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Is This Really the Legendary Cochise?

Questions are swirling around a recently unearthed illustration allegedly of the legendary Chiricahua Apache, Cochise. Is it really him?

A recent image, supposedly of the Chiricahua Apache leader Cochise, has once again surfaced. 

The colorful illustration shows an elderly man smiling peacefully with a red bandana wrapped around his head, and a blanket enfolded around his waist. The image adorns the jacket of The Peacemaker, a novel published in June 2016 about a peace agreement with Cochise.

Is this Cochise? It's actually a colorized sketch, by L. Maynard Dixon, of Juan Rey Abeita from the 1903 magazine, "Out West: A Magazine of the Old Pacific and the New."

The Peacemaker’s author, Andrew McBride, claims the image is an “original portrait of Cochise” and credits the Western History Collections at the University of Oklahoma Libraries as the source. (The Western History Collections owns only the black-and-white version and not the colorized image.)

The so-called Cochise image has been reproduced in black and white by many writers and artists since at least 1970 when Dee Brown published his best seller Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Even today, the Granger Historical Picture Archive in Brooklyn, New York, sells the same black-and-white photo as “the only known authentic portrayal of Cochise.”

So, who really is the mysterious man in the photo with the Mona Lisa smile?

The colorized illustration first appeared on the cover of the 1903 magazine, Out West: A Magazine of the Old Pacific and the New, and is not Cochise, but Juan Rey Abeita.

The image’s artist, L. Maynard Dixon, was initially an illustrator of early twentieth-century magazine covers before blossoming into a famous painter. He and renowned photographer Charles Lummis were guests of Abeita when they traveled to Isleta in 1900. “Dixon was just a youngster then trying to make a living. He didn’t even call himself an artist until 1915,” said Paul Bingham, president and founder of the Thunderbird Foundation for the Arts, an organization that preserves and maintains the home of Dixon in Mount Carmel, Utah.

Henry Walt, a historian from the Pueblo of Isleta in New Mexico, immediately recognized Abeita and noticed “the heavy sort of hair side locks that are somewhat unique to the Isleta,” he said.

According to the 1900 U.S. Federal Census, Abeita was a farmer from Isleta and was married with four children.

When the Isleta’s Cultural Committee of tribal elders heard that an Isleta Pueblo man somehow morphed into an Apache warrior “they got a good laugh out of it,” Walt said.

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“I’m not at all surprised that things get transformed here,” he added. “People were much more interested in Cochise than they were of some guy from Isleta.”

The image’s black-and-white version is a part of the Noah Hamilton Rose Collection at Oklahoma’s Western History Collections. Rose was a printer, photographer, and collector who bought the rights to over 2,000 images of the Old West, many from photographer Asa A. Brack of San Antonio, Texas. Rose sold copies of these photos for 50 cents each, according to the 1931 brochure, “The Famous Rose Collection of Old Time Photographs.”

But fake or mislabeled illustrations and photos of the Old West — especially of cowboy and American Indian heroes — have been a staple for more than a century.

Antique dealers warn collectors to be wary about buying so-called authentic images of Wild West personalities. Dixon’s colorized magazine sketch was reproduced in black and white and sold as Cochise to unsuspecting souvenir collectors.

The Western History Collections in Oklahoma has since updated the Rose Collection catalogue to reflect the photo’s proper identity.

Michael Darrow, Chiricahua historian of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, said he has always doubted the image was Cochise. 

“We don’t use it in our tribal life. We generally acknowledge from our perspective the image not being Cochise,” Darrow said. Darrow is a descendent of Cochise’s wife, Dostehseh.

Darrow also questions the authenticity of photos of Cochise’s eldest son, Taza, who died in 1876 in Washington, D.C. Taza is buried in the Congressional Cemetery.

“They had some image of [George] Noche that they used for Taza on his gravestone,” Darrow said. In fact, Noche’s image is mislabeled as Taza on many sites, but the National Anthropological Archives shows that George Noche’s photo was dated 1886, ten years after Taza’s death.

As for an actual photo of Cochise, scholars believe none exists. Yet, Cochise’s Find a Grave Memorial identifies two photos as the Apache leader, but the first is really the Apache warrior Chato, and the second is the Aravaipa leader Eskiminzin.

Still, Darrow believes that an authentic photo of Cochise may actually be out there. “I recall seeing a reference of a photo of Cochise sent to Washington, D.C.,” he said. “Cochise may have been [posing] with General Oliver O. Howard, but I don’t recall. Nobody has seen or heard of it since.”