Article first published in Vol. 18, 1999.
By Rafael Morales, Edwardo Morales and Richard Varela
"Geronimo!" American troops cried out as they jumped from planes during World War II. It is a name in American history as familiar as Abraham Lincoln and Davy Crockett. Geronimo was a man who captured the soul of the Apache warrior. Geronimo stood against the United States and Mexico with the vow to keep his people and his homeland free.
Where and when Geronimo was born are uncertain. Apache expert Eve Ball says Geronimo was born near the middle fork of the Gila River in southern New Mexico, close to the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Angie Debo in her biography of the great Apache places Geronimo's birth in the 1820s near the upper Gila River, probably close to present-day Clifton, Arizona. Geronimo, or Goyathlay*, his Indian name meaning "one who yawns," belonged to the Bedonkohe tribe.
Image caption: A view of the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona, home to Geronimo. Photo by Jorge Marrufo
Geronimo was never an elected chief, but he was a medicine man who could see the future, and who, it was believed, had a spirit that could not be harmed by bullets.
The most crushing blow in Geronimo's life came in 1858 when he returned home to find his wife, mother, three children and 25 other Apaches killed by the Mexican Army. Debo says Geronimo organized three bands of Apaches to fight the Mexicans: the Bedonkohes under Mangas Coloradas; the Chiricahuas under Cochise; and the Nednais, under Juh, his brother-in-law. Geronimo himself led the fight because he had lost the most in the Mexican raid.
This was the beginning of years of raids against the Mexicans, and when Mangas Coloradas was murdered, Geronimo and the Bedonkohes became part of the Chiricahuas.
When settlers arrived in the Silver City area shortly after the gold rush began, hostilities began between the prospectors and white farmers who wanted to settle in the area and the Apache, particularly the Mimbreño tribe, to which Geronimo was closely attached. Debo says the miners began what would become a blood bath when Mimbreño chief Mangas Coloradas met with soldiers in Pinos Altos, New Mexico, outside of Silver City, to secure peace.
The Apache chief was murdered, buried in a shallow grave, dug up the next day and mutilated. His head was cut off and boiled down to the skull. Ball says to an Apache, mutilation of the body was worse than death because the body would have to go through eternity in its mutilated condition - in this case, headless.
Popular culture has always indicated that Indians perpetuated mutilation such as scalping, but historians have challenged this. Daklugie, Geronimo's nephew, says that until the Mexicans and whites began scalping the Apaches (both sides paid bounty for Indian scalps), the Indians did not resort to it.
Another chief, Cochise, in the meantime, had been at war with the Mexicans for a decade after his own father had been slaughtered. Cochise became the principal war leader of the Chiricahuas in 1856 but until the "Bascom Affair" had no quarrels with white settlers.
Cochise, supplying wood to the Butterfield Overland Mail station at Apache Pass in southeast Arizona, was mistakenly accused of kidnapping a child and stealing cattle from a disreputable rancher named John Ward. Lt. George Bascom and 60 men were sent to recover the boy and stock. Cochise subsequently was seized but escaped, taking white hostages to insure the lives of his family, who had been with him.
Bascom refused to trade hostages and Cochise killed his prisoners, whereupon Bascom killed all the Apache males. This incident marked the beginning of what historians would call the Apache War. Until his own death, Mangas Coloradas would join his son-in-law Cochise in ravaging much of southwestern New Mexico, northern Mexico and southeastern Arizona. The outbreak of the U.S. Civil War and the withdrawal of troops from Apache country allowed the Apaches free reign.
After his father-in-law's death, Cochise and his followers attacked ranchers, travelers, and both Mexican and American troops for almost ten years. Cochise showed no sympathy for his enemies. Finally in 1869, Cochise considered making peace with the white man.
General Oliver Otis Howard, through the efforts of Cochise's friend, Tom Jeffords, established a treaty with Cochise in 1872, allowing the Chiricahuas to remain in their homeland. Although Cochise honored the treaty until his death in 1874, Geronimo's warriors and those under Juh did not, continuing their raids.
By 1875, the United States government believed that Geronimo was directly responsible for all the various raids and uprisings in the New Mexico and Arizona area. This action prompted the relocation of at least 4,000 Apaches, including Geronimo, to the San Carlos Reservation, about 150 miles north of their home.
Geronimo fled into Mexico but was soon arrested and returned to San Carlos. For a period of five years, the attacks on settlers diminished. But in 1881, both Juh and Geronimo escaped form the San Carlos Reservation and began to terrorize their enemies once again.
The following year, Geronimo and his band of warriors were surprised by the U.S. Army at his secret sanctuary and were forced to return to San Carlos. In 1885, Geronimo fled once again. Not until the U.S. Army over took Juh's compound in 1886 did Geronimo finally surrender.
Initially, he gave himself up to General George Crook, but he escaped, only to be caught in Skeleton Canyon by General Nelson Miles on September 4, 1886. Significant in Geronimo's decision to surrender was the realization that his people had been sent to Florida, and he would never see them again if he resisted.
On September 9, 1886, Geronimo and a small group of his warriors passed through El Paso on a Southern Pacific train on their way to Florida. It had taken millions of dollars, over 5,000 U.S. soldiers, 500 scouts and up to 3,000 Mexican soldiers to find Geronimo. A historical marker near canyon acknowledges the surrender.
From Florida, Geronimo and his people were sent to Alabama and finally to Fort Still, Oklahoma. In 1905, Geronimo, his nephew Daklugie and other Apaches traveled to Washington, D.C. for Theodore Roosevelt's inauguration.
Daklugie says Geronimo spoke earnestly to the president:
The place where we are kept is bad for us… We are sick there and we die. White men are in the country that was my home. I pray you to tell them to go away and let my people go there and be happy. Great Father, my hands are tied as with a rope. My heart is no longer bad. I will tell my people to obey no chief but the Great White Chief. I pray you to cut the ropes and make me free. Let me die in my own country as an old man who has been punished enough and is free.
Four years later, Geronimo died but not in his homeland. On a cold February evening, he and his grandson drank a bottle of whiskey, fell asleep in the open, and awoke to cold rain. Geronimo contracted pneumonia and died on February 17, 1909.
Speaking to Eve Ball, author of Indeh: An Apache Odyssey, Daklugie says that on his deathbed, Geronimo lamented his surrender, wishing he had died in battle. His ignoble death, however, does not erase his courage in standing up to an entire country that wanted his land and tried to destroy his culture.