Covering a nearly perfectly square 83 by 84 mile area in the southeastern corner of the state of Arizona, Cochise County was carved out of the eastern portion of Pima County on February 1, 1881. Named after the famous Chiricahua Apache war chief Cochise and purchased from Mexico in 1853, the area that is now Cochise County has a long and storied history that predates the United States of America. The first European contact with the land that would become the county came in 1528, when the remnants of the groundbreaking but ill-fated Narvaez Expedition were shipwrecked off of the coast of modern-day Texas.
The four survivors of the expedition, Spanish explorers Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, and Estevanico (de Carranza’s North African slave) decided to make their way to the Spanish stronghold of Mexico City. With the help of indigenous people native to the region, they traveled west into modern-day Arizona, and south, through the San Pedro Valley, located in what is today the western edge of Cochise County.
The men would eventually finish their journey, becoming the first non-native people to navigate and travel the South-West. Cabeza de Vaca would later sail home to his native Spain, and in 1542 he published his account of the ordeal, “La relación y comentarios,” or “The Accounts and Commentaries,” an account that included the Old World’s first introduction to the land that would become Cochise County.
Over 300 years later the county would get its namesake when in 1861, following the murder of several of his family members by the US Army, the leader of the Chiricahua Apache (whose territory covered the land that would later come to be known as Cochise County) came to an agreement with his father-in-law, the chief of the Mimbreños Apaches, to take advantage of the escalating American Civil War and drive the encroaching non-natives off of Apache land. That leader was named Cochise, and he’d wage a decade-long guerrilla campaign against both the Confederacy and the United States, sheltered safely in the virtually impenetrable mountains of Southeast Arizona.
A born leader and savvy tactician, Cochise and his warriors would use hit and run tactics to terrifying effect, striking out from the hills, sacking a settlement, and fading back into the mountains before the army could leverage their massive advantage in numbers and firepower, or even prepare any sort of effective response. Hidden and tightly ensconced in their home territory there, the Chiricahua were virtually unassailable, able to easily resist or evade all attempts by the US government to root them out. For ten years Cochise and his band hid in the mountains, fiercely resisting the encroachment of outsiders onto his peoples’ territory.
In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant personally ordered Civil War hero General Oliver O. Howard to find Cochise and put an end to his raiding. Grant and Howard, despairing of ever removing the Chiricahua by force, elected instead to negotiate a peaceful end to the conflict.
In 1872, General Howard was granted safe conduct into Chiricahua territory, where he met with Cochise. Working through an interpreter, the general offered the Apache war chief peace terms: in exchange for stopping the raids, the Chiricahua would be given reservation land in the East, where they’d have government protection and a guarantee of sovereignty. Cochise refused. He’d stop the raids and lay down arms, but only if the reservation he was given was right there. He wanted the Dragoon and Chiricahua Mountains that his people called home.
Cochise was 67 years old, and would die peacefully two years later, having never been dislodged from his mountains. Twenty years after he began his war, the mountains that he and his people fought from would be part of a county that, to this day, bears his name.
The very same year that Cochise County was created, an act of violence in the small mining town that then served as the county’s seat would forever define and typify not just one county, but an entire region and epoch of American history. The name of that town was “Tombstone”, and the events that occurred there on October 26, 1881 would catapult that name and the names of the men involved into American myth, and, more so than any other happening, come to epitomize the Wild West.
The Gunfight at the O. K. Corral would be over in 30 seconds, and would remain a footnote in Arizona history until nearly half a century later when Stuart N. Lake described it in his 1931 biography, “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall”. While the events of the book were heavily dramatized, the remarkable tale of the heroic and skillful lawman taking righteous vengeance on the dastardly outlaws that had gunned his brother down caught hold of America’s imagination and hasn’t let go since.
In reality, Wyatt Earp was one of the less experienced Earp brothers. He had come to Tombstone to get away from a career in what he called “lawing”, but his plans fell through and he ended up deputized alongside his far more seasoned brother, Virgil Earp, a veteran of the Civil War and an experienced gunfighter and lawman. Although it’s likely that prior to the famous shootout, Wyatt Earp had never fired a shot in anger, his image as an invincible, implacable bringer of justice was cemented in popular culture, and his legend, and the legend of his companion ‘Doc’ Holliday, has only become more ingrained in American folklore. Since the release of his biography in 1931, nary a decade has gone by without someone trying their hand at telling the story of Wyatt Earp and the Shootout at the O.K. Corral, cementing Tombstone and Cochise County as the very epicenter of Wild West folklore.
Located on the US-Mexican border, the Cochise County Seat of Bisbee, Arizona is located about 207 miles to the southwest of the state’s capital city of Phoenix.
The journey from Bisbee to Phoenix takes around 3.5 hours, and is an easy drive northwest, traveling into the interior of the state from Bisbee to Benson along AZ-80, then a straight shot on I-10 W, past the city of Tucson and onto Phoenix.