the 18th and 19th century, the American goal was Manifest
Destiny (the inevitable westward American expansion), and that meant finding a
way to rid the land of the Native American tribes that had lived there for hundreds
of years. In the southwest, the main
group of Indian tribes were known as the Apache, which translates simply to
“the people” (Goodwin Geronimo). In the
latter half of the 19th century, the American government tried to confine
the Apache people to reservations. The
Apache always had a strong connection of their land, their culture was
inseparable from nature. A small band of
Chiricahua Apaches fought for survival and to protect their land for decades,
leading to their story being shrouded in myth for generations to come,
especially the story of their legendary leader, Geronimo. He was a fearless Apache leader who led his
people in attempt to preserve his homeland, his people, and his culture.
was born in June of 1829, in what was then No-doyohn
Cañón, Mexico. This land was
historically the land of the Chiricahua Apaches, and Geronimo lived most of his
life in this mountainous region as a member of the Bedonkohe band (Geronimo 12). He was born Goyathlay
(“One Who Yawns”), and kept that name throughout his youth (“Geronimo”
2013). Geronimo had a strong connection to his
family and the world around him, as he eventually became a “husband, father…
medicine man, and a respected leader” (“Geronimo”
2011). At the time, the Apache people lived on
Mexican land, as the Mexicans did not recognize the Apache claims to the land. The Mexican hatred for the Apache was so
great that the government offered money for Apache scalps: $100 for men, $50
for women, and $25 for children (Goodwin, Geronimo and the
Apache Resistance). The outlook did
not seem favorable for the Apache people.
Then, in 1848, the Mexican War ended, and everything changed. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed,
and the land that the Apache people lived on was given to America, even though
the Apaches claimed that it was not the right of the Mexican government to give
that land to anyone. Americans began to
move into the area, their motivation was most likely the prospect of gold. At first, the Apaches tried to understand the
whites, but the miners and farmers were aggressive, and mistrusted the Apaches (Goodwin, Geronimo). This was the beginning of the Apache resistance,
but the beginning of Geronimo’s resistance against the whites and the Mexicans truly
began about a decade late.
According to Geronimo
himself (though other sources give different dates), it was the summer of 1858
when tragedy struck. This event would
permanently “affect his outlook on life and especially people of Mexican
heritage” (Geronimo 2011) While in a Mexican town to trade, the Apache camp he
had left behind was attacked by Mexican troops from another town. When Geronimo returned, he found his wife,
mother, and three children among the dead.
Geronimo vowed vengeance, and in the summer of 1859, he assembled
several tribes to go on the warpath. Here is where
much of the confusion lies, as Geronimo, throughout his lifetime, was forever
painted as a savage, hiding in the mountains and terrorizing the southwest. The actual truth is a sad truth. Geronimo could never bring back his family
whom he loved so dearly, but at least he “could rejoice in this revenge” (Geronimo
54). Geronimo spent most of his life
either fighting to avenge his slain loved ones, or fighting for the protection
of the Chiricahua Apache land and culture.
He was not a fighter simply to fight, he was motivated by much deeper
1860s, Geronimo took part in many a raid into Mexico, becoming renowned for his
fighting ability. In his autobiography,
Geronimo tells tales of successful raids on Mexicans, and of encounters with
the white man. For over a decade, the
Chiricahua people resisted Union soldiers and terrorized Mexican towns. During this time, Geronimo was not actually
the leader of the group of warriors he raided with. Instead, he fought under Mangus-Colorado and
Cochise. During this time, he acquired
the name Geronimo, as Mexican soldiers were praying to Saint Jerome as they
faced him in battle at Arispe, Mexico (“Geronimo” 2011). Geronimo’s quest for vengeance against the Mexicans
seemed endless, as the death of his brethren seemed to rarely discourage him. His raids often sustained losses so heavy
that no Apache would dare go with him on a raid for close to a year afterward. In terms of their relations with the white
men, the Apache fought back against Union soldiers and mistrusted them. This went on until 1872, when Cochise made a
peace treaty with General Oliver O. Howard.
According to Geronimo, the Apache “never had so good a friend among the United States officers as General
Howard” (Geronimo 128). The Chiricahua
reservation was in southeast Arizona, on part of land the Apache claimed as
their own. The conditions were
apparently good, and the Chiricahua befriended the soldiers and felt they had
freedom on their homeland. This all went
south after Cochise died in 1874, as “the federal government reneged on its
agreement” (“Geronimo” Biography.com). The
government wanted them to farm the land, but the land was not good for farming. Instead, the Chiricahua wanted to raise
cattle, but the government denied both their request and supplies, causing some
of them to starve (Goodwin,
Geronimo). Finally, in 1876, the reservation closed, and
the government tried to move the Chiricahua to the San Carlos Reservation in
northern Arizona to live with other Apache tribes. Geronimo fled with four hundred others to
Mexico, but was taken back in chains to San Carlos the next year. This the only time he was captured.
At the San
Carlos Reservation, conditions were poor.
Supplies were low, and the Apache were mistreated by the soldiers. In 1878, the Chiricahua were again moved,
this time to Fort Apache, even further north and further away from their
homeland. Geronimo struggled with
reservation life until September of 1881, when along with Naiche, who was the
son of Cochise and the new chief of the Chiricahua, and four hundred other
Chiricahua people, he again fled to Mexico.
Geronimo had reason to hate reservation life. His people were mistreated in a place far
from their homeland, by people they had no reason to trust. The United States government went back on
their agreement, and Geronimo was understandably angry at this, and combined
with his earlier issues with the whites, he made the decision to escape to his
General George Crook was recalled to Arizona to deal with the situation, as he
had previously succeeded in setting up peace in the area. He was compassionate with the Chiricahua, and
was the only real hope for peace, as trying to hunt them down and kill them all
would only cause more problems. Crook’s
plan was to find the Chiricahua and peacefully bring them back, a feat that
many considered impossible. The Apache
seemed to be acting with impunity, and causing them to surrender seemed an
unreasonable expectation. A popular Apache belief was “it’s better to die young
than let yourself get old and have someone taking care of you” (Goodwin,
Geronimo). Achieving peace with
Geronimo, who felt he had been wronged by the American government, and once
again felt free in his homeland, would be difficult. However, many of the other Apache people saw
Geronimo as a threat to peace, so Crook managed to enlist some of them as
scouts to help track down Geronimo.
After a long
search, another peace agreement, and yet another escape, during which various
sources, including Geronimo himself, offer varying timelines about what
occurred. The most exact timeline of
this debacle seems to be that Geronimo surrendered in March of 1884, escaped
again in May of 1885, and finally surrendered again in late March of 1886
(Fredriksen). To make a long story
short, Geronimo and Naiche eventually had a peace conference with General Crook
at Cañón de Los Embudos, fifteen miles into Mexico. Geronimo’s main priority was survival, and he
deferred to Naiche for the decision they were about to make. Naiche surrendered to Crook, agreeing to be
exiled from the Southwest “to Florida as punishment”, with the promise of
eventual return (Fredriksen). However,
Geronimo began to fear for his life, as rumors of treachery and deceit began to
make their way to him. Two days after
the peace treaty, Geronimo and Naiche fled once again, with forty other Chiricahua. Seeing the failure inherent in Crook’s plan, General
Crook’s commanding officer, General Phillip Sheridan, told him to change his
strategy to a more aggressive approach (Goodwin, Geronimo). Crook disagreed, and promptly resigned. Contrary to how Geronimo portrays him, General
Crook was never the man that only did “evil deeds” (Geronimo 139). He treated with the Apache decently, and it
was the individuals that came succeeded him that were deceitful, and they treated
Geronimo and his people as savages.
was replaced with General Nelson A. Miles, who was aggressive as well as
contemptuous for the methods his predecessor used (Fredriksen). Instead of the Apache scouts Crook used to
hunt down Geronimo, Miles used five thousand soldiers and militia, “nearly a
quarter of the Army’s forces”, to pursue his foe (Geronimo Biography.com). Even with thousands of men, it took Miles half
a year to instigate Geronimo’s final surrender.
His cavalry proved inefficient in the mountains, and even if the
soldiers did stumble upon the Apache, they could easily disappear indefinitely
after a brief skirmish (Goodwin, Geronimo).
Geronimo knew the land, and the safe places throughout it; this was
where he learned to fight. During this
period, Geronimo “was transformed into a legend as newspapers closely followed
the Army’s pursuit of him” (Geronimo Biography.com). However, Geronimo eventually grew tired of
being on the run, and when Lieutenant Charles B. Gatewood, along with two Apache
scouts, went to Geronimo and offered him surrender, he agreed to meet with
General Miles. Geronimo trusted Gatewood,
so he was not at once killed when he approached the Apache leader near
Fronteras in Mexico. Helping Gatewood’s cause
were the two Apache scouts, Katiyah and Marteen, whom the Chiricahua knew
(Geronimo 144). It was clear that Miles
had finally given in and employed Apache scouts like Crook did, in a desperate
attempt to track Geronimo down (Geronimo 2013).
Without them, Geronimo might have never been found.
Geronimo agreed to negotiate with General Miles,
and they met at Skeleton Canyon in southeast Arizona, on September 4, 1886. Miles agreed to Geronimo’s terms, which were
thus: for his people to be returned to their families after a short prison
sentence, and that they all be returned to the reservation to live out their
lives in peace (Geronimo 2011). Geronimo
felt he had been wronged many times by the federal government, and that feeling
was justifiable. It was understandable
both that he wanted to make peace and that he was mistrustful of any promises
Miles made. So, General Miles responded that
he had been sent by the President of The United States (who at the time was
Grover Cleveland) to make peace with the Apache, which helped his case in
convincing Geronimo (Geronimo 144). General
Miles promised Geronimo that he would see his family, and that he could live
peacefully on the reservation, and so, at last, Geronimo agreed to make the
treaty. Here Geronimo describes the
method of the treaty in detail:
“We placed a
large stone on the blanket before us. Our
treaty was made by this stone, and it was to last until the stone should
crumble to dust; so, we made the treaty, and bound each other with an oath. When we had made the treaty, General Miles
said to me: ‘My brother, you have in your mind how you are going to kill men,
and other thoughts of war; I want you to put that out of your mind, and change
your thoughts to peace.’ Then I agreed and gave up my arms. I said: ‘I will quit the warpath and live at
peace hereafter.’ Then General Miles swept a spot of ground clear with his
hand, and said: ‘Your past deeds shall be wiped out like this and you will
start a new life.'”
was truly a momentous landmark in the history of the southwest. As far as everyone could tell, the Apache
resistance had finally ceased, and peace had been made. The Chiricahua were the last tribe in the
southwest to surrender to the United States.
The end of this conflict “truly marked the end of a chapter in Apache
and western American history” (Iverson).
Sadly, this start of a new life that Miles promised was the beginning of
Geronimo’s life as a prisoner of war.
This supposed end to the conflict was just commencement of what would
amount to decades of mistreatment of the Chiricahua by the federal government.
Many sources trivialize the next
part of Geronimo’s life, and simply say he was a prisoner for a while then died
from pneumonia in Oklahoma. Contrary to
that belief, the next part of Geronimo’s life and the almost unheard-of tragedy
of the Apache people is the key to understanding the motivations of this
momentous figure. Immediately after
their surrender, the Chiricahua became prisoners of war at Fort Apache, along
with the Apache scouts that General Miles had employed (Goodwin, Geronimo). Geronimo was first taken on the Southern
Pacific Railroad to San Antonio to be tried for his crimes, and then was taken
by train with the rest of the Apache to Florida (Geronimo 177). The conditions on the train were comparable
to the conditions faced by those taken by train during the Holocaust. The Apache were taken like cattle: loaded
into boxcars with no food (Goodwin, Geronimo).
They were kept in Fort Pickens, near Pensacola, Florida. Unused to the climate, many Apache faced
malaria, along with bad water and low food.
Tragically, the Chiricahua children were sent to Carlisle, Pennsylvania
for schooling. Separated from the rest
of their people, many of them contacted tuberculosis, and never saw their
families again. After about eighteen
months, the Chiricahua were moved to Mount Vernon Barracks near Mobile,
Alabama, where the conditions were not much better (Goodwin, Geronimo). In 1894, after eight years in the Deep South,
the Apache were moved to reservation lands near Fort Sill, Oklahoma. This land was given by the Kiowa and
Comanches, historically enemies of the Apache (Geronimo 2011). This was where Geronimo would live out the
rest of his life.
At Fort Sill, despite the location
being far from their homeland, the Apaches were mostly at peace. They were finally on a proper reservation,
and they had a good life. Geronimo spent
most of his time there adapting to the ways of the white man. He eventually became a drawing card at Wild
West shows, even going to the “St. Louis World’s Fair” in 1904 (Geronimo 197). At this point in his life, Geronimo had made
peace with the world, and tried to understand the American culture:
“I am glad I went to the Fair. I saw many interesting things and learned
much of the white people. They are a
very kind and peaceful people. During
all the time I was at the Fair no one tried to harm me in any way… I wish all
my people could have attended the Fair.”
While at the
Fair, Geronimo sold pictures of himself as well as signatures. It may seem quaint to most, but for a man who
had been on the run for all his life, it was the peacefulness he wished
for. Alas, the memory of his family’s
murder at the hands of the Mexicans never left Geronimo, even when he settled
down (Goodwin Geronimo). Some sources
note that in 1903, Geronimo converted to Christianity to “improve his
character”, but was expelled for “incessant gambling”, but what is more
important is the understanding of the concept that Geronimo was never meant to
be a legendary warrior (Geronimo 2011). Geronimo
was a shaman, leading his people in healing and in traditional ceremonies. To understand Geronimo, one must look at the
parts of his life untold by the tales and legends. His life was filled with tragedy and sorrow,
and all he did was take a stand for what he thought was right. Forever to be
remembered as “a potent symbol of man’s determination to live free”, Geronimo
died of pneumonia after falling off his horse on February 17, 1909
(Fredriksen). He lived to be close to
eighty years old.
This is not the end of the story of
the Chiricahua people. After forty years
of conflict, their numbers had declined from several thousand, to just 388 in
1896 (Goodwin Geronimo). The memory of
the land that was lost and the lives lost defending will never be forgotten. In 1913, the Chiricahua people were released
from being prisoners of war when the reservation they were living on
closed. Some of them stayed in Oklahoma
to farm, but most of them went to Mescalero (Goodwin Geronimo). They went by train to join other Apaches in
a southern New Mexico reservation. One
of Geronimo’s last wishes was that even in he was to live his whole life as a
prisoner, that “the remnant of the Apache tribe… return to Arizona” (Geronimo
216). The Chiricahua Apaches spent
twenty-seven years as prisoners of war, longer than any group in American history. Their only desire was to live free, and even then,
their wish was barely granted.
Throughout his life, Geronimo struggled
for dignity and for peace; he was a man who risked everything for his home and
for his way of life (Goodwin Geronimo). Myths
portray him as an implacable savage and one of history’s great warriors, yet
these portrayals do not come close to depicting “the scope of his achievements”
(Geronimo 2011). Geronimo was someone
whose goal was to preserve Apache culture and traditions. His fears that the long-standing right of the
Apache to their homeland and to their freedom would be taken away were
justified. His family was killed, his
rights were taken away, and his people were forced to live a life of fighting
and fleeing to protect their homeland.
Geronimo was the embodiment of the feeling of unrest in the southwest as
the American government broke treaties and promises for decades on end. Geronimo’s “courage and determination… helped
sustain the spirits of his people” (Iverson).
Fighting for his beliefs and culture for decades, Geronimo was a complex
and momentous figure who was gravely misunderstood, and the hardships and
tragedies he faced throughout his life- mostly at the hands of the Mexican and
United States government- helped him become the last great defender of the
Apache way of life.
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