"None had lost as I had, for I had lost all." Geronimo’s words and his subsequent vows of vengeance upon the Mexicans may have been the beginning of his rapid, brutal rise to leadership among his own people, and it certainly accounts for his staying power. No other man has written his name so fiercely on the history of the Southwest. His suspicions were real, the instinctive distrust of any wild creature, but he was also practical-minded, having a great capacity for original thought. Although stern and unbending in his judgments, and totally unrelenting in his hatreds, he was known to be kind and affectionate to his family, and constant in his friendships. He was lied to and betrayed by his white adversaries, yet he was still a man of deep integrity. When he committed his word, he kept his pledge.
Geronimo was born Goyahkla, and some claim this translates to "One Who Yawns," although many, including modern Apaches, say otherwise. His family was the Bedonkohe branch of the Chiricahua Nation. He gave his own birth date as June 1829, but he was almost certainly born before that. His place of birth is still in question, but it is known to be located near the headwaters of the Gila River, possibly near present-day Clifton, Arizona. At the time of his birth, this area was part of Mexico. Much later, the Fort Sill Apaches would suggest his birth name meant "intelligent, shrewd, clever," descriptions which aptly suited him all his adult life.
His own family was small, but like all Apaches, Geronimo counted all his relatives as his "brothers." Chief Juh of the Nedhai band in Sonora was a true brother-in-law, as was Chief Nana of the Warm Springs band. When he later married a niece of Cochise, Geronimo acquired not only the greatest Apache leader in history as his uncle, but also Chief Mangas Coloradas of the Mimbreno band as another uncle. His closest "brothers" were Naiche, Victorio, Loco, and Chihauhau, all famous war chiefs in their time. All these men figured prominently in Apache history. Throughout his life, Geronimo’s family ties would always be very strong.
Geronimo’s war with Mexico most likely started in 1835 when the Mexican state of Sonora, in an all-out effort to rid the Sierra Madres of the Nedhai band, passed a law offering one hundred pesos (roughly equal to one American dollar) for every scalp of an Apache warrior. Two years later, the state of Chihuahua set a scale of one hundred pesos for a warrior’s scalp, fifty for a woman’s, and twenty-five for a child’s. Many white mercenaries killed Apaches in the United States and took the scalps into Mexico for the bounty. It became increasingly dangerous for any Apache to live anywhere in Apacheria. With his first wife Alope, his mother Juana, and three children to support, Geronimo moved into the Big and Little Burro Mountains area of Arizona, where he met the magnificent Mimbreno leader, Mangas Coloradas, father-in-law of the famous Cochise. Geronimo formed a deep and lasting friendship with the Mimbreno chief.
By the summer of 1850, Geronimo and his Bedonkohe adherents had come under the full leadership and protection of Mangas Coloradas. On a trading trip to Casa Grandes, with the great chief leading, they stopped at a town they called Kas-ki-yeh. It has been accepted that this site is the town of Janos in the Mexican state of Chihauhau. It was a peaceful expedition, and all the women and children were along. While the men were out hunting meat, a group of Mexican troops swooped down upon the camp, butchering nearly everyone in sight. The massacre of his family loosed Geronimo upon the land. It was an enraged, burning hatred he carried against the Mexicans until his dying day.
This bitter loss brought Geronimo his "Power," and it directly led to his new name. While sitting with his head bowed in sorrow, he heard a voice tell him that ‘no gun can ever kill you, and I will guide your arrows.’ The fact that he was often wounded, but remained alive, strengthened his conviction in this power. He became so fierce and unafraid in his war with the Mexicans that the soldiers began to cry out in terror each time they saw him. "Cuidado! Geronimo!" They were calling upon St. Jerome, the patron saint of the Mexican army, to protect them, but their calls became the battle cry for all Apaches everywhere. Goyahkla officially became "Geronimo."
Geronimo was neither a war chief nor a medicine man to the Apache, although many people think that he was. By the time the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 brought the disputed Arizona border under close scrutiny, the Bedonkohes were fully merged with the Mimbrenos under Mangas Coloradas’ leadership. Geronimo was just another warrior sneaking in and out of Mexico on war raids. When Mangas Coloradas was betrayed and murdered by a group of miners at Pinos Altos on 18 January 1863, it was Geronimo who brought war to the whites. He went straight to Cochise and was soon joined by his close friends, Victorio and Loco, whose names would soon become household words. Geronimo’s revenge was completely brutal, designed to strike fear into hearts everywhere. Since Cochise himself had been betrayed by the US Army, a full-scale Apache War commenced. According to Geronimo’s own words, "All of the Indians agreed not to be friendly with the white men any more." Geronimo also said the murder of Mangas Coloradas was "perhaps the greatest wrong ever done to the Indians."
There was no successor to Mangas Coloradas. The Mimbrenos finally assimilated with the Warm Springs Apaches under the leadership of Chief Nana, later chiefs Victorio and Loco, Victorio being described as the "most perfect human being in existence." Geronimo stayed with Cochise. His war with the whites lasted until 1886.
Although it was the honest integrity of Tom Jeffords who managed to make a pact with Cochise, bringing peace to the Chiricahua in 1873, Geronimo never capitulated. He gave reservation life a couple of tries and then headed for his Skeleton Canyon stronghold, where he continued his depredations on both sides of the border. There was no stopping him. He meant to live free, or die trying. Over the years, he would have nine more wives after Alope, nearly all of them killed or taken captive by the Mexicans. Two died in captivity in Florida. His last wife, Azul, outlived her husband and moved to Mescalero, New Mexico in 1913 with the prisoners who chose that reservation as their future home.
On April 7, 1886, Chief Chihuahua and the other Chiricahuas who remained on the reservation, including the wives of Geronimo and Naiche, were sent to Fort Marion, Florida. The Warm Springs Apaches under Chiefs Loco and Nana, remained on the reservation, as did Chato and his friendly Chiricahuas, to be removed to Oklahoma later. The idea was to bring Geronimo down from the hills. It worked. Without his precious family, Geronimo negotiated a surrender with Lieutenant Charles Gatewood and two Apache scouts, one of whom was the famous Chatto, and three days later, on 8 September 1886, he was on his way toward Florida, where he thought he would be allowed to rejoin his family. Instead, he was once again betrayed.
He was sent to Fort Pickens at Pensacola, and it was several more months before his family would be allowed to join him. The local citizens in Arizona, who had lived the horror of the death and destruction which Geronimo had wreaked upon them for so long, were only too glad to see the Chiricahuas sent away. According to General Nelson Miles, who had put 5,000 soldiers, almost as many civilian irregulars, and hundreds of Apache scouts after Geronimo and his 24 warriors without even the smallest smidgen of success, if Geronimo had elected to remain in his mountain fortress, the Army would never have caught him.
Under the terms of Geronimo’s surrender, the Indians were to remain in Florida for only two years, after which they could return to Arizona. Again, Geronimo was betrayed. Secretary of War William Endicott decided it foolhardy to return the Apaches to the Southwest. He set about "civilizing" Geronimo’s band, sending the older children to Indian school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where their hair was cut, they were dressed in uniforms, and where they were given white names.
In May 1888, Geronimo and the Apaches were transferred to an even worse center of disease and death at Mount Vernon Barracks in Mobile, Alabama. Conditions were so severe that by the end of the year, two men, ten women, and nine children were dead and more were dying. Through the efforts of General George Crook, John Clum, and other white men who sympathized with the Apache plight, some of the Apaches were allowed to return to San Carlos, but not Geronimo and his Chiricahuas. They remained in Alabama until a curious reversal of an ancient relationship set them on the journey to Fort Sill, Oklahoma in October 1893. The Kiowas and Comanches at Fort Sill offered to share their reservation with Geronimo’s Chiricahuas, who were their traditional enemies. The remnants of the Chiricahuas arrived in January 1894. By this time, there were only 296 of them left.
Throughout the remainder of his life, Geronimo never missed a chance to plead for his Apaches’ return to Arizona. He told General Miles in 1898 that ‘the acorns and the pinon nuts, the quail and the wild turkey, the giant cactus and the palo verdes - they all miss me. I miss them too. I want to go back to them.’ General Miles replied, "A very beautiful thought, Geronimo. But the men and women who live in Arizona, they do not miss you….Folks in Arizona sleep now at night, have no fear that Geronimo will come and kill them."
An old man by the time he arrived in Oklahoma, Geronimo was still a formidable person. Although a prisoner of war, he was not kept in the guardhouse, except when he became drunk and disorderly. He had photographs made of himself which he sold for 50 cents, and he also sold the buttons off his clothing for a quarter, carrying a button case around with him so he could attach new buttons at night. His autograph would often fetch a dollar. He became a living legend with as many stories told about his exploits as Billy the Kid or Jesse James.
While bullets might not kill him, "civilization" surely did. He got drunk on the night of 11 February on white man’s whiskey in Lawton, and on the ride back to Fort Sill, he fell off his horse. No one missed him. It was raining and very cold, and he lay unconscious in the wet and muddy road until the next morning. The old warrior, feeling betrayed and begging for freedom, died of pneumonia on 17 February 1909. He was still a prisoner of war and still longing for his mountains of Arizona. He is buried in the Apache South cemetery on the Fort Sill Military Reservation. Nearby lie the graves of family members and his "brothers," Nana, Naiche, Loco, and Chihauhua.
As a bit of trivia, a number of his descendants have been well-known in various fields of endeavor. One of his grandsons was a famous character actor in Hollywood by the name of Charlie Stevens. Charlie acted in hundreds of films and was a close personal friend of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Another grandson, Geronimo III, would often bring his Apaches down from the Mescalero Reservation in New Mexico for pow-wow each summer, to the great delight of the people in Alamogordo.
Geronimo is the ONLY Indian to be recognized worldwide for his bravery and ferocity, and this includes the likes of such great leaders as Cochise, Crazy Horse, Stand Watie, Osceola, Satanta, et al. The battle cry of "Geronimo" stands alone as the most powerful word in the military language.
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