American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
Teaser Image


Title: Geronimo, also known as
Button: Click to display an enlarged version of the image.

The legendary war leader and medicine man Geronimo was born a Bedonkohe Apache in the 1820s at a site near the upper Gila River on the Arizona–New Mexico border (Debo, 1976, 7–9). Named Goyathlay or Goyahkla, he was the chief's grandson and, although not specifically groomed to become a chief, his future activities would haunt American history. "Geronimo" is Spanish for St. Jerome, the Catholic saint of lost causes, whom Mexican troops were said to have invoked when faced with raiding parties led by him.

Young Geronimo followed established customs: He learned how to run far and fast, how to carve bows and arrows, how to hunt small game, and, importantly, how to survive. He served an apprenticeship on four hostile expeditions, becoming a horseholder for his mentor, taking care of the warriors' horses, fetching water and wood, cooking, and acting as a sentinel. Once he was accepted into the warriors' circle, Geronimo married Alope, his long-time love. Three children were born into their marriage.

Because the Bedonkohe were a small group, they frequently allied with the Mimbres Apaches under the leadership of the great Mangas Coloradas who, in 1850, led a trading venture to Janos, Mexico; Geronimo participated. While the men were away, Mexicans stole up to the encampment and killed everyone, including Geronimo's mother, Alope, and the three children (Debo, 1976, 35). His burning hatred of Mexicans never abated and motivated revenge killings for the rest of his life.

Geronimo may have participated in the Battle of Apache Pass in 1862, and certainly took part in other conflicts during those years. Other Apache leaders, such as Mangas Coloradas, Cochise, Juh, and Victorio, overshadowed Geronimo but he became more and more skilled at warfare and lived among Cochise's followers. In May 1871 he had a hand in a fierce Arizona battle where Lieutenant Howard B. Cushing was killed (Thrapp, 1991, 548).

In 1877, Geronimo, by now notorious, joined Victorio's band on the Ojo Caliente Reservation in New Mexico. He was arrested there and put in irons by the agent, John Clum. With his followers he was moved to the San Carlos Apache Reservation, beginning a series of breakouts and surrenders that continued until the final capitulation in 1886. One year later, 1878, Geronimo was once again in Mexico and a party to raids conducted by Juh, chief of the Nednhi Apaches. The group, including Geronimo, settled for a time on the San Carlos Reservation. Breaking out in late 1881, Juh and Geronimo took their followers south into the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico, where they remained for one year. A sensational raid back to San Carlos, planned by Juh and Geronimo, occurred in 1882 when they extracted the Native leader Loco (at rifle point, it was said) along with several hundred of his people, and then fought with them during several skirmishes with Mexican troops. Geronimo voluntarily surrendered in early 1884 but left San Carlos about seventeen months later, by which time his reputation as a fearsome war leader had solidified. Led by Cochise's son, Naiche, and Geronimo, the group remained free until late March of 1886 when increasing military pressure caused the Apaches to yield to the Americans, instead of the Mexicans, who had promised to kill them on sight. During the arranged submission to General George Crook at Cañon de los Embudos, a site just south of the international border, Geronimo spoke twice. His poignant words have been recorded and are now summarized:

There is one God looking down on us all. We are all children of the one God. God is listening to me. The sun, the darkness, the winds, are all listening to what we now say. I surrender myself to you . . . Once I moved about like the wind. Now I surrender to you and that is all . . . (Debo, 1976, 262).

However, a Tombstone, Arizona, liquor dealer named Tribolett entered the Apaches' encampment and supplied enough whiskey to intoxicate Geronimo and others (Debo, 1976, 264). Worried that the Apaches' absence from the Southwest would cause a drop in his profits—5,000 thirsty soldiers would be removed from the area if the Indians surrendered—Tribolett was only acting in his own self-interest. Also, he lied to Geronimo and said the soldiers would kill them at dawn unless they fled immediately.

Believing Tribolett and drinking their fill, the Naiche/Geronimo people left Embudos and remained free for the next six months, continuing to raid across the Southwest but U.S. military activity in the same region took its toll. The water holes were guarded, the wild animals killed, and the hunt for the Apaches continued relentlessly. The Indians were hungry, sick, and weary of running when, in September 1886, Geronimo sent word to Fort Bowie that he was ready to surrender. By this time General Crook had been replaced by General Nelson Miles, who agreed to meet Geronimo, Naiche, and their followers in Skeleton Canyon, Arizona. On September 4 the Apaches put down their guns for the last time. Miles quickly separated Naiche and Geronimo from their followers (Debo, 1976, 293).

The next morning, six Apaches were missing, having escaped during the night. Everyone else remained with Naiche and Geronimo at Fort Bowie until September 8 when, along with a military guard, they rode their horses to Bowie Station and boarded a train for Florida. At Jacksonville, the men were separated from their women and children and transferred to a shuttle that took them to Pensacola. Put into boats, the seventeen warriors landed on Santa Rosa Island and were marched to Fort Pickens while their families joined other imprisoned Apaches at Fort Marion, 300 miles to the east. The promise by the American government that the Apaches would be reunited with their previously incarcerated friends and relatives was disregarded.

Fort Pickens had been abandoned for years and was in disrepair, a condition the Apaches were ordered to fix. Geronimo labored beside the warriors, weeding the parade ground, yanking grass out of the walls, cutting trees, digging latrines and cisterns, and walking on the beach under guard to collect firewood (Stockel, 1993, 105). The men cooked over fireplaces inside cavernous casemates with sandy floors, and slept on bags of old straw. Aided by their loyal friend, interpreter George Wratten, the men communicated with their families through letters including one from Geronimo to his wives and children.

How are you at Fort Marion? How do you like it there? Have you plenty to eat, and you sleep and drink well? Send me a letter and tell me all the news. I am very satisfied here but if I only had you with me again I would be more so . . . As sure as the trees bud and bloom in the spring, so sure is my hope of seeing you again . . . Do what is right no matter how you may suffer. Write me soon a lovely letter (Skinner, 1987, 151).

In response to the many deaths at Fort Marion, on April 27, 1887, the prisoners of war were put on trains to be transferred to Mount Vernon, Alabama, about twenty-seven miles north of Mobile. Joined in May 1888 by the men from Fort Pickens, families were at long last together again. Geronimo became a justice of the peace, earning about $10 per month to enforce discipline. With proper instruction from the military, the former terror of the Southwest became mellow and sympathetic, conducting his office in a professional manner. He even cooperated with missionaries, allowing an organ to be placed in the breezeway between the two parts of his cabin.

As a consequence of public pressure regarding the continuing large number of deaths among the Alabama prisoners of war, the government relocated the surviving Apaches to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1894 where they began the slow climb back to health. Under the guidance of Dutch Reformed missionaries, many Apaches adopted the Protestant religion, but Geronimo resisted until one day in the summer of 1902 when he sat in the front row of a camp meeting, listening intently and carefully considering the minister's message. In January 1903 he sat through another sermon, jumped up at its conclusion and said, "The Jesus road is good. Go right into it (Stockel, 2004, 192)." After studying catechism and participating in the requisite religious exercises, Geronimo became a Christian.

Early in February 1909, at about age eighty, he rode his horse into the nearby town of Lawton and convinced a white man to purchase a bottle of whiskey for him. Drunk, he fell on the way back to Fort Sill and lay under a tree. A heavy rain soaked him to his skin, resulting in pneumonia. Found by a military patrol early the next morning, Geronimo lived for three more days. He is buried in the Apache Prisoner of War Cemetery at Fort Sill.

H. Henrietta Stockel

Further Reading
Debo, Angie. 1976. Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Skinner, Woodward B. 1987. The Apache Rock Crumbles: The Captivity of Geronimo's People. Pensacola, FL: Skinner Publications.; Stockel, H. Henrietta. 1993. Survival of the Spirit: Chiricahua Apaches in Captivity. Reno: University of Nevada Press.; Stockel, H. Henrietta. 2004. On the Bloody Road to Jesus: Christianity and the Chiricahua Apaches. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.; Thrapp, Dan L. 1991. Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography, Vol. II. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  Chronological Essays
  People and Groups
  Southwest Nations
  California Nations
  Northwest Coast Nations
  Great Basin Nations
  Plateau Nations
  Great Plains Nations
  Northeast Woodlands Nations
  Subarctic Nations
  Arctic Nations
ABC-cLIO Footer