The Bascom Affair and a Boy Named Felix

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

To the Chiricahua Apache, it was "the land of standing up rocks." Forty miles long and twenty miles wide, the Chiricahua Mountain Range rises abruptly some nine thousand feet above the surrounding desert floor of the southern Arizona Chirichuan Desert, providing a richly diverse region that had sustained the Chiricahua Apache for generations.

Located just east of present-day Wilcox, Arizona, the range was both a barrier and a relief for travelers. The only reliable source of water, Apache Springs, happened to be located near the only passable route over the mountains, known to all as Apache Pass. For generations, the Apache had spent warmer parts of the year near the springs' higher altitude. It was here that the Butterfield Stage Line directed its famed route from St. Louis to San Francisco and built a sturdy stage station on the east side of the pass. The ruins stand to this day.

Apache Pass lay within the province of Cochise, the famous Chiricahua Apache chief. To all accounts, Cochise was an intelligent and amiable man – but he was Apache and a respected warrior who had warred with the Mexicans to the south for years. To him, the stage station and the strange white men who worked there and the rattling stages that passed through were more curious and interesting than threatening. He even traded with the station master, providing firewood and supplies and maintaining a cordial relationship. This set the stage for the terrible events that were to come.

Cochise was well aware of the encroaching white men who built permanent buildings and began to raise strange animals in large herds. Their presence troubled him, but he was willing to tolerate their presence. One of the ranchers was an Irishman named John Ward, who had taken a common-law wife, Jesusa Martinez. Jesusa's son, fathered by a part-Irish Mexican named Santiago Tellez, was a boy named Felix. His reddish hair belied his racial ancestry.

In January, 1861, a Pinal Apache raiding party attacked Ward’s ranch during his absence and ran off several head of Ward's livestock. They took the boy with them, much to Jesusa's distress. Ward promptly reported the abduction and theft to the officers at nearby Fort Buchanan and history began its downward spiral.

The Apache, like most tribes, were more than one tribe. They were many small bands scattered about several hundred square miles, each acting independently from the others, a fact that did not penetrate the accepted perception of the Apache by either the civilian settlers or the military. It turned out that the Pinal Apaches that abducted Felix Tellez had no relationship with Cochise.

This incident occurred in the midst of the United States Civil War and the army had few resources to expend on the troubles of far-away Arizona Territory and a few disruptive Indians. Most of the competent officers had been recalled into the conflict in the east, leaving posts manned by inexperienced officers, many of whom were desperate to prove themselves to gain evasive promotions. Their views of the Indians were doubtless colored by General Sheridan's opinion that "the only good Indian is a dead Indian."

Lt. George Bascom was an unfortunate choice for the assignment to investigate the Ward kidnapping. A recent West Point graduate, he appears to have been the worst combination of ineptitude, arrogance, ambition and stupidity one can imagine – possibly the reason he had been posted far from eastern battlefields. And he was about to create the spark that would ignite a bloody war that would take hundreds of lives and cost millions of dollars over the next twenty years – one of many such blunders that colors history everywhere.

Bascom dutifully proceeded with a detachment to Apache Springs where he set up camp and invited Cochise to a conference. Cochise obliged, bring with him several members of his family as was Apache custom. All gathered in Bascom’s tent and the tent flaps were closed. Armed troopers stood guard.

It didn’t take Bascom long to come to the point. Cochise, he charged, was responsible for the boy's abduction and he would be held prisoner until the boy was returned. Cochise, of course, knew nothing of the crime and promised that he would send his warriors to locate the guilty ones and return the boy. It is certain that Cochise was telling the truth, as lying was an unconscionable act with the Apache.

Bascom would have none of it. He was certain in his own little mind that he had the culprit and was determined that his capture of Cochise would go well with his career. He ordered Cochise and his family seized and shackled on the spot.

The entire episode is known to this day as "The Bascom Affair." To the Apache, it is known as "Cut the Tent." In the blink of an eye, Cochise withdrew his knife, sliced the tent open and escaped amid a hail of gunfire from the startled troopers. Left behind were the members of his family, now prisoners of the obstinate Bascom.

Quickly returning to his people, burning with anger at the insult and injustice, Cochise proceeded to do as any Apache would: He captured hostages of his own to barter with Bascom in return for his family. The stand-off lasted several days, climaxed by Bascom’s stupid summary execution of his hostages. The infuriated Apaches retaliated by burning their hostages alive.

The Apache Wars had begun.

Cochise embarked on a vengeful war against all white men, embedding his name into Western history. The Battle of Apache Pass was part of that war when the California Column under command of General James Carleton entered Apache Pass in pursuit of the rapidly retreating Confederate Army that had occupied Tucson. Cochise's warriors very nearly defeated the Column until a howitzer was brought into play, a weapon never encountered by the Apache that drove them to retreat, leaving the Column to proceed on its way.

Carleton soon became commander of the New Mexico Territory. In 1863, under his orders, General Joseph West captured Mangus Coloradas, Cochise's father. After duping him into a conference under a flag of truce, they murdered him, further infuriating Cochise and his followers. Their revenge was terrible beyond words as they scoured the country to destroy any vestige of the white man's presence.

Following the Battle of Apache Pass, Fort Bowie was constructed near Apache Springs; its ruins are preserved as a historical landmark, silent memorial to the tragic events that happened there.

As for Lt. Bascom, he was promoted to captain and assigned to the 7th Infantry Regiment that had been moved to Fort Craig on the Rio Grande in New Mexico. He was killed by Confederate forces in the Battle of Val Verde on February 21, 1862. Remarkably, Fort Bascom was named for him in spite of his reprehensible record in Arizona.

Eventually, Cochise's war ended with a treaty with General Oliver O. Howard that was facilitated by his only white friend, a teamster named Tom Jeffords; many of us recall the television series "Broken Arrow" that told the story as only Hollywood can tell it. The treaty created a reservation at Apache Pass that actually only existed for a short time until Cochise's death. Though Cochise ceased his fight, Apache resentment continued on until the mid-1880s with the actions of Geronimo and hundreds of others in a cruel, bloody war that affects attitudes to this very day.

Cochise died in 1864 and the Chiricahua Apache were moved to San Carlos reservation under the supervision of Agent John Clum, later famed as editor of the Tombstone Epitaph. As for young Felix Ward, history was not finished with him. Held captive by the Pinal Apache for several years and treated harshly, he was eventually traded to and adopted by a White Mountain Apache, Nayundiie, at San Carlos Reservation. Here he was given the same harsh training as any other Apache lad, learning the skills needed to survive in the brutal desert.

One account tells of having to run with a group of boys to retrieve a pinecone from a distant forest while holding a mouthful of water without swallowing. The test taught the boys to breath through their noses, developing the enormous lung capacity for which the Apache were so noted. Mickey was the last to complete the test, staggering far behind the others, tossing the pinecone on the ground and spitting out the water to prove he had passed the test. Harder tests were to follow, but his stubborn nature prevailed as he learned.

It is not clear when he adopted the name Mickey Free.

His foster brother was John Rope, one of the most noted Apache scouts. While at San Carlos, he met and befriended Tom Horn, the infamous stock detective.

In 1872, Mickey joined the U. S. Army Scouts and became one of the best scouts in the Apache Wars, achieving the rank of Sergeant of Scouts within two years at Camp Verde. He served from 1872 to 1892, retiring as First Sergeant of Scouts, having served with General Cook on his many campaigns.

Free's life was not a happy one. He did not fit in either the white man's world or the Apache's. His red hair set him apart. His anger kept others away. It was said he had a face only a mother could love. Chief Scout Al Sieber disliked and distrusted him ("He was half-Irish, half-Mexican and all son-of-a-bitch"), but greatly respected his abilities as scout. Free was tri-lingual, speaking Apache, Spanish and English with equal fluency and served as scout and interpreter with Cook. He was particularly active in Cook's 1883 venture into the Sierra Madre.

Legends and lies followed Free's life. Some said he was greatly feared as a wanton killer who enjoyed killing; others claim there is no record of him killing anyone. He has come down through history as one of the more obscure, yet colorful and mysterious characters of the old west.

After retiring from the army, Free spent some time as a bounty hunter. His most notable act was tracking down and capturing the infamous Apache Kid, on whom there was a $15,000 reward. Free retired to the White Mountain reservation and lived near where his wikiup had stood. He married and had several children; there are several descendants living in the area to this day.

Mickey Free died in 1918.

Apache Spring still flows in its tranquil mountain pass, though much less than in former years, a silent, gentle vigil to the violent, tragic and historically significant events that happened there 160 years ago. The ruins of old Fort Bowie and the Butterfield Stage Station remind us of the hardy men who spent much of their lives occupying a foreign land and of those who gave theirs to defend it.

Roberts, David, Once They Move Like The Wind: Cochise, Geronimo, and the Apache Wars; (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993),

Sweeney, Edwin; Land of Cochise; University of Oklahoma Press; 1995

Wyatt, Edgar (1953); Cochise, Apache warrior and statesman; Whittlesey House.