No, this isn’t a photo of Cochise. It’s Jeff Chandler, the Brooklyn-born actor who played the great Apache chief in three different movies, winning an Oscar nomination for his portrayal in the 1950 film, BROKEN ARROW. No photograph of the real Cochise exists. But accounts of the time describe him as tall and handsome with a fiercely majestic presence. At a time when Native Americans were commonly played by white actors, Chandler (who was 6’ 5” and Jewish) did a first class job. The scene where James Stewart walks into the Apache camp and Cochise, played by Chandler, first steps into sight, is pure goose bump material.
The real Cochise was born some time between 1812 and 1815, most likely in the Chiricahua Mountains of what is now southern Arizona. By 1835 he was leading raids against the Apaches’ traditional enemies, the Mexicans. His ferocity in battle and his chiefly bearing soon made him a leader among his people.
Cochise tolerated the growing presence of Americans in his territory until an incident in 1861. A rancher had lost some cattle and his half-Mexican son. The local army commander summoned Cochise to his tent. Cochise came with his wife and son, his brother and several nephews. Cochise, who was innocent, was accused of the crime. When the soldiers tried to arrest him, he drew a knife, slashed the tent and escaped.The soldiers held Cochise’s family hostage. To ransom them, Cochise kidnapped four men from a stagecoach station. Believing that his family had been killed, Cochise tortured and killed his captives. In retaliation, the soldiers killed his brother and nephews, who were still prisoners. Cochise’s wife and son were released, but the damage was done. Throughout the 1860’s Cochise made war on the Americans, raiding, killing, striking terror into the hearts of settlers and outwitting the army at every turn. When his father-in-law, the great Mangas Coloradas, was murdered by whites, who removed his head and sent it back East, Cochise’s rage reached new heights. By the end of the decade Cochise was the most feared Indian in America.
Enter a new player in this drama. Mail supervisor Thomas Jeffords was the one white man Cochise respected and trusted. Their friendship is one of the greatest legends of the West. Through a series of events, Jeffords managed to arrange a meeting between Cochise and General Howard, known for his fairness toward the Indians. A treaty was arranged, which gave the Apaches a reservation in their beloved mountains and named Cochise’s friend Jeffords as the reservation agent.
Jeffords, shown here, was played in the film BROKEN ARROW by James Stewart. The romance between Jeffords and the Apache girl, played by Debra Paget, was entirely fictional. But the rest of the story is mostly true.
Cochise honored the treaty to the end of his days and died in his sixties of natural causes. His grave has never been found. His eldest son Taza, who followed him as tribal leader, also walked the path of peace. He died of pneumonia on a visit to Washington DC in 1876. Cochise’s younger son Naiche and his warrior daughter Lozen continued the fight for freedom alongside another Apache leader who, in my estimation, was even more fascinating than Cochise. But that’s a story for next time.
Who is your favorite Native American character, in film, fiction or history? What do you think of the way Native Americans are portrayed in movies? I’m very interested in your opinions.