Editor’s Note. Karen Weston Gonzales is a talented free lance writer. I first read her story about Southern Arizona pioneer, Tom Jeffords, in Tombstone Times to which I subscribe. The story is reprinted here with permission. The story is true and offers a clear account of one of the most turbulent periods in Arizona history … a period that is filled with bravery and treachery, wisdom and stupidity. Subscribe to the Tombstone Times here.
When Tom Jeffords became the first and only agent of the Chiricahua Apache Reservation, he had no idea that the job he had accepted would prove an impossible task. As agent, his job was to make sure the Chiricahua Apache people remained on the reservation, were supplied with government issued food and clothes, and obeyed the laws set forth by the government.
With the invaluable assistance of Tom Jeffords, General Oliver Howard negotiated a peace treaty with the great Chiricahua chief, Cochise.
The Chiricahua Apache reservation was created by executive order in 1872, three months after Cochise met General Howard and the two leaders agreed upon a treaty.
One of the treaty stipulations Cochise insisted on was that Jeffords serve as agent for the new reservation. The two shared a bond of mutual respect and friendship that to this day stories are still told about. If any white man would treat his people fairly and help them survive difficult times, Cochise knew Jeffords would.
For almost four years, Jeffords did manage to hold the reservation together, which is remarkable. The challenges were so great and the rewards so small that one has to wonder why Jeffords persevered.
Had it not been for the trust that Cochise had in Jeffords to take care of his people, would the man had kept trying so hard to make the reservation work? One can only wonder.
The Chiricahua Apache Reservation
The Chiricahua Apache Reservation boundaries enclosed 4,275 square miles between the Chiricahua Mountains on the east, Dragoon Mountains on the west; from the Mexican border, to a point about 100 miles north and 20 miles east of Safford.
The first agency building for the reservation was a tiny adobe hut in the Sulphur Springs Valley. General Howard made arrangements with Camp Bowie’s commanding officer to feed the Chiricahuas for 60 days while waiting for government supplies.
On Oct. 16, rations were issued to 450 of Cochise’s band. As word spread of the treaty it wasn’t long before Jeffords was issuing rations to 1,000 Chiricahuas, all of whom agreed to abide by the treaty. For early white settlers in the area, this was a huge relief, and for them, at last, there was peace in the region.
By December, the arrangement with the military to feed the Indians expired, and after that Jeffords was constantly challenged to keep the people in his charge fed.
The Sulphur Springs agency headquarters proved inadequate to meet the needs of the reservation. It had little water, most of which was unhealthy to drink. Wood for burning had to be hauled seven miles from Dragoon. Wood for building had to be hauled from the Chiricahua mountains, 30 miles away. Pasture for animals was almost non-existent. During this time, Jeffords and two other men he hired managed to cook, work and sleep in a 12-foot square shack. Provisions were stored outside and often spoiled.
Obtaining supplies was difficult. Jeffords’ requests for government supplies were often overlooked or ignored. On many occasions he bought food with his own money or issued government vouchers to merchants. By February, 1873, his funds had run out, as well as his creditors’ patience.
A message from Jeffords to General Howard, describes the bureaucratic nightmare he was facing:
“On the 27th day of last November I received a telegram from Washington, assigning me to the Superintendency of Dr. Bendell, and reported immediately as ordered. I also stated the condition of my agency: that I had no supplies whatsoever; and I requested I be furnished, at as early a day as possible. I have several times since then made urgent requests to be furnished with supplies; but have each time only received evasive replies; and have not been furnished with a single pound of anything, except beef, from him. I have on two different occasions been compelled to purchase corn to issue part of a ration to the Indians; but today I have received a communication from him ordering me to make no more purchases without authority from his office. I have perhaps enough corn on hand to get along with until the 10th of the month.”
Compounding difficulties, Jeffords was forced to deal with the intentions of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The agency’s commissioner announced in 1872 that bands of Indians must not be allowed to roam in traditional nomadic style and therefore the Chiricahuas must be forced to become “pensioners upon the national bounty – supplicants for charity.”
The commissioner added that the westward movement of the white population “is neither denied nor delayed for the sake of all the Indians that ever called this country their home.”
The BIA’s (Bureau of Indian Affairs) intent at that time was to make farmers of the Indians and so Jeffords began to pursue that goal, creating more challenges.
Only about 2,000 of the 2,736,000 acres of the reservation were considered suitable for agriculture, consisting of swampy lowlands along the San Simon River. The rest consisted of steep mountains, barren alkali flats, and dry desert hills.
Life On The Reservation Meant A Radical Cultural Shift For The Chiricahua Apaches
Difficult to change was the nature of the Apache people who had lived for generations as nomadic wanderers, roaming from one spot to another, the women and children gathering native plants; the men hunting game and later stealing livestock to supplement their diets. To change these nomadic people would require a complete transformation of their social structure and lifestyle.
Jeffords was also faced with the fact that the government had not paid off any debts that the agency had incurred while he was trying to keep the Chiricahuas from starving, and he was being harassed by his creditors.
In September, 1873, Jeffords moved the agency headquarters to the cienega at San Simon, requesting building and farming supplies, which were never delivered. No tools or seeds were ever known to be delivered either.
Though the cienega provided plenty of water and pasture for livestock, it also bred illness among the Indians. Within a few weeks most of the tribe was sick and five children had died. The Apaches pleaded with Jeffords to move them elsewhere.
In November, 1873, he received permission to move them to Pinery Canyon, a favorite location of the Chiricahuas, with plenty of good water, timber, and pasture. The B.I.A. continued to ignore his request for building supplies, but Jeffords and helpers were able to build crude log shelters from available timber.
Here Jeffords taught the Chiricahuas to grow gardens and he allowed them to disperse into small family camps, where he periodically called them in from to receive rations being stored at Fort Bowie.
Jeffords proposed to the bureau that the Indians raise sheep as an alternative to farming as the land would better support small livestock than crops, and he even proposed a missionary school at Pinery to help civilize the Apaches, but his proposals were ignored.
As difficult a situation it was, the Chiricahuas did keep the peace faithfully for more than three years, though there were a few incidents involving livestock near or on the reservation.
The Chiricahua Continue Raiding In Mexico
The biggest problem Jeffords faced was his inability to stop the Chiricahuas from raiding into Mexico. When they were well provisioned, raiding was minimal. When rations were scarce at the agency, the young Chiricahua men often headed south.
Apaches from other reservations began using the Chiricahua reservation as a safe place where they could easily raid into Mexico from. Jeffords was often blamed for their actions and these warriors were not even his charges.
He also found himself feeding these Apaches until he was ordered not to, which created hunger and then led to more raiding into Mexico. At one point there were some 200 Coyotero Apaches on the Chiricahua reservation and Jeffords informed the commissioner his agency was overrun by not only these but also Hot Springs and White Mountain Apaches.
The Death Of Cochise
Thoroughly frustrated by the situation, in early 1874, Jeffords attempted to resign, but his letter of resignation was deferred until the New Mexico superintendant could visit the reservation. In May, the superintendant arrived at Pinery Canyon to find Cochise dying.
A conversation took place between the chief and superintendent but proved inconclusive, and Cochise died in his beloved stronghold on June 8. His eldest son Taza became chief and though he shared his father’s desire for peace he did not possess Cochise’s wisdom or ability to keep his people together and under control.
A council of Chiricahua leaders told the superintendent that the continuation of peace depended on Jeffords continuing to operate the Chiricahua agency.
The superintendent, L.E. Dudley, was able to convince a reluctant Jeffords to remain as agent and in May of 1875, he moved his agency headquarters one more time, to Apache Pass, farther from the border, in an attempt to cut down on the raiding. Bands of other Apaches continued to show up on the Chiricahua reservation, causing a drain on his supplies.
There were even cases where warriors from the San Carlos and Hot Springs reservations would leave their women and children at the Chricahua reservation while they raided down into Sonora.
Jeffords returned stolen livestock whenever he discovered them and continued to feed the additional Apaches, often from food purchased with his own money, but he could not stop the raiding. The best he felt he could do was return stolen stock and issue rations to those who stayed north of the border.
Sonoran officials continued to protest loudly to the United States, often while blaming the Chiricahuas of crimes Apaches living in Mexico had committed.
Mexican troops began crossing the border in search of Apaches and in July, 1875 a patrol came upon a group of Chiricahuas gathering acorns 15 miles north of the border. The soldiers fired upon the Indians, missed, and the Apaches fled.
With tensions mounting, in early 1876, a battle broke out in the Dragoon Mountains between Chiricahuas under the leadership of Taza and another group being led by a warrior named Eskinya. Three Chiricahuas were killed, and the band became deeply divided.
Peace, Except For A Bottle Of Whiskey
Taza took his people to the Chiricahua mountains but 12 families stayed in the Dragoons with Eskinya, and in April a member of Eskinya’s band bought a bottle of whiskey from Nicolas Rogers, owner of the Sulphur Springs station, even though Jeffords had warned Rogers that if he sold liquor to Apaches he would be prosecuted and evicted from the reservation.
The intoxication that this whiskey brought began a sequence of events that destroyed the reservation’s chance of success, leading from one drunken incident to another and resulting in several murders. Rogers, and his cook, O.O. Spence, were among the murder victims, along with two Apache sisters, killed by their own drunken brother, as well as a San Pedro Valley white man when several intoxicated warriors attacked his ranch.
Though this was the first offense against American settlers by the Chiricahuas in three and a half years, there was a huge public outcry. Some newspapers recommended that Jeffords be arrested.
In a confrontation between Eskinya, who was inciting the tribe to abandon the reservation and return to the warpath, and Naiche, Taza’s younger brother, who was encouraging the Chiricahuas to keep the peace, Eskinya and five of his followers were killed.
This was just the unrest San Carlos Apache Reservation Agent John Clum had hoped for. Clum had been lobbying for the removal of the Chiricahua Apache from their reservation to San Carlos before the killing spree.
He publicly criticized Jeffords’ lack of control over the Chiricahuas and organized a 235-man scouting force to track down the murderers. He arrived at the Chiricahua reservation in early June with the 6th Cavalry, including an elite Indian police force of 54 men.
Even before Clum arrived at the agency the Chiricahua bands had gathered here. Fearful for what was about to happen to them, they listened as Taza and Jeffords convinced them to comply peacefully when ordered to move to San Carlos.
Though other Chiricahua leaders, including Geronimo, agreed also to peacefully leave with Clum, they did not comply. That night, Geronimo’s band broke camp and fled to Mexico, leaving many possessions behind, even strangling their dogs to prevent them from barking and exposing their escape.
On June 8, Jeffords was relieved of his duty as agent and on June 12, 325 men, women and children of Taza’s band began their journey to San Carlos, leaving behind their Chiricahua reservation forever.
Though Clum insisted he was removing the majority of the tribe, Jeffords estimated 140 had already left for Ojo Caliente in New Mexico, and 400 more had fled into Sonora. By June 18, when the caravan of Chiricahuas arrived at San Carlos, many more had slipped away.
On October 30, 1876, almost four years after the establishment of the Chiricahua Reservation, its existence was officially terminated by executive order and the land was restored to public domain. Some Chiricahua Apaches reverted to warfare and for another decade the Territory of Arizona’s residents suffered once again from Indian depredations.
All that had been achieved with the treaty between General Howard and Cochise was lost. Also lost, was the chance of the Chiricahua people to remain in their beloved homeland. Perhaps the only thing that was not lost was the story of a unique relationship between two men of very different cultures, Tom Jeffords and Cochise.
(In 1881, a new county was established from a section of Pima County. Only seven years after Cochise died, before Arizona achieved statehood and even before the Apache wars ended, this new county was named Cochise.)
Thomas Jonathan Jeffords – Historical Background Information
Born in Chautauqua County, New York on Jan. 1, 1832, he was educated and may have practiced law in Denver in his early days. Jeffords became a sailor on the Great Lakes and rose to skipper lake boats, retaining the title of captain for the rest of his life.
In 1859 he drove a stage on the Butterfield Overland route, and prospected in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado in 1860. In 1862 he was in New Mexico where he said he participated as a civilian in the Civil War battle of Val Verde.
Around 1866 he became a conductor along the stage route from Tucson to Mesilla (New Mexico) and later became a mail superintendent. After losing 14 men killed by Apaches in 16 months time, Jeffords rode alone into the Dragoon Mountains in 1867 to talk to Cochise about the situation. Impressed with his courage, Cochise spared his life and told him his warriors would no longer attack mail carriers.
In 1872, Jeffords led General Oliver Otis Howard into Cochise’s Stronghold to talk peace. Howard granted Cochise’s request to establish the Chiricahua Apache reservation with Jeffords as agent.
After the reservation closed, Jeffords was instrumental in persuading Apache leader Juh and 100 warriors to surrender. In 1882 he was deputy sheriff at Tombstone and in 1886 he participated as a scout in General Miles’ Geronimo Campaign.
Continuing to prospect sporadically, in 1892 Jeffords settled at Owls Head, about 35 miles north of Tucson. He never married, had no known children, died in 1914 and was buried in Tucson. He was a founding member of the Arizona Historical Society.
Information compiled from several historical sources, including volume two of Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography by Dan L. Thrapp and volume 17, #3, Autumn 1976 of the Journal of Arizona History, “Tom Jeffords, Indian Agent” by Harry G. Cramer lll.
For more information on the Apaches and the history surrounding the Apache Wars, see our page on the Local History of the Apaches.