Cochise was born in the area that now contains the border between Mexico, New Mexico and Arizona. That area had experienced significant tension between the Apache and European settlers from about 1831 until the greater part of the area was annexed by the United States in 1850 which ushered in a time of relative peace. Cochise worked as a woodcutter at the stagecoach station in Apache Pass for the Butterfield Overland line.
The peace was shattered in 1861 when an Apache raiding party drove away a local rancher's cattle and kidnapped his 12-year-old son. Cochise and five others of his band were falsely accused of the incident (which had actually been done by the Coyotero band of Apaches), and were ordered by an inexperienced Army officer (Lt. George Bascom) to report to the fort for questioning. When they went there and maintained their innocence the group was arrested and imprisoned.
The five soon mounted an escape attempt; one was killed and Cochise was shot three times but managed to slip away. He quickly took hostages to use in negotiations to free the other four Chiricahua. However, the plan backfired and both sides killed all their hostages in what was later known as "The Bascom Affair."
Cochise then joined with his father-in-law Mangas Coloradas (Colorado), a Mimbreņo Apache chief, in a long series of retaliatory skirmishes and raids among the settlements. Many were killed on both sides, but the Apaches began to achieve the upper hand which prompted the United States Army to send an expedition (led by General James Carleton).
At Apache Pass in 1862, Cochise and Colorado, with 500 fighters, held their ground against a force of 3000 California volunteers under Carleton until artillery fire was brought to bear on their position. Colorado was later captured and subsequently killed while imprisoned leaving Cochise in sole command of the insurrection.
He and his men were gradually driven into the Dragoon Mountains but were nevertheless able to use the mountains as cover and as a base from which to continue significant skirmishes against white settlements. This was the situation until 1871 when General George Crook assumed command and used other Apaches as scouts and informants and was thereby able to force Cochise's men to surrender. Cochise was taken into custody in September of that year.
The next year the Chiricahua were ordered to Tularosa Reservation in New Mexico but refused to leave their ancestral lands which were guaranteed to them under treaty. Cochise managed to escape again and renewed raids and skirmishes against settlements through most of 1872. A new treaty was later negotiated by General Oliver O. Howard and Cochise retired to an Arizona reservation where he died of natural causes.