Growing up in the Gila (pronounced Heela) River valley of southern Arizona, my childhood was filled with the stories of famous Apache chiefs and warriors who once roamed the land. I loved the fact that as I rode my horse across the open desert, played among the ancient dwellings, and followed the trails etched into the mountains, that I was quite literally following in the footsteps of some of these historic figures. In the American southwest, no single character brings to mind the spirit of the desert, the thirst for freedom and the legacy of the Apache way of life, quite like that of the legendary warrior Geronimo. This article is being written using a number of resources that I will provide affiliate links to in the sections below.
Born Goytholy, meaning “one who yawns”, Geronimo was a leader of a band (a small group) of Bedonkohe Apache which are just one of the bands of the sub-tribe of Apache called the Chiricahua. Geronimo led his people in the defense of their homeland, now Arizona and northern Mexico, against the United States military for a number of years before finally surrendering and living on a reservation in “Indian Territory”, which is in present-day Oklahoma. While Geronimo was a warrior and leader of his band, he was not in fact a tribal chief. His reputation and ambition made him a war leader of great notoriety.
Essentials to the Story
Born in June of 1829, in No-Doyohn Canyon, Mexico (now in Arizona near the New Mexico border), along the Gila River, Geronimo, influenced by a number of violent attacks by both the Mexican and United States militaries, continued the tradition of the Apaches resisting colonization of their homeland. As retaliation for violence against his people, he participated in a number of raids into Sonora and Chihuahua in Mexico killing more than 5,000 Mexicans between 1820 and 1835. After years of war Geronimo finally surrendered to United States troops in 1886. While he became a celebrity, he spent the last two decades of his life as a prisoner of war. He died on February 17, 1909 and reportedly spoke these last words:
“I should have never surrendered. I should have fought until I was the last man alive.” – as told by his nephew
The Legend Begins
Even at an early age, Geronimo (Goytholy) was a skilled and gifted hunter. A story is told that as a young boy, Goytholy swallowed the heart of his first hunting kill to ensure he had a life of success. The Bedonkohe band was the smallest band within the Chiricahua sub-tribe or Apaches. At a population of just over 8,000, the Apaches became known as fierce people due to the fact that they were surrounded by many enemies including the Comanche and Navaho as well as Mexicans and ultimately whites from the United States.
Horse theft and raids were a regular part of Apache life at that point in history and Geronimo was an active participant in this lifestyle. Due to the increased frequency of Apache raids, the Mexican government offered a bounty to those who could produce Apache scalps. The Apache had been attacked and slaughtered in the years prior to this so these bounties did little to stop their aggression toward Mexican towns and villages. By the time Geronimo turned 18 years of age, he had already led a fair number of raids against Apache enemies.
In the 1840s, Alope, an Apache woman (and daughter of Chief Cochise) became Geronimo’s wife after, in the Apache custom, he gave her father a number of stolen horses in order to gain the privilege of marriage. They had three children whose lives would all end in tragedy. Sometimes during the 1850s, Mexican soldiers attacked the Apache camp where his wife and children were living while many of the Apache men were out of the area trading goods. Under cover of darkness, the Apache men snuck into their decimated camp and discovered the destruction. Geronimo’s wife and all three children had been murdered.
- Geronimo: My Life (Autobiography of the Apache Warrior)
- Once They Moved Like The Wind : Cochise, Geronimo, And The Apache Wars
Geronimo never recovered from the tragic loss of his wife and children (although he did remarry years later). The Apache tradition for sending the dead into the afterlife was to burn all of their belongings. After seeing that this was done, Geronimo struck out on his own to mourn his loss. During his time in the wilderness, while alone and mourning, it is said that a voice told Geronimo that,
“No gun will ever kill you. I will take the bullets from the guns of the Mexicans…and I will guide your arrows.”
Feeling emboldened by this new assurance that he could not die from bullets, Geronimo set about gaining the loyalty of roughly 200 braves and warriors in order to hunt down the Mexican soldiers who had killed his family in the attack on his village. For more than a decade, this back and forth battle went on between Geronimo and the Mexicans in his path. Only during the 1850s did Geronimo’s enemy become the United States military. After the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, much of what was Mexico was seized by the United States, including many of the areas in the Apache homeland. Once gold was discovered in the southwest, whites began pushing westward into Apache territory and began settling the land. The Apache felt no other option but to increase the frequency and scope of their raids on anyone coming into their lands which drew increasing attention from the United States military.
As a surprising move by the Chiricahua chief Cochise, Geronimo’s father-in-law, a cease fire was called and Cochise agreed to move his people onto a reservation that had been set aside on a piece of what was then Apache territory. After a number of years had passed and Cochise had died, the United States government went-back on its deal with the Apache and began moving the Chiricahua north so that white settlers could begin settling the Apache’s land. As expected, these circumstances infuriated Geronimo, who in turn began a series of retaliatory raids that renewed the violence.
Although a number of years passed while Geronimo was at-large resisting the military actions of the United States government, he was finally captured and sent to San Carlos Apache reservation in 1877. Finally, after about four years of resentful living on the reservation, he escaped in September of 1881 to renew his resistance to the destruction of his people’s way of life. For the next five years Geronimo led his band of Chiricahua warriors in what would ultimately be the final series of Indian wars waged against the aggression of the United States military. To the Apache, Geronimo was a polarizing figure. Many saw him as the last great hope of the Apache people and the champion of their way of life, while others saw him as a man bent on revenge, foolish to resist for so long while putting so many other Apache lives at risk.
However, once newspapers began documenting the United States military’s tracking of Geronimo and his band of renegades, his acclaim began to rise. He became a mythical figure, someone of legend seemingly beyond the realm of human possibility. At various times, around 5,000 troops were in the hunt for Geronimo and his followers as he eluded them time and again all throughout the southwest. Feeling that there was no place left to run and no more people to rally to his cause, Geronimo became the last Chiricahua to surrender in the summer of 1886. During the years that followed, Geronimo and his people were relocated a number of times to Florida, then Alabama and finally to Fort Sill which is in present-day Oklahoma. All-in-all, he and his followers spent roughly three decades as prisoners of the United States government.
- Geronimo: My Life (Autobiography of the Apache Warrior)
- Geronimo: Leadership Strategies of an American Warrior
The Last Years but the Legend Lives On
Toward the end of his life, Geronimo became quite a celebrity even among his captors. He was invited to fairs and carnivals featuring Native Americans on full display for the public to witness. In 1905 he completed his autobiography (link above) which I have found to be quite an interesting book to read and certainly one of historical significance. Geronimo, in his old age was allowed some privileges not typically allowed to prisoners of war. He even met privately with President Theodore Roosevelt, but was unsuccessful in persuading the President to allow he and his people to return to their lands in Arizona.
In February of 1909, while riding his horse home one evening, Geronimo was thrown from the horse and laid on the ground on the cold Oklahoma plain until his friend located him the next day. Geronimo, already being in poor health rapidly declined and passed away six days later. It is worth repeating that it has been said that only his nephew was by his bedside when he passed and that he uttered these last words: “I should never have surrendered. I should have fought until I was the last man alive.” The eyes of an elderly Geronimo in the brilliant photograph above says it all.
And so the legend of Geronimo lives on to this day.
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