons, moving first farther west, then east, and proliferating into other industries.[3] Railroads supported all facets of the economies of growing cities.[4] The practices of labor control in railroads naturally moved from one interconnected industry to the next, due the close economic ties between these industries and to the general proliferation of an industrial culture which valued production over quality of life.

The inception of private security for the railroads has sometimes been described as a way of curtailing risk-taking behaviors such as gambling and drinking,[5] but the primary motivation was suppressing labor movements. Organized labor had the potential to be disastrous to the companies’ bottom lines. It could lead to demands for higher wages or better working conditions; it could lead to work stoppages if negotiation was avoided, or to paying higher wages if negotiation was not avoided. Policing the workers leveraged force to prohibit workers from bargaining collectively, which kept labor costs artificially low. It also increased or maintained productivity by circumventing the labor negotiation process. The Pinkertons[6] quickly expanded beyond their original six investors, earning a reputation for effectiveness that relied on their ruthlessness and vigilantism. The corporations that hired the Pinkertons did so because they believed the agency “would go to virtually any length in satisfying the desires of its major business clientele.”[7] The belief was well-founded. An early case, involving the infamous Jesse James, showed investors that the Pinkertons would not hesitate over legality, such that even blatant assassinations were not out of the question.[8]

Shortly before the James assassination, the Pinkertons were hired to “destroy” the Molly Maguires “and perhaps unionism in the coal fields more generally.”[9] The Molly Maguires were a group of Irish revolutionaries-turned-unionists, working in the coal mines in Pennsylvania. The Pinkerton agent assigned to this case, a man named James McParlan, acted as “a classic agent provocateur,”[10] participating in acts of violence as his undercover persona, a member of the Molly Maguires. The violence associated with the group was largely the work of McParlan and others like him, rather than actual members of the group. Bruce Johnson, in his study of policing in America, noted that, “Most of the violence surrounding American labor history was instigated by elites, business or governmental,” and, “Most worker violence in the United States, and there has not been much of it, has been a desperate response to elite violence.”[11] However, the agents’ work laid the foundation of anti-labor perceptions which painted unions as violent and dangerous in the public mind.[12]

The acts of organizing labor – picketing, striking, even joining a union – were illegal until 1935, when New Deal legislation reformed labor laws.[13] After the Homestead strike, a Pennsylvania judge declared that the strike had been treasonous.[14] Yet none of the strikebreaking done by the Pinkertons, at Homestead or elsewhere, was in any way a form of law enforcement. Their methods included nothing resembling due process of the law; their aim was to enforce the will of the corporations, regardless of the coincidence of law. Still, some of the media’s post-Homestead complaints about the Pinkertons centered on the idea that the private detectives were doing the government’s job. The concern was less that strikes were being broken, and more that they were being broken by private armies rather than by the government.[15] Certainly, the government had stepped in to support the interests of business against labor before, in Chicago during the 1877  railroad strike, and 47 more times following that, the National Guard was deployed “to protect the interests of business against those of unionized (or unionizing) workers.”[16] During World War I, local police and the Department of Justice arrested hundreds of members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”) across the nation.

For their part, government officials seemed relieved that someone else was taking care of the problem,[17] and encouraged the corporate practice of hiring private detectives to do ‘their work’ for them. The importance of improving communication and trade between the East and West coasts was such that the federal government contributed significantly to the financial success of the railroads.[18] Therefore the government, too, had a stake in the economic success of the railroads. The Pinkertons’ engagement in vigilantism removed fault from the government when anti-labor operations became violent or fell out of public favor in any way, while still increasing big business’ confidence. The government’s support of the Pinkertons was visible in the failure of government officials to fully investigate charges against the Pinkertons when charges were brought, or the failure to bring charges at all when the Pinkertons were found to have committed a crime.[19] Even the jeopardization of diplomatic relations with England by the Pinkertons resulted in zero government sanctions for the agency.[20] The implication is that because the elite social class of America included both corporate owners and elected officials, who might often be the same people, what benefitted big businesses would also benefit the individual elected officials, as well as the federal government as an entity.

The large gap between the classes – that is, between the corporate and government elite and the working class – was emphasized by a physical distance between those who were in charge and those who were doing the work.[21] That distance influenced the elites’ tendency to think of the workers in terms of their productivity as a group, rather than as individual people, making the Pinkertons a tools for the mechanisms of labor.

The Pinkertons’ own social distance from the workers of any given factory or railroad made them particularly useful. They, too, had no personal ties to the workers. The agency was hired for specific situations, brought agents from other locations, and did not encourage long-term retention of their agents in the given locale beyond their usefulness to the contracted task. Pinkerton agents’ status as social outsiders in their region of operation made them less likely to be recognized in their undercover operations. It also made the agents less likely to develop sympathy for the unions’ causes – a boon to the corporations in a time when public opinion often swung toward the plight of the unions.

In places where local police forces already existed, the corporations couldn’t always count on their support. For the 1894 Pullman Strike in Chicago[22] and the 1892 Homestead Strike in Pennsylvania, local police were unwilling to act as strikebreakers, and the companies involved hired the Pinkertons. Other strikes did not have so much local support; those organized by the International Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”) during World War I often aroused suspicions of treason,[23] and failed to garner local support. In those case, the public could be rallied, by and with Pinkertons, as ‘citizen deputies’ to literally remove the strikers from the town. Pinkertons were involved in at least 15 such events between 1912 and 1919.[24] Many more such deportations happened without the Pinkertons’ involvement.[25]

Local support or lack thereof influenced the manner in which corporate security was carried out, but not whether that security was designed and executed in the service of corporations. In every case, big business won, and labor lost. With rare exceptions, Harold Aurand’s analysis of the Molly Maguire case holds true for the war between labor and labor bosses: it was “one of the most astounding surrenders of sovereignty in American history. A private corporation initiated the investigation through a private detective agency; a private police force arrested the offenders; the … company attorneys prosecuted them. The state provided only the courtroom and the hangman.”[26]




Bailey, William F. “The Story of the Central Pacific,” The Pacific Monthly (January and February 1908).

Byrkit, James W. Forging the Copper Collar: Arizona’s Labor-Management War 1901-1921. Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1982.

Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Standing at Armageddon: A Grassroots History of the Progressive Era. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.

Seven Wonders of the Industrial World. “The Line.” Episode 6. YouTube, 8:20,, (accessed November 12, 2015).

Weiss Robert P. “Private Detective Agencies and Labour Discipline in the United States, 1855-1946.” The Historical Journal 29, no. 1 (March 1986).



[1] As quoted in Ward Churchill, “From the Pinkertons to the PATRIOT Act: The Trajectory of Political Policing in the United States, 1870 to Present,” The New Centennial Review 4, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 5.

[2] Bruce C. Johnson, “Taking Care of Labor: The Police in American Politics,” Theory and Society 3, no. 1 (Spring 1976): 95.

[3] Johnson, 94.

[4] William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 312.

[5] Seven Wonders of the Industrial World, “The Line,” episode 6, YouTube, 8:20,, (accessed November 12, 2015).

[6] The Pinkerton Detective Agency was not the only private detective agency in operation at the time, but it was the most famous and is still the best documented. I will focus on the actions of the Pinkertons as representative of private police activities, as the relatively minute differences between the Pinkertons and their contemporaries is beyond the scope of this paper.

[7] Churchill, 6.

[8] While legends often depict Jesse James as being pursued by lawmen, in fact James was pursued by Pinkertons, who finally arranged for his assassination in 1882; Ibid., 11.

[9] Ibid., 13.

[10] Ibid., 14.

[11] Johnson, 96.

[12] Churchill, 16.

[13] Robert P. Weiss, “Private Detective Agencies and Labour Discipline in the United States, 1855-1946,” The Historical Journal 29, no. 1 (March 1986): 93; Johnson, 92, 96, 100.

[14] Weiss, 93.

[15] Ibid., 94

[16] Churchill, 16.

[17] Ibid., 8.

[18] William F. Bailey, “The Story of the Central Pacific,” The Pacific Monthly (January and February 1908).

[19] Churchill, 23.

[20] Ibid., 8.

[21] The men who ran the railroads in Chicago did so because “they had better access … to eastern capital.” Cronon, 66. Chicago produced almost “a quarter of a billion dollars’ worth of goods” in 1880. Cronon, 311. Although Chicago was generating these goods, much of that wealth and the industrial wealth produced nationally originated with eastern industry and the federal government. Investors were generally located far from the western frontier, where the railroad would actually be constructed.

[22] Johnson, 99.

[23] High levels of patriotism during American involvement with WWI made it easier to rally towns – especially company towns – against unions that were seen to have high ‘foreign’ memberships because patriotism was intensely linked with xenophobia and racism. During WWI, productivity was also linked to patriotism, and any slow in productivity was compared to treason. Nell Irvin Painter, Standing at Armageddon: A Grassroots History of the Progressive Era (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), 23-24.

[24] Churchill, 31-37.

[25] The most famous of these was the Bisbee Deportation of 1917, in which approximately 1200 men were rounded up by deputized citizens, loaded onto trains, and shipped out to New Mexico. James W. Byrkit, Forging the Copper Collar: Arizona’s Labor-Management War 1901-1921 (Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1982).

[26] Harold Aurand, as quoted in Churchill, 15.

Context for Carlisle: Whiteness and Native Assimilation 1880-1900

Written November 7, 2015


It was the end of the Indian Wars. The buffalo were dead and the Indians were starving on their reservations[1]. The rations handed out on reservations by the federal government looked fiscally unsustainable. “After the conquest,” says historian Patricia Limerick, “Indians were a population in trouble, with massive unemployment and poor prospects for economic recovery.”[2] Meanwhile, attendees of the Lake Mohonk Conference of the Friends of the Indian, a group of Progressive-era reformers, decided that the only problem with Indians, was that they were so Indian: “[t]hey acted on the assumption that inside every Indian was a white American citizen and property holder waiting to be set free.”[3] If only they could separate the individual Indian from his tribalism,[4] they could be the heroes of these people whose culture was vanishing[5].

Why not save the vanishing culture along with its individual representatives? Native American culture was enticing, exotic and exciting, evidenced by its role as source material for Wild West shows, an incredibly popular form of entertainment at the time[6]. Native American culture had the nation’s attention. But not all attention is good attention: the culture was, in the eyes of the empowered white public, for entertainment only. It was a child’s game, a clever show in which the “good” guys – white cowboys – always won. It wasn’t real to the white show-goers and policy makers. Indian culture had become a nostalgic recreation, not a way of life that was in any way sustainable in their modern world. More consequentially, Native culture was seen as disabling to the individual Indian; it was a culture that was bound to disappear because in the whitewashed lens of social Darwinism,[7] Native culture was the lesser of two, and must cede the future to the ‘fitter’ white culture. Social Darwinism had reached its popular climax in American discourse; it fueled white arguments both for and against assimilation of Indians. Applied to cultures, Social Darwinism supported allowing the Native American culture to die away unaided; applied to individuals, it argued against ‘helping’ them move into the dominant culture. The reformers who conceived and supported the Indian Boarding Schools took a different stance – they wanted to save the individual Indian by hurrying the demise of Indian culture.

In Legacy of Conquest, historian Patricia Limerick described the Mohonk plan to ‘save’ the Indians, saying “once they had become assimilated, voting property holders themselves, Indians would be able to protect themselves as white Americans did.”[8] There are two key ideas here. First, to be empowered individual Indians had to be made white, not just stripped of their Native culture, because only white people could be the masters of their own destiny. Second, one had to own property and be a member of the electorate in order to protect oneself. Limerick suggests that humanitarians who thought white avarice had made Indians vulnerable were partially to blame for the urgency of the Mohonk reformers, quoting then-Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz,[9] who said the government was “impotent to protect the Indians on their reservations, especially when held in common, from the encroachments of its own people.[10] But the government, throughout its history of Indian policy, had never shown an inclination to attempt, seriously, to keep settlers out of Indian territories. On the contrary, major events like President Jackson’s Indian Removal program[11] had encouraged the encroachment and outright theft by European-Americans of Native American lands. Furthermore, the Native Americans, like any group, had the best successes when they gathered in larger numbers. Thus the idea that communal lands weakened the stance of the Native Americans seems to fall flat, but for the value that white culture placed on individual property ownership. Private property ownership, or the pursuit of such, was thought by some contemporary philosophers to be one of the primary motivations of the developed human.[12] Living on communal land, then, further lessened the Native American in the eyes of white culture.

The Mohonk group set out to rescue Native Americans from Native culture, with Richard Henry Pratt at the helm with his Carlisle Indian Industrial Boarding School, to be funded and managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Pratt, who is the first person known to use the word ‘racism,’ was one of the Mohonk attendees.[13] His school, he believed, would help Native American children, by cutting their tribal ties, removing them from their cultural practices, and teaching them to be ‘civilized’ – which was code for ‘white’. American progressivism, says historian Christina Snyder, was “still shaped around ideas of whiteness,”[14] but ‘whiteness’ itself was a vaguely defined classification. For Pratt and his fellow Mohonks, whiteness was a culture to which Indians could be elevated, but the scientific community was in the grip of a different philosophy. For Daniel Brinton, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1895, whiteness was an inescapably superior anatomical classification, reserved primarily for Anglo-Saxons.[15]

Brinton’s work gave a convenient rationale to the pervasive cultural chauvinism that defined race relations at the turn of the century, but for the majority of the white American population, from which the administrators and teachers of the boarding schools came, the culture of white authority was largely unconscious. It would be decades before science would verify the tendency of people in power to abuse that power,[16] yet Pratt shows a certain amount of naiveté in thinking that boarding schools would be conducted without abuse to Indian children. By the time the schools were investigated in the 1920s (six years after the close of the Carlisle School), it was clear that wasn’t the case. A 1928 report, titled The Meriam Report, said, “Punishments of the most harmful sort are bestowed in sheer ignorance, often in a sincere attempt to be of help.”[17] The intention to help seems to have been consistent. The experience of the intent varied considerably.

“Most unsettling is the experience of reading an Indian autobiography and finding in the details of the individual’s life no mention of the federal policies that were supposedly the key determinants of Indian life,” observed Limerick.[18] Indian boarding schools are a striking exception to that observation. Narratives of abuse at the hands of school administrators shape the theme of survivors’ stories; instances of kind treatment are harder to find. In Don’t Let the Sun Step Over You, Apache Eva Tulene Watt recalls her, her mother’s, and her siblings’ attendance at multiple boarding schools, including one Fransiscan school, St. John’s Indian School and Mission near Laveen, Arizona. Watt also details her family’s experiences at the government-run schools they attended, at Rice Station and San Carlos, Arizona, and Pratt’s own Carlisle school in Pennsylvania. The stories contained in Watt’s narrative frequently compare the schools. Some were thought to be “good” because the children had enough to eat while they were there (Carlisle) or they got beaten less often (St. John’s). Watt tells, too, of the “children catcher,” who caught her brothers one summer, and took them to the school at San Carlos without notifying their parents.[19] It must have been horrifying for the parents whose children simply didn’t come home from playing, but the rationale is clear. The boarding schools were mandatory; the parents and the parents’ culture were precisely what the policy sought to cut from the children. The Bureau of Indian Affairs wasn’t concerned with the consent of the vanishing race.

It’s easy to look back at Pratt and his Mohonk contemporaries and condemn their beliefs as culturally chauvinistic, describing as they did the failings of Indian culture compared to white culture, but there are aspects of their stance that are morally commendable, even by modern standards. At a time when many of the governing people wanted to outright murder the Indians, reformers like Pratt wanted – truly – to help. His arguments for assimilation countered popular science that would have made it easy to ignore the fate of Indians. Attempting to save the lives of the individual Native Americans was, in the context of the times, admirable, and perhaps the only effective way to help at all. One imagines that anyone advocating for simply treating Indian nations as we would have treated European nations – honoring borders and treaties, for instance – would have been chided into obscurity, accomplishing nothing. This was the age of Emerson, the abolitionist who firmly believed in the superiority of his mythical White Race, which for him described only people of English ancestry.[20] Was there any other option, any alternative to assimilation or annihilation that could have succeeded politically?

Pratt himself faced constant challenge from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was then largely populated by those who thought off-reservation boarding schools wasteful. The disagreement between Pratt and the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ administration was not just a friendly philosophical difference of opinions. In 1886 the Superintendent of Schools under the Bureau’s control, John H. Oberly, threatened “to have [Pratt’s] scalp.”[21]

Eventually, Pratt’s philosophy of assimilation lost the confidence of the legislature, and the school was closed. The heyday of Indian Boarding Schools was over, though most lingered much longer than Carlisle.[22] The loss of legislative support was not in response to abuses in the schools, nor was it a shift toward a more helpful approach to the difficulties of Native Americans. Rather, it was a response to the rising public fear of ‘race-mixing,’ a social response to white fear of black and immigrant integration[23] that spilled across all the races. Assimilation became frightening to the electorate, and the legislature could not support any endeavors associated with it.

The pressure on Native Americans to be assimilated reduced, and may have even reversed in some ways, but that generation’s ties to family and culture were already damaged beyond repair.[24] The Indian Boarding Schools that remain in use have evolved into places that preserve and encourage Native culture, but they are still controversial to those involved in them. For those not involved, the schools are part of history, assumed to be closed. The nation has turned its attention away from the Native American. “Told so often that the Indians were vanishing, many Americans… assumed that it was true.”[25]



Brinton, Daniel. “The Aims of Anthropology.” Science 2, no. 35 (1895): 241-52.

“Carl Schurz.” Wikipedia. (accessed October 29, 2015).

“Carlisle Indian Industrial School.” Wikipedia. (accessed October 29, 2015).

Cave, Alfred A. “Abuse of Power: Andrew Jackson and the Indian Removal Act of 1830.” The Historian 65, no. 6 (December 2003): 1330-1353.

Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Demby, Gene. “The Ugly, Fascinating History of the Word Racism.” NPR. (accessed October 31, 2015).

“Historical Trauma.” About Healing and Justice. National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. (accessed November 4, 2015).

Leonard, Thomas C. “Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism: The Ambiguous Legacy of Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization71 (2009): 37-51.

“Letter from Richard H. Pratt to Cornelius R. Agnew.” Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center. Dickinson College. (accessed November 1, 2015).

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987.

Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.

Zimbardo, Philip. “Stanford Prison Experiment.” Social Psychology Network. (accessed November 2, 2015).



[1] William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 218.

[2] Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987), 210.

[3] Ibid., 196.

[4] Ibid., 196.

[5] “Carlisle Indian Industrial School,” Wikipedia, (accessed October 29, 2015).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Thomas C. Leonard, “Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism: The Ambiguous Legacy of Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought,” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 71 (2009): 37-51.

[8] Limerick, Legacy of Conquest, 197.

[9] Carl Schurz was the US Secretary of the Interior from 1876 to 1881; “Carl Schurz,” Wikipedia, (accessed October 29, 2015).

[10] Limerick, Legacy of Conquest, 197.

[11] The Indian Removal Program under President Andrew Jackson is described in Alfred A. Cave, “Abuse Of Power: Andrew Jackson And The Indian Removal Act Of 1830,” The Historian 65, no. 6 (December 2003): 1330-53.

[12] This idea was repeated by anthropologist Daniel Brinton, and is a paraphrase of John Stuart Mill’s ideas of human motivation; for more, see Daniel Brinton, “The Aims of Anthropology.” Science 2, no. 35 (1895): 251.

[13] Pratt’s use of ‘racism’ would come to be seen as ironic, because he was speaking against racism while lobbying for Indian Boarding Schools; Gene Demby, “The Ugly, Fascinating History of the Word Racism,” NPR, (accessed October 31, 2015).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 235-36.

[16] This was most famously demonstrated by the Stanford Prison experiment in 1971; for more, see Philip Zimbardo, “Stanford Prison Experiment,” Social Psychology Network, (accessed November 2, 2015).

[17] The report was named after it’s supervisor, Lewis Meriam; Charla Bear, “American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many,” NPR, (accessed November 2, 2015).

[18] Limerick, Legacy of Conquest, 195.

[19] Eva Tulene Watt and Keith H. Basso, Don’t Let the Sun Step Over You: A White Mountain Apache Family Life, 1860-1975 (Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 2004), 33-145.

[20] Painter, History of White People, 151-189.

[21] Pratt relayed this in a letter to his friend, Dr. Cornelius Agnew, dated March 27, 1886; Oberly was the Commissioner of the BIA from 1888 to 1889, but it’s unclear what years he was Superintendent of the School, except for his mention as that in Pratt’s letter. “Letter from Richard H. Pratt to Cornelius R. Agnew.” Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center, Dickinson College, (accessed November 1, 2015).

[22] Carlisle closed in 1914 as more schools opened in the western states, closer and therefore more convenient to the reservations. The proximity was important to the Bureau of Indian Affairs because it reduced transportation costs. There are still some of these schools open today, but they are conducted under a vastly different philosophy, which includes retaining Indian culture. Charla Bear, “American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many,” NPR,

[23] Painter, History of White People, 301.

[24] “Historical Trauma,” About Healing and Justice, National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, (accessed November 4, 2015).

[25] Limerick, Legacy of Conquest, 213.

Cochise’s war

Written April 8, 2016


The Apache Wars are well-known as the context behind Geronimo’s fame, and are often thought of as a continuous series of battles between Apaches and the United States. This is not wholly incorrect, but it presents an incomplete understanding of the events. In fact, the Apaches Wars might be more accurately thought of as two distinct wars, separated by a brittle two-year peace. The second – the one which made Geronimo famous in Anglo-American culture – spanned the decade between 1876 and 1886. The first, from 1861 to 1872, was Cochise’s War.

Cochise was born sometime between 1800 and 1810,[1] to the Chokonen, one of four bands of Chiricahua Apaches.[2] That was a time of relative peace; the Spanish had ended their war of extermination against the Apaches, and made peace by offering rations in exchange for an end to the Apache practice of raiding.[3] The Chokonen, like other Apaches, returned to raiding for sustenance when the Spanish hold over the region – and their rationing system with it – began to fail. Typically, Chokonen and other Apaches would raid in Sonora and Chihuahua, then return to their homes farther north, where there was nobody to raid from,[4] in what would become Arizona and New Mexico.[5]

After Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the new government abandoned the rationing system, leading to a sharp increase in raids by Apaches.[6] This change happened at approximately the same time Cochise reached adulthood and began participating in raids.[7] The increased raids were a nuisance to the young Mexican government; profitable mining settlements, like Santa Rita del Cobre, were vacated due to the lack of security.[8] In September 1835, the Mexican government in Sonora and Chihuahua began offering money in exchange for Apache scalps.[9] The resulting scalp-hunters served primarily to increase the animosity between Apaches and Mexicans. Apaches, previously unfamiliar with the practice of scalping, saw the act as a desecration of the dead, and began copying the practice as an act of retaliation.[10] Mexico’s scalps-for-money policy inflamed the violence in the region, which continued through the two and a half decades that Mexico controlled the area, despite occasional attempts at peace. In August of 1846, just months after the border dispute that started the Mexican-American War,[11] one event cemented Apache hatred for Mexicans: the massacre of 130 Chiricahua Apaches, including Cochise’s parents, by a scalp hunter.[12]

When the United States Army came to Apacheria early in the Mexican-American War, Chiricahua Apaches greeted them with offers of an alliance against their common enemies.[13] General Stephen Kearny was in charge of the invading force, and, upon entering Apacheria, he met with Mangas Coloradas, a well-connected chief of the Bedonkohe Chiricahua Apache.[14] Mangas Coloradas’ offer of friendship was not taken seriously by Kearny or the US government, and through the combination of racism and political expediency, Apaches were targeted by the rhetoric of the invading force. In his campaign across the Southwest, Kearny told Mexican inhabitants they would be protected from “Indian raiding”[15] – mostly Apaches – by his government. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War in 1848, included Article Eleven, which “enjoined the United States to protect Mexican borders against marauding Indians, which meant, mainly, Apaches, … to repatriate any captured Mexicans whom U.S. troops or officials might recapture, and to make it illegal for an American citizen to buy from the Indians any stolen Mexican property of any kind.”[16] The Chiricahua Apaches’ home, though, was still south of the American-Mexican border, and would remain so until 1854, when the Gasden Purchase placed the border in its modern location. Thus the U.S. Army was positioned to attempt to control the Apaches’ movements, even before the Chiricahua’s lands came into U.S. jurisdiction.[17]

Up until the mid-1850s, the Apaches’ territory had been largely untroubled by Anglo settlements. According to historian Eric Meeks, “When the region that would become Arizona was acquired by the United States, most of its territory remained under indigenous control. After decades of neglect by the newly independent nation of Mexico and renewed raids and resistance from the Apaches, only about one thousand Mexicans remained in the area.”[18] Cochise had grown up in a time when his people were undisputedly in control of their land, but following the Gasden Purchase, miners flooded the area.[19]

The influx of Anglos was a mixed blessing for the Chiricahua Apaches, including Cochise’s band. While the miners provided an eager outlet for the Apaches’ stolen goods, their settlements encroached on Apache lands and represented the threat of the United States’ westward expansion. The Chiricahua Apaches continued to focus their raiding in Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico, but raids provided a means of discouraging Anglo settlements north of the new border, too. By 1860, Cochise had earned a reputation in the region as a formidable Apache chief. When the Butterfield Overland Mail Company wanted to establish a route through Chokonen territory, Indian Agent Michael Steck sought out Cochise for an agreement to allow it.[20]

It’s no wonder, then, that Cochise’s name was the first on the settler John Ward’s lips when his son was kidnapped by Apaches. Cochise’s reputation made it understandable, if not reasonable, for the settler to believe that Cochise’s band was to blame. John Ward was a rancher who had settled in the Sonoita Valley, about twelve miles from Fort Buchanan. In January 1861, his ranch was raided by Coyotero Apaches.[21] The Coyoteros were a separate tribe from the Chiricahua, but although they lived north and west of Sonoita Valley,[22] their withdrawing tracks led eastward, toward the more infamous Cochise’s Chokonen territory. Ward reported the kidnapping to the garrison at Fort Buchanan, where Post Commander Lieutenant Colonel Morrison put the untried Second Lieutenant George Bascom in charge of recovering the boy. This was Bascom’s first command. He took fifty-four soldiers and John Ward with him to Apache Pass, where he hoped to intercept Cochise’s band. It’s worth noting that Bascom did not take with him anyone who could track the raiders. While he may have initially followed the tracks eastward, he persisted toward Apache Pass past the end of the visible trail.[23] Later, Bascom’s contemporaries and critics would remark on the “treachery”[24] that started the war; they would not be referring to Cochise.

Bascom took his soldiers to the Apache Pass Butterfield Overland Mail station, where he employed two local women, and then a Butterfield employee, to send invitations to Cochise. He indicated that his company was just passing through on their way to El Paso, and they wanted to simply meet with Cochise. When Cochise came to meet with Lieutenant Bascom, he was accompanied by women and children and clearly not expecting a fight. Bascom welcomed Cochise into his tent to talk, then accosted Cochise with the accusation of kidnapping. Cochise denied having taken the child but offered to help locate the band who had. The young lieutenant, perhaps thinking to show no weakness, escalated the situation by condemning Cochise’s assertions and attempting to take Cochise and his family members hostage until the Ward boy was returned. Cochise is famously said to have cut his way out of that tent with his knife and run for his life under a volley of bullets.

Cochise escaped that day, but his family members did not; thus ended the ‘Bascom Affair,’ and began the Apache Wars. That was February 1861. By March 1861, the Butterfield Overland Mail station at Apache Pass was abandoned.[25] In April 1861, the Army was called back east. It must have appeared to Cochise and the Chiricahuas as though they had won. But the Butterfield line was abandoned because Congress had decided it was untenable financially, and the Army was not retreating, but shifting to a more pressing matter, the Civil War. Only a year later, a Union Army unit returned to the Chiricahua’s territory, defeated Cochise’s band, and built Fort Bowie at Apache Pass. “There followed ten-plus years of war between the white settlers and the army on one side and the Chiricahuas on the other.”[26]

Captain Joseph Alton Sladen accompanied General Howard, who signed the 1872 treaty with Cochise and effectively ended Cochise’s War.[27] Captain Sladen kept notes of the peace talk proceedings, including his journey to find Cochise and his stay with the band, which lasted a few weeks. From Sladen’s notes, we learn that both General Howard and Cochise were prepared to go to some risk to achieve peace. The warrior and the soldier had had enough. In order to negotiate with Cochise, General Howard, a one-armed veteran of the Civil War,[28] had to leave the safety of his army and travel a significant distance with only his aide-de-camp (Captain Sladen), a guide named Jeffords who was already well known to Cochise, and two members of the Chiricahua tribe, Ponce and Chie.[29] The small group – particularly the two soldiers – were completely at Cochise’s mercy, as they were relatively alone and unarmed in the heart of Chiricahua territory. Sladen, concerned for their safety, asked General Howard why he put himself at such risk, putting himself at Cochise’s mercy as he did. Howard replied, “I can never see him [Cochise], unless I go where he is, and it is the only change to stop these murders and outrages, and I must take the chance.”[30]

The US Army had been fighting Cochise for over a decade and had made no real gains; they could not flush Cochise from his home with the resources they had, so their only hope was to make peace. It was a surrender of the United States Army and a victory for Cochise and his warriors. When the two soldiers finally met Cochise and stated their purpose – to negotiate peace – Cochise replied, “Nobody wants peace more than I do.”[31] General Howard, encouraged by this opening, pursued negotiations to move the Chiricahua tribe to a reservation in New Mexico. Cochise refused to move, saying instead that he would “protect the road to Tucson” in exchange for remaining in Apaches Pass in peace.[32] Eventually, General Howard backed down and agreed to Cochise’s terms.

The Apache War appeared to be over. Cochise’s War, as it turned out, certainly was over. The peace agreed to by Cochise and General Howard lasted until after Cochise’s death in 1874, only two years after their agreement. The peace brokered by these two men was brittle and eventually proved unequal to the economic and political forces that pushed the United States ever westward. Yet, Cochise can rightly be remembered as “arguably the only Native American leader to actually win his war with the United States of America.”[33]





Aleshire, Peter. Cochise: The Life and Times of the Great Apache Chief. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2005.

Blythe, Lance R. Chiricahua and Janos: Communities of Violence in the Southwest Borderlands, 1680-1880. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.

DeJong, David H. “’Advantageous to the Indians?’ The Overland Mail Routes and the Establishment of the Pima Indian Reservation, 1852-1860.” Journal of the West 45, no. 3 (Summer 2006): 17-33.

Dobyns, Henry F. Spanish Colonial Tucson: A Demographic History. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1976.

Lamar, Howard R. The Far Southwest 1846-1912: A Territorial History. Revised edition. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.

Meeks, Eric V. Border Citizens: The Making of Indians, Mexicans, and Anglos in Arizona. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2007.

Mort, Terry. The Wrath of Cochise: The Bascom Affair and the Origins of the Apache Wars. New York: Pegasus Books, 2013.

Sheridan, Thomas E. Arizona: A History. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2012.

Sladen, Joseph Alton. Making Peace with Cochise, Chief of Chiricaua Indians: 1872. Compiled by J. A. Cranston. Vancouver Barracks, WA, 1896.



[1] Peter Aleshire, Cochise: The Life and Times of the Great Apache Chief (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2005), ix.

[2] Aleshire, Cochise, 13.

[3] Henry F. Dobyns, Spanish Colonial Tucson: A Demographic History (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1976), 98.

[4] Thomas E. Sheridan, Arizona: A History (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2012), 64 & 69.

[5] Aleshire, Cochise, 39.

[6] Lance R. Blythe, Chiricahua and Janos: Communities of Violence in the Southwest Borderlands, 1680-1880 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), 116.

[7] Aleshire, Cochise, 38. Indeed, Cochise would have been between 11 and 21 years old in 1821, and Chiricahua Apache boys began participating in raids at age 15, as a rite of passage into manhood; Terry Mort, The Wrath of Cochise: The Bascom Affair and the Origins of the Apache Wars (New York: Pegasus Books, 2013), 99.

[8] Sheridan, Arizona, 20.

[9] Aleshire, Cochise, 46.

[10] Ibid., 46.

[11] Sheridan, Arizona, 18.

[12] Aleshire, Cochise, 62; Sheridan, Arizona, 67-68.

[13] Sheridan, Arizona, 68.

[14] Mangas Coloradas was a strong strategist and politician; historian Thomas Sheridan notes that, “Like a European monarch, Mangas Coloradas wove a web of marital alliances from northern Arizona to Chihuahua” (67). One of these alliances was with the Chokonen Chiricahua Apaches, through the marriage of one of Mangas Coloradas’ daughters to Cochise, who would later become the Chokonen chief. Ibid., 67-68.

[15] Ibid., 20.

[16] Sheridan, Arizona, 25.

[17] The Gasden Purchase also nullified Article Eleven of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which had proven unenforceable. Mort, Wrath of Cochise, 54.

[18] Eric V. Meeks, Border Citizens: The Making of Indians, Mexicans, and Anglos in Arizona (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2007), 18.

[19] Mort, Wrath of Cochise, 55.

[20] The agreement between Steck and Cochise is mentioned by Howard R. Lamar, in The Far Southwest, 381. Lamar seems to imply that there was an official agreement; Howard R. Lamar, The Far Southwest, 1846-1912: A Territorial History, Revised edition (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2000): 381. Further detail on this agreement is discussed by Terry Mort, in Wrath of Cochise, who asserts that the agreement was “probably tacit;” Mort, Wrath of Cochise, 10-12.

[21] Mort 2013, 229.

[22] Ibid., 33.

[23] Ibid., 230-235.

[24] Captain Sladen, a contemporary of Bascom, wrote an account of the peace talks between General Howard and Cochise which would happen in 1872; in his account, he repeatedly refers to Bascom’s “treachery” and “treacherous behavior,” clearly indicating a distaste for the young officer’s miscalculations; Joseph Alton Sladen, Making Peace with Cochise, Chief of Chiricaua Indians: 1872, compiled by J.A. Cranston (Vancouver Barracks, WA, 1896). Mort also discusses the common view by historians of Bascom as a bit – or more – of a fool; Mort, Wrath of Cochise, 9.

[25] David H. DeJong, “’Advantageous to the Indians?’ The Overland Mail Routes and the Establishment of the Pima Indian Reservation, 1852-1860,” Journal of the West 45, no. 3 (Summer 2006), 21.

[26] Mort, Wrath of Cochise, 292.

[27] Sladen, Making Peace, 1.

[28] Mort, Wrath of Cochise, 292.

[29] The edition of Captain Sladen’s account used in the research for this essay is a facsimile of the 1896 printing, which is illegible in select areas; the word “Chie” was consistently marred, and may be a misspelling. The name could also have been Ohio, Chio, or Ohie; Sladen, Making Peace, 5.

[30] Ibid., 21.

[31] Sladen, Making Peace, 28; this is a translation. Sladen notes that Cochise could speak Spanish, but was perhaps uncomfortable with his fluency. Cochise would speak Apache to his interpreter, who would then repeat the chief’s words in Spanish. Cochise would make any corrections to the Spanish translation, then the interpreter would translate that into English.

[32] Ibid., 29; “Pass” is the most likely word that Sladen used in his quotation of Cochise. The account reads “’Give me,’ said he [Cochise], ‘Apache [illegible – four letters] for my people and I will protect the road to Tucson.’” The conventional name for the area in question is Apache Pass.

[33] Aleshire, Cochise, ix.