February 4, 2002

Cochise: Cut Through the Tent Incident


The chain of events began the prior October, with an attack on the ranch of John Ward, in the Sonoita Valley about 12 miles from Fort Buchanan, the first American fort in the Gadsden Purchase territory, established in 1857. At the time of this affair, Buchanan was home to Companies C and H of the 7th Infantry.

Ward was away from his ranch at the time, and when he returned, discovered that cattle and his 11- or 12-year-old stepson, Felix Ward, were missing. He reported the event to authorities at Fort Buchanan.

Ward apparently reported that the theft was the work of Cochise, who was known to have a camp about 70 miles east in the Chiricahua Mountains.

Lt. Col. Pitcairn Morrison took over Buchanan that October, bringing two companies of the 7th Infantry. Morrison was an experienced officer, having held his commission since 1820.

At the time of the report, the raiders of Ward’s ranch were trailed eastward, to the San Pedro River. But for an unknown reason, perhaps lack of troops, the Army chose not to act further on the theft and kidnapping at Ward’s ranch until the following year.

On Jan. 28, 1861, Morrison ordered 2nd Lt. George Nicholas Bascom, with a troop that probably consisted of 54 infantry, on mules, to visit Cochise’s camp at Apache Pass to recover the stock and the boy.

Bascom, then about 24, was a Kentuckian by birth. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1858, 26th in a class of 27. He had served in Utah before being assigned to Fort Buchanan in October 1860.

Charles D. Poston, also a Kentuckian, who was in southern Arizona at the time of these events, remembered the young lieutenant: “Bascom was a fine-looking fellow, a Kentuckian, a West Pointer, and of course, a gentleman; but he was unfortunately a fool . . .”

Though Bascom’s orders from Morrison have not been recovered by researchers, a recollection of the event by a fellow officer and surgeon, Bernard S.D. Irwin (who was to be awarded the Medal of Honor for his role in relieving Bascom’s command at Apache Pass) recalled that “Bascom was ordered to demand the immediate restoration of the stolen property, and in case Cochise should fail to make restitution, the officer was authorized to use the force under his orders to recover it.”

With such orders in hand, Bascom set out from Buchanan Jan. 29. Post returns said he left that day with 54 enlisted men. Accompanying them was Antonio, an interpreter, and John Ward, who many believed was worried mostly about his livestock. Poston (who later had himself proclaimed the “father of Arizona”) reported that Ward had been driven out of California by a vigilance committee. Thomas Farish, in his 1915 history of Arizona, referred to Ward as, “in all respects, a worthless character.”

Bascom’s infantry probably arrived at Apache Pass on Feb. 3 or 4. (Due to lack of documentation, much of the chronology of this event is imprecise.) Apache Pass was a route between the Chiricahua Mountains and the Dragoon Mountains that hosted fresh water (Apache Spring) and as such was a stopping point on the Butterfield Overland Stage Company route. (Note that Fort Bowie would not be constructed at this strategic pass until July 1862.)

Bascom lays his trap

Upon arriving at Apache Pass, Bascom went to the stage station, telling station keeper Charles W. Culver he was headed for the Rio Grande. Also present at the station were a man named Walsh (no first name available), the assistant station keeper, and James F. Wallace, a stage driver.

After the men and mules drank, Bascom headed northeast along the road to Siphon Canyon, and about three-fourths of a mile from the station made camp.

Enter Cochise. At this time, he was on friendly terms with most Americans, limiting the raiding of his group mostly to Mexico, where the enmity dated back decades. Cochise had a contract with Butterfield to provide firewood to the station.

Seeing the troops stop and move along, Cochise went in to inquire about the military activity, and was told that Bascom was headed to the Rio Grande, just as the young lieutenant wanted. The chief brought along a brother, two nephews, a woman and one or two children.

Cochise and his family proceeded to Bascom’s camp to talk. They ended up in Bascom’s tent, perhaps for food and coffee. In the tent were Bascom, Ward and Antonio. Ward apparently left the tent at this time to tell the soldiers to surround it.

After the informalities, Bascom made his demand of Cochise – that he return Ward’s stock and his boy.

“Ca-Chis, the chief denied having taken him but promised to get him if I would wait 10 days,” Bascom wrote in a report dated Feb. 14.

Cochise apparently indicated to Bascom that the boy was taken by the Coyotero band, and that he would attempt to negotiate for the boy’s release.

Bascom told Cochise that he would hold those Apaches who had entered the tent hostage until the boy and the cattle were returned.

Controversy continues to rage over whether Bascom endeavored to hold Cochise hostage as well.

None of the three persons who reported the conversation between Bascom and Cochise was present in the tent that day. Irwin wouldn’t arrive for several days from Fort Buchanan. Sgt. Reuben Bernard says he was there, having accompanied Bascom, along with a dozen dragoons, from Buchanan, but no one else mentions his presence and post records indicate he came to Apache Pass later with a troop from Fort Breckenridge.

The Cut Through the Tent Incident

The most colorful version is from William Sanders Oury, agent for Butterfield in Tucson, who also arrived later, at the same time Bernard is supposed by historians to have arrived.

Cochise “sprang like a tiger.”

Antonio translated Bascom’s demand. Oury wrote in 1877, that “the words were scarcely out of Antonio’s mouth when Cochise sprang like a tiger, at the same time drawing his sheath knife with which he made a rent in the tent, and his head followed the stroke of the knife, he landed outside amongst the astonished soldiers, who being recruits with no Indian experience let him escape in a flurry . . . .”

As Cochise vanished up a hill, the soldiers fired “50 or more shots at him,” Oury wrote, but the chief vanished unhurt.

Some historians question whether Bascom ever meant to hold Cochise, but Apache oral history is based on his James Bond-like escape.

One story says Cochise moved so fast that when he reached the top of the hill, he still had his coffee cup in hand. The story didn’t relate whether it was still filled.

Jason Betzinez, whose life story was told as “I Fought with Geronimo,” recalled the story much as Oury told it. He said “this affair became known to the Apaches as ‘Cut Through the Tent.’

On account of the circumstances it aroused much indignation and interest even on the part of the Apaches of bands distant from the Chiricahua country.

I have heard my parents as well as others discuss it many a time.” Betzinez was born about the time of the affair.

Another Apache, Asa Daklugie, whose oral history is recorded in the book “Indeh: An Apache Odyssey,” tells much the same story.

Another of the Apaches attempted to follow Cochise, but was too slow. A soldier knocked him down with a musket barrel and pinned him via a bayonet through the stomach.

Assistant Surgeon Irwin, who was summoned to Apache Pass to care for subsequent wounds of soldiers, reported that the bayonet passed “through his abdomen without wounding his viscera, as evinced by his speedy recovery and his ability to walk with other prisoners a mile and a half to the place of execution.”

This Apache’s name was never recorded.

After Cochise cut through the tent, Bascom moved his troops back to the stage station, seeking protection of its stone walls.

The following morning (Feb. 5), Cochise appeared with a white flag. Whether he ever had a chance to talk with Bascom is unclear: Bascom’s official report contradicted his preliminary report.

Cochise brings flag of truce

Bascom wrote Feb. 14 that Cochise returned the day after their first meeting, “accompanied by Francisco chief of the Coyoteros and a flag of truce; whilst I was holding the talks with them they cut off and made prisoners of two Overland mailmen who left the station at the time.”

After returning to Ft. Buchanan, Bascom wrote his official report, dated Feb. 25. By that time, he decided he shouldn’t say that he had talked with Cochise a second time: “I went out to talk with them, but when about 150 yards from the house I began to suspect from their actions that all was not right and refused to go further . . . .”

Apparently a discussion between Cochise and Bascom did take place that day, however.

The three Butterfield men, led by Wallace, who spoke Apache, went out to the discussion site to lend their assistance to the green officer.

When the talks broke off, for whatever reason, Cochise captured Wallace.

Culver and Walsh broke free and ran back to the station. As Culver reached the front door, he was struck by a bullet, probably Apache, which left him badly wounded.

Walsh ran to the stone corral. Hearing gunfire, one or more soldiers saw Walsh’s approach, mistook him for an Apache and opened fire. A bullet struck Walsh in the head, killing the assistant station keeper instantly.

Bascom’s final report was sketchy on these details: “Mr. Culver, one of the captured men, in making his escape, was severely wounded & one of the station keepers killed.”

Wagon train captured

That evening, Cochise captured a train of five or nine wagons coming into Apache Pass from the west. It was run by eight Mexicans and two Americans, the latter named Jordan and Lyons.

Due to the Apaches’ long-standing hatred of Mexicans, those men were lashed to the wagon wheels and burned. The two Americans became further bargaining chips.

The next day (Feb. 6), Cochise returned to the station and offered to exchange the three men and some mules for his family.

The soldiers watched as Cochise drove a stake into the ground. On the stake was a note containing the exchange offer. “Treat my people well,” Cochise had instructed Wallace to write, “and I will do the same by yours, of whom I have three.”

This was the first Bascom knew of the capture of Jordan and Lyons.

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