1861: The Bascom Affair hangings, Apache War triggers

Add comment February 19th, 2015 Headsman

The retaliatory executions a U.S. Army lieutenant carried out on this date in 1861 helped set in motion a decade-long war with the Apaches.

Three years out of West Point and brand new to Arizona’s Fort Buchanan, George Bascom in retrospect was probably not the ideal ambassador to send out with orders to retrieve a young half-Apache boy kidnapped from a ranch by an Indian raid. (Along with all the cattle.)

Since nobody was present at the time, the identity of the raiders just wasn’t known — but someone’s suspicions affixed on the wily and dangerous* Chiricahua warrior Cochise. The Chiriachuas were just one group among the Apache peoples; they ranged from Mexico to southeastern New Mexico and southwestern Arizona, and were divided into many small local groups each with their own leader — like Cochise.

Lt. Bascom would be killed in a Civil War engagement a year after the events in this post without leaving posterity his memoirs, so his understanding of Apache society can only be guessed at. But his on-the-make bullheadedness is universal to every time and place where young men can be found. “Bascom was a fine-looking fellow, a Kentuckian, a West Pointer, and of course a gentleman,” Arizona frontiersman Charles Poston later remembered. “But he was unfortunately a fool.”


Lt. Bascom and Cochise.

The greenhorn lieutenant rode out with 54 cavalrymen to Apache Pass and lured Cochise to a confabulation. Cochise showed up with his brother, wife, and children — clearly expecting some sort of social call.

Cochise was entirely unaware of the kidnapping, and unaware that Bascom considered him the kidnapper. He offered to find out about it and retrieve the boy from whomever had him.

Bascom, whose troops had surrounded the tent during the parley, accused Cochise of lying to him. Cochise had twice the impertinent lieutnant’s years and at least that multiple of Bascom’s sense, and must have been affronted by his opposite number’s behavior — but when Bascom announced that he would be taking Cochise and his companions as prisoners pending the return of the raiders’ spoils, the Apache commander whipped a knife out of its sheath and instantly slashed his escape route through the wall of the tent. Bursting past the shocked troops (they were as inexperienced as their officer), Cochise escaped into the twilight. This “Bascom Affair” (to Anglos) is remembered more evocatively by Apaches as “Cut Through The Tent”.

But the tent-knifing was only the start of it.

Cochise’s party did not manage to follow his escape, so Bascom now held Cochise’s brother, wife, son, and two other warriors. The Apache tried to put himself in a negotiating position by seizing hostages of his own — first a Butterfield stagecoach stationmaster named Wallace, and later three white men seized from a passing wagon train.

Nor were the hostages’ the only lives at stake. Cochise’s band, including the soon-to-be-legendary Geronimo, had assembled and their campfires burned menacingly in the hills around the little stage station where Bascom’s force fortified themselves. Bascom could have defused it all with a hostage swap, but the kid had his orders and stubbornly refused to make the trade unless it included the one hostage Cochise didn’t have: that little boy from the ranch.

At length, reinforcements for the beleaguered cavalry began arriving, one such party bringing three other Apaches captured en route and entirely unrelated to Cochise. “Troops were sent out to search for us,” a much older Geronimo recalled in his memoirs. “But as we had disbanded, it was, of course, impossible for them to locate any hostile camp … while they searched we watched them from our hiding places and laughed at their failures.”

Despairing now of seeing his family again, Cochise had his hostages killed and dispersed, leaving the mutilated remains to be discovered by his antagonists with the help of circling buzzards. When they did so, they retaliated in fury — releasing only Cochise’s wife and child, but hanging the six other hostages, including Cochise’s brother. In the narration of Sgt. Daniel Robinson,

After witnessing the fiendish acts committed by the Apaches, the minds of our officers and men were filled with horror, and in retaliation, it was decided in Council, that the captive Indians should die. On the 19th we broke camp to return to our respective posts leaving a Sergeant and eight men to take charge of the station until relieved. We halted about half a mile from the station where there was a little grove of Cedar trees. The Indians were brought to the front with their hands tied behind their backs, and led up to the trees. Noosed picket ropes were placed around their necks, the ends thrown over the limbs of the trees and manned by an equal number of willing hands. A signal was given and away flew the spirits of the unfortunate Indians — not to the happy hunting grounds of Indian tradition. According to their ideas or belief in a hereafter, those who die by hanging can never reach that region of bliss. I was in an ambulance with the other Sergeant, and must confess it was a sad spectacle to look upon. An illustration of the Indians sense of Justice: “That the innocent must suffer for the guilty.” And the white man’s notion — “That the only good Indians are dead ones.” Whatever it may be, I do not think it was much worse than the present policy of penning them up on Reservations and starving them to death. (See Cochise: Firsthand Accounts of the Chiricahua Apache Chief.)

A devastating decade-long war against Cochise and his equally able father-in-law Mangas Coloradas ensued, and right when the army most needed its military resources for the Civil War. The conflict claimed hundreds or thousands of lives, crippled mining and ranching, and depopulated fearful white settlements around Apache country in favor of “gravestones … by the road-side like sentinels, bearing the invariable description ‘Killed by the Apaches'”.

A fort near the Texas border was later named for Bascom. The kidnapped boy was never recovered and grew up in a different Apache tribe.

The events of, and following, the Bascom Affair were depicted on the silver screen in the 1950 Jimmy Stewart western Broken Arrow and its 1952 prequel Battle at Apache Pass — among many other cinematic adaptations.


Tom Jeffords (Jimmy Stewart): “Cochise didn’t start this war! A snooty little lieutenant fresh out of the east started it. He flew a flag of truce which Cochise honored, and then he hanged Cochise’s brother and five others under the flag.”

* Cochise was officially at peace with the Americans at this point and hostile to Mexicans. In “Cochise: Apache War Leader, 1858-1861,” in the Journal of Arizona History (Spring 1965), Barbara Ann Tyler argues that the reality of the situation was that his warband flexibly shifted between temporary peace and opportunistic small raids, moving north and south of the Mexican border as convenient.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gibbeted,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Hostages,Kidnapping,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Soldiers,Summary Executions,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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1863: Mangas Coloradas, Apache leader

4 comments January 18th, 2013 Headsman

One hundred and fifty years ago, day to day,* the Apache chief Dasoda-hae — better known as Mangas Coloradas, “red sleeves” — was extrajudicially executed by U.S. Army soldiers at Fort McLane, New Mexico.

This legendary Apache statesman’s nickname was Spanish, because he’d spent the 1830s and 1840s fighting Mexicans seeking bounties on Apache scalps. Indeed, when the U.S. in 1846 attacked Mexico, Mangas Coloradas gave U.S. soldiers safe passage through Apache territory, and subsequently signed a treaty with the victorious Americans. (There’s a handy map of the scene in this pdf.)

He did his utmost to keep relations with the gigantic industrial society on his borders safely diplomatic, but over the 1850s Apaches spiraled into conflict with aggressive Anglo settlers drawn by the call of gold. In 1861 Mangas Coloradas married his daughter to another Apache chief, Cochise. These two were able to keep whites at bay with raids for a short time (and given a big assist from the resource diversion of the Civil War). But there was only one way this was going to end.

In January 1863, Mangas Coloradas — about 70 years old and still alive to the impossibility of long-term success by force of arms — arrived under a flag of truce to negotiate a ceasefire with Brigadier General Joseph Rodman West. West had him clapped in irons instead, and let his soldiers know exactly how to handle their prisoner.

Men, that old murderer has got away from every soldier command and has left a trail of blood for 500 miles on the old stage line. I want him dead or alive tomorrow morning, do you understand? I want him dead.

That night, Mangas Coloradas was tortured with red-hot bayonets and shot “trying to escape.” The Apache Wars would expand calamitously in the years to come.

The army medical officer David Sturgeon took the Apache’s scalped head (they scalped him, too), eventually bringing it to Ohio after he left the service. Sturgeon finally presented his prize to Prof. Orson Squire Fowler; Fowler examined it and published a description in his 1873 work Human Science: Or, Phrenology: Its Principles, Proofs, Faculties, Organs, Temperaments, Combinations, Conditions, Teachings, Philosophies, Etc., Etc..**

The fate of this horrid trophy after it passed through Fowler’s hands is a mystery. It’s rumored that the Smithsonian received it, and perhaps surreptitiously got rid of it; while the institution has always denied ever having the skull of Mangas Coloradas, it is a fact that the Smithsonian collected and still possesses an alarmingly enormous trove of Native American remains.

* It appears to me that Mangas Coloradas entered into army custody on January 17, and was shot just about midnight that night: the exact moment of the incident could be either the 17th or the 18th. An eyewitness account from one of the soldiers on night watch describes giving over the watch to George Lount until midnight. When the first watchman returned at that time, he noticed that “Mangas arose upon his left elbow, angrily protesting that he was no child to be played with. Thereupon the two soldiers [who had been torturing Mangas], without removing their bayonets from their Minie muskets, each quickly fired upon the chief, following with two shots each from their navy six-shooters.”

** What did the skull-measurer make of his prize? “It bulges out at its side in the region of Secretion, Caution, and Destruction, beyond anything I ever saw. Cunning is his largest organ, and far exceeds any other development of it I have ever seen, even in any and all Indian heads. It is simply monstrous. Yet Destruction also far exceeds any other development of it I ever saw …

“Conscience and Worship are unusually large, both absolutely and relatively, which coincides with the scrupulous fidelity with which he kept his promises. He doubtless thought he was but doing his duty in avenging the injuries white men had done to his tribe, by torturing and killing them. He must also have been a devout worshipper of the Great Spirit and extremely superstitious. Benevolence is very poorly developed indeed.”

(Mangas Coloradas actually was a very tall man with a very large head: a number of accounts attest to this.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,New Mexico,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Summary Executions,Torture,USA,Wartime Executions

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