Geronimo’s life story often veers from his legend: He was depicted in U.S. and Mexican culture as a frighteningly fierce warrior and as a representative of bravery for the World War II paratroopers who yelled his name as they jumped from planes. He was called “the most famous North American Indian of all time,” by one of his biographers.
“In our tribe, Geronimo was not a very important person,” says Michael Darrow, Fort Sill Apache tribal historian. “He was not a chief.” A century ago, Geronimo wouldn’t have been a big deal to the tribe.
Yet to many Americans in the 19th century, Geronimo epitomized the trope of the fierce warrior Indian. He represented the rhetoric that could be used to justify “protecting” settlers by moving Indians onto reservations. And that rhetoric was applied to the Apache more generally.
“One of the things that is very common in writing about Apache is to use the term warriors,” Darrow says. However, the Apache language doesn’t have a term that translates to warrior. “History books, and as a result, the popular portrayal of Apache in books and movies, are that Apache are fierce and warlike.”
Geronimo’s own telling of his childhood offers a different story.
Geronimo’s Early Life
There are two tales about when and where Geronimo was born. According to Robert M. Utley, historian and author of “Geronimo,” it was in 1823 in the upper Gila River Valley in what is now New Mexico. But when Geronimo told his life story as an octogenarian in “Geronimo’s Story of His Life: As Told to S.M. Barrett, he said he was born in what’s now Arizona in 1829. Either way, the territory would have been part of Mexico until the 1848 Mexican Cession following the Mexican-American War and the 1854 Gadsden Purchase.
What’s not disputed is that Geronimo was born into the Bedonkohe band of the Chiricahua Apache tribe and was named Goyahkla, which means the “one who yawns.” He was the fourth child of a family with four boys and four girls. In “Geronimo’s Story of His Life: As Told to S.M. Barrett,” he described his homeland around the headwaters of the Gila River:
This range was our fatherland; among these mountains our wigwams were hidden; the scattered valleys contained our fields; the boundless prairies, stretching away on every side, were our pastures; the rocky caverns were our burying places.
Geronimo recounts a childhood spent cultivating crops, harvesting wild-growing tobacco, grinding corn, and taking trips to gather nuts and berries. Around the age of 8 or 10, he joined in “the chase,” hunting buffalo, deer, antelope and elk, slaughtering only those the tribe needed. He reported having killed many bears with a spear and mountain lions with arrows.
Importantly, Geronimo says that as a youth, he never saw a missionary or a priest. “We had never seen a white man.”
Tragedy and Revenge
In 1858, the Bedonkohe Apache went south to Old Mexico, camping just outside a town the Indians called Kaskiyeh, and going in each day to trade. Women and children remained at the camp. One afternoon, upon returning, the tribesmen learned that Mexican troops had attacked the camp, killed all of the guards, captured the ponies and weapons, and killed many of the women and children. Among the victims were Geronimo’s mother, his wife Alope and their three children. From his biography:
That night I did not give my vote for or against any measure; but it was decided that as there were only eighty warriors left, and as we were without arms or supplies, and were furthermore surrounded by the Mexicans far inside their own territory, we could not hope to fight successfully. So our chief, Mangus-Colorado, gave the order to start at once in perfect silence for our homes in Arizona, leaving the dead upon the field. I stood until all had passed, hardly knowing what I would do — I had no weapon, nor did I hardly wish to fight, neither did I contemplate recovering the bodies of my loved ones, for that was forbidden. I did not pray, nor did I resolve to do anything in particular, for I had no purpose left. I finally followed the tribe silently, keeping just within hearing distance of the soft noise of the feet of the retreating Apaches.
A few days later, the tribe returned to its own settlement. Chief Mangus-Colorado (or Mangas Coloradas), called a council. The Bedonkohe were determined to “take the warpath” against Mexico. Geronimo was sent to ask neighboring tribes to help, receiving it from the Chokonen Apache led by Cochise and the Nedni Apache led by Whoa.
Geronimo spent the next quarter-century “attacking and evading both Mexican and U.S. troops, vowing to kill as many white men as he could,” according to Smithsonian Magazine.
But it would be a mistake to think of Geronimo as a patriot chief fighting for the preservation of his homeland, Utley explains in an email. “Wrong on all counts. He wasn’t a patriot, or a chief or fighting for his homeland.” He was fighting for his own cause.
Resisting the White Man
During the second half of the 19th century, with the takeover of the American Southwest and American westward expansion, the U.S. government forced Apache onto reservations. Geronimo left the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona to which he had been assigned multiple times, resisting capture by and fighting against U.S. soldiers and Mexican alike.
“Geronimo’s actions kept the Chiricahuas constantly riled up as long as he was on the San Carlos Reservation,” Utley says. “If I were to indulge in modern politics, I would compare him to a national leader who keeps the public pot boiling. The Chiricahua trajectory was altered to the effect that they were all sent to Florida because of Geronimo, but didn’t deserve it.”
For many years, Geronimo and the Apache “violently resisted the influx of the white settlers,” according to History. Legend has it that he earned his nickname from Mexican soldiers crying out to St. Jerome when facing him. In fact, his notoriety among white settlers was such that they would threaten their children that Geronimo would come for them if they were bad.
During his years eluding the U.S. government, Geronimo achieved significant coverage in newspapers. “Some were mere rumors or fabrications, but the stories were bad enough to brand this man a bloody butcher who shot, lanced or knifed dozens of victims throughout his adult life,” Utley writes in his book. “[T]he public at large knew the name to stand for terrible atrocities.”
Treaty Negotiation Not Surrender
Before the U.S. government’s decision to move all Native Americans in the Southwest to reservations in the 1870s, Geronimo said the greatest wrong ever done to his tribe was in 1863 when chief Mangus-Colorado agreed to a peace treaty with the U.S. General Joseph Rodman West at Apache Tejo, New Mexico, (Fort McLane) in exchange for provisions for his people. Mangus-Colorado took about half of the tribe to New Mexico, where, instead of peace, they were taken into custody. West ordered the chief’s execution and he was tortured and killed that night for trying to escape.
Geronimo and his followers fled for the mountains out of fear. U.S. troops continually attacked their camps until he was taken as a prisoner of war on the San Carlos Reservation. But in 1885, Geronimo and 135 followers, including men, women and children, broke out and avoided capture for nearly a year.
They were pursued for months by as many as 5,000 U.S. soldiers and 3,000 Mexicans led by U.S. General George R. Crook. However, they escaped once again. The pursuit was taken up again by General Nelson Miles, who eventually forced Geronimo to turn himself in near Fort Bowie on Sept. 4, 1886. By that time, the Apache were simply exhausted and outnumbered. His “surrender” is said to have ended the American-Indian Wars.
But in Geronimo’s mind, he had met with Miles to negotiate a treaty, not surrender. For Miles, claiming to be the military leader who got Geronimo to surrender offered more prestige. “It was certainly not an unconditional surrender as it had been portrayed,” Darrow says.
After the surrender, Geronimo and 400 Apache were sent to Fort Pickens, Florida, on Sept. 8, 1886. After a few years, they were moved to Alabama and finally to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1894.
“Before the imprisonment, Geronimo doesn’t seem to have done much to try to benefit the tribe as a whole,” explains Darrow. Once the tribe was imprisoned, he did utilize what influence he had to try to get them released. Initially, the Apache had been promised they would not be imprisoned more than two years and would be given their own reservation and homeland. But when Darrow’s grandmother was born in 1892, she was a POW in Alabama.
Geronimo’s Death and Legacy
Geronimo lived at Fort Sill from 1894 until his death Feb. 17, 1909. During his years on the Oklahoma reservation, Geronimo left for participation in Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show, billed as “The Worst Indian That Ever Lived.” He took part in the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and participated in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration, where he was put on display even though his requests for the return of Chiricahua land were denied.
In February 1909, Geronimo fell off his horse on the way back to Fort Sill from Lawton, Oklahoma, at night. He was found the following morning and developed a cold, which turned into pneumonia. Within the week, he was dead. Still a prisoner of war, Geronimo was buried at Fort Sill.
His legend was a sort of excuse for keeping the tribe as POWs for nearly 30 years, according to Darrow.
“Nobody was willing to risk their reputation allowing Geronimo to be free,” he says. It was in the political interest of the United States government to keep them imprisoned and portray them as a fierce, aggressive people who were potentially dangerous.