The Bascom Incident
In her book, Chains of Command: Arizona and the Army, 1856-1875, Constance Altshuler published a detailed study of the activities of the U.S. Army in Arizona, using military records from the National Archives and other primary source material. Her study of the Bascom Incident of 1861, “the most famous incident of the pre-Territorial period, though in wildly distorted versions,” is based on a careful investigation of contemporary military and historical sources which allow her both to correct the errors in the legendary account and to pinpoint the source of the misinformation*. Altshuler concludes that the legend was repeated so often that “the story became so deeply embedded in Arizona folklore it probably cannot be dislodged although point by point its implausibility is demonstrable.” In the interest of truth, let’s consider her reconstruction of these critical events.
First Altshuler gives a concise account of the events as reported soon afterward by those who were actually there:
In the fall of 1860 the Apaches began to kill wantonly instead of for gain. According to contemporary explanation, that summer a trader, or traders, sold them guns. Descriptions of several slayings suggested target practice–shots from ambush with no opportunity to rob the body of the victim. Morrison [commander of Fort Buchanan] ignored the mounting incidence of murder. He did not order pursuit of Apaches who killed a man on the post. One depredation he could not overlook; this single sortie against Indians gave rise to what became the most famous incident of the pre-Territorial period, though in wildly distorted versions.
On January 27, 1861, Indians raided John Ward’s ranch on Sonoita Creek, abducting Ward’s stepson and stealing cattle. Morrison sent Company C to rescue the boy and recover the stock. The captain was on leave and the first lieutenant on detached service so Second Lieutenant George Bascom commanded.
A preliminary scout tracked the depredators toward Apache Pass. Bascom went to that point, camping near the Overland Mail stage station. He invited Cochise to a meeting, held the next day, February 4. When Bascom asked for return of the captive and the stolen cattle, Cochise said Coyoteros had committed the depredation. If Bascom would wait at Apache Pass, Cochise would negotiate for the return of the boy. Somehow Bascom thought he needed hostages. He seized the Chiricahuas with Cochise–three men, a woman and two boys. According to the only civilian account, Cochise “effected his escape after a desperate rush through the guard while the soldiers were securing the others.” This inference came from Cochise’s swift departure. No military report mentioned an escape and Bascom had no reason to hold his envoy to the Coyoteros. But taking hostages ended all hope for negotiations.
The next day Cochise with Francisco, a Coyotero chief, and a few men approached, bearing a truce flag. Bascom started to meet them; then, suspecting treachery, he returned to the station. Three men of the Overland Mail went out, relying on previous friendship with Cochise. The Apaches killed one man and wounded another, who managed to reach the safety of the station. They captured the third, stage-driver James Wallace. On February 6, Cochise offered to exchange Wallace and 16 government mules for the Chiricahuas. Bascom wanted the kidnapped boy also. That evening a note came from Wallace, saying the Indians held three other prisoners and the next day would bring in all captives for an exchange. The additional three came from a wagon train attacked on the 6th; 11 men with the train died by torture. Also on the 6th the westbound stage arrived several hours early, escaping an ambush where hay was spread on the road ready to be set afire. Indians attacked the eastbound stage, wounded the driver and killed a mule. Passengers cut the dead mule from the traces and brought the stage to Apache Pass early in the morning of the 7th.
No report again mentioned the proposed prisoner exchange. Instead, on the 8th Indians attacked a party watering animals at the spring, wounded several soldiers and killed a civilian. Bascom had already sent to Buchanan for Dr. B.J.D. Irwin who left the post with an escort. On the way Irwin caught three Coyoteros depredating. He arrived February 10, bringing these Indians as prisoners.
Lieutenant Moore, at Fort Breckenridge, learned of the events. He and Lieutenant Lord, with both dragoon companies, reached the scene February 14. (Morrison sent no message to Breckenridge until the 15th.) As the troops approached, the Indians vanished. Moore scouted for several days, finding no Apaches but discovering the mutilated bodies of Wallace and five other captives. Six Indians were hanged in reprisal–Irwin’s three prisoners and the three men among Bascom’s hostages. (The woman and two boys were taken to Buchanan and later released.)
This is what happened according to the men who were there. The officers wrote reports. The civilian, an Overland Mail employee who took a message to Tucson, talked to a newspaper correspondent. Only one discrepancy existed among their accounts. The civilian, unaware of negotiations expected with the Coyoteros, saw Cochise’s departure as an escape. (CC, 14-16)
So much for the actual event. From there the story grows by leaps and bounds, especially as embellished by Reuben Bernard in 1868.
According to this story, on February 8 Cochise brought James Wallace to the stage station, making a final offer to exchange him for the Chiricahua hostages. Bascom refused unless the boy were included. Bernard objected to this decision so forcefully that he was later court-martialed. Within view of the station Wallace was dragged to death behind Cochise’s horse.
Wallace did not die in that manner but the story became so deeply embedded in Arizona folklore it probably cannot be dislodged although point by point its implausibility is demonstrable. Bascom commanded 54 infantrymen from [Fort] Buchanan. Bernard was a dragoon stationed at [Fort] Breckenridge, and he may not have been at Apache Pass at all. Both Moore and Lord went to Bascom’s aid . . .
This tale of the wise sergeant and the stupid lieutenant made Bascom the only officer present on February 8. Credibility hinges on that point. But Lieutenant John R. Cooke arrived in the early hours of February 7 on the eastbound stage; in his reports Bascom expressed gratitude to Cooke for advice and assistance. Then, if any sergeant counseled Bascom, he did so in the presence of an officer born in the army, the son of Colonel Philip St. George Cooke. A sergeant’s advice is credible, but not its expression in terms breaching discipline.
Finally, the alleged offense would have been tried before a General Court Martial appointed by the Department commander. No such court convened between the time of the Apache Pass incident and January 5, 1862, when at Fort Craig, New Mexico, Bernard received a commission. Charges could not have been pending against him.
One element in the story is that Cochise was friendly until Bascom’s actions made him vow vengeance against Americans. This makes the legend easy to trace. No reference to Cochise’s motivation appeared in letters of the California Volunteers who came to Arizona in 1862. Lieutenant Colonel Nelson Davis, Assistant Inspector General, included intelligence information in his reports and for this he collected local gossip. His letters from Tucson in 1864 discussed Cochise without mentioning the Bascom incident. If Cochise had vowed vengeance, Tucsonans did not know it. Correspondence of the 14th Infantry, which arrived in 1866, showed similar ignorance.
Bernard, now a 1st Cavalry captain, returned to Tucson December 4. 1868, to command Camp Lowell. The post-war influx created a population unfamiliar with earlier events, and Bernard could enlighten them. He distorted the episode at Apache Pass, but what raconteur could resist a spell-bound audience? The dramatic story spread. Suddenly everyone knew that Cochise depredated purely for vengeance.
Tucson was then headquarters of District of Arizona commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Devin, who had arrived only three months earlier. Devin’s report of January 25, 1869, contained the remarkable assertion that Cochise guarded the road for the Overland Mail “before the attempt to take him prisoner caused him to make war.” Here is the first statement of the revenge motif, eight years after the fact. From this time on military correspondence said Cochise was peaceful before 1860. Not only did the time of Bernard’s arrival point to him as the probable source, but he made the same dating error. In 1869 he wrote: “One of the worst Indians now on this continent is Coches. This Indian was always at peace with the whites until 1860 when he and his family were invited to dine with an officer of the Army, who had his company ready to arrest him for the purpose of keeping him as a hostage for the return of a boy stolen by the Pinals.” Bernard did not know that Cochise had implicated Coyoteros in the kidnapping. (CC, 17-18)
Upon his return to Fort Buchanan, Bascom filed his report and was commended for his handling of the mission. In October, 1861, he was promoted to Captain with the 16th Infantry. On February 21, 1862, he died fighting for the Union at the Civil War Battle of Valverde in New Mexico. Fort Bascom on the Canadian River in New Mexico was named in his honor.
Altshuler sums up as follows:
This is not meant to imply that Bascom’s actions were above criticism. But the sensational elaborations which distorted the story have also distorted its importance. To attribute Cochise’s actions for the next ten years to this single incident seems both simplistic and patronizing….
From everything known about Cochise, he was a man of remarkable intelligence. He studied his enemy and he learned from experience. Perhaps later events were influenced less by what happened at Apache Pass than by this astute man’s observation that if those who used the road could be driven out, the other intruders would follow.
(Hesperian Letters, 226-7)
The kidnapped boy was not recovered but made his reappearance as an adult, Mickey Free, who served as a scout, guide and interpreter to the U.S. Army during the Geronimo campaigns of the 1880s.
It is difficult to isolate the effects of the “Bascom Affair” on Apache-American relations, since the incident took place at the same time as the outbreak of the Civil War. The prospect of war caused the hasty withdrawal of almost all Federal troops from the frontier territory and created a vacuum which the warlike Apaches were quick to fill. From the Apache point of view things must have seemed to be going even better than expected. They knew nothing of the fact that a Congress in Washington DC had transferred the Overland Mail to the central route across Nevada and Utah. They could not help but notice all the mules, horses and wagons being hastily removed. And soon the soldiers were following! Orders from Washington withdrew troops from Fort Buchanan and Fort Breckenridge. Both forts were burned. Settlers on the Sonoita were given three days notice before the troops left and many civilians decided to take advantage of the military escort. Tubac was evacuated in August 1861. Apart from Tucson the only non-Indian habitation in the area was Sylvester Mowry’s personal fortress at the Patagonia Mine.
Altshuler’s view is given additional confirmation by the fact that J. Ross Browne in 1864 described the unhappy conditions in Arizona as follows:
The rebellion broke out in April, 1861. The Butterfield overland mail line was stopped at the same time, in view of the dangers that threatened it; and an act of Congress was passed changing the route. During the month of July the only Federal troops in the Territory shamefully and without cause abandoned it, and marched from Forts Breckenridge and Buchanan to Cook’s Springs, where they heard the Texan rebels were coming. Without waiting to ascertain the number or prepare for any defense, they burned all their wagons, spiked their cannon, and packed their provisions on mules over the mountains to Fort Craig. There were four companies, numbering altogether four hundred and fifty men.
The hostile Indians, ignorant of our domestic disturbance, believed they had at length stampeded the entire white population. On the public highways they fell upon small parties and slaughtered them. It was their boast, and is still their belief, that they had conquered the American nation. The Sonoranians, greedy for plunder, rushed in from the borders by hundreds, and commenced ransacking the mines, stealing the machinery, and murdering the few employees that remained. At Tubac, the headquarters of the Arizona Mining Company, the Apaches besieged the town on one side, while the Sonoranians lurked in the bushes on the other. Twenty men held it for three days, and finally escaped under cover of night. There was nothing left. The troops had burned all the stores, provisions, and groceries, public and private, that they could lay hands upon; tore down the mill at Tucson; burned the Canoa; and destroyed government stores at Breckinridge and Buchanan worth probably half a million of dollars. Treason, cowardice, or incompetency must have been the cause of these disgraceful proceedings. There was no satisfactory reason, that can now be seen, why they should have so precipitately evacuated the Territory, and yielded peaceful possession to the enemies of the Federal government.
Browne visited Tucson in 1864 and gossiped with everybody there, including the soldiers of the California Column. He learned of the murder by the Apaches of J.B. Mills and Edwin Stevens, and he visited the site of the subsequent attack by those same Indians on Sam Butterworth and his party. If Browne had been told the tale of the”revenge of Cochise,” he certainly would have repeated it; as it is he vehemently condemns the Union Army for abandoning the citizens they were supposed to be protecting, destroying all the supplies of the area, and taking to their heels in panicky flight.
For later events at this strategic location see The Battle of Apache Pass and Fort Bowie
* Quotations from works by Constance Altshuler are cited in the text with the abbreviations listed below.
CC : Chains of Command: Arizona and the Army, 1856-1875, Constance Wynn Altshuler (Tucson: The Arizona Historical Society, 1981).
HL : Latest from Arizona! The Hesperian Letters, 1859-1861, ed. Constance Wynn Altshuler (Tucson: Arizona Pioneers’ Historical Society, 1969).
Altshuler, Constance Wynn. Chains of Command: Arizona and the Army, 1856-1875.Tucson: The Arizona Historical Society, 1981.
____________________ (editor). Latest from Arizona: The Hesperian Letters, 1859-1861. Tucson: Arizona Pioneers Historical Society, 1969.
Browne, J. Ross. Adventures in the Apache Country: A Tour through Arizona and Sonora, 1864. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1871.
Sacks, B. “New Evidence on the Bascom Affair,” Arizona and the West, volume 4 (Autumn, 1962), pp. 261-78.