It’s been one hundred years since he died—and the mystique still surrounds Geronimo.
Who was he, really? Even now, historians can’t be completely sure of the facts. Some biographers list his birth date as June of 1829. Others say he was born somewhere between 1823-1825. He was the fourth child in a family of four boys and four girls, but even his birth name is disputed. Some say he was called “The One Who Yawns,” his name being “Goyathlay.” Others spell it differently: “Goyahkla.” But by the time he was in his mid-twenties, he was called by the name we remember: Geronimo
In 1850, because his mother, his young wife, (Alope) and his three children were murdered in a raid on their village by Mexican troops, Geronimo pledged that he would avenge their deaths. He received “the Power”—the life force of the universe that gave him supernatural abilities. These included being able to see into the future, walk without leaving tracks, and hold off the dawn. In a vision, he was told that no bullet would ever bring him down in battle, a prophecy that proved true.
Geronimo fought so savagely, so fiercely, that the Mexican troops began to call to Saint Jerome for deliverance from him. Thus, their cries for help became the name he was known by: Geronimo.
In addition to fighting the Mexicans, Geronimo found himself and his Chiracahua Apache tribe at odds with the U.S. Government. By the early 1870s, the federal government’s newly-instituted policy of placing the traditionally nomadic Apaches on reservations was the cause of regular uprisings. Geronimo fought for his peoples’ hereditary land for years.
In 1885, he led a group of more than 100 men, women and children in an escape from the reservation, to the mountains of Mexico. During this time, his band was pursued by more than 5,000 white soldiers, and over 500 Indian auxiliaries were employed to achieve Geronimo’s capture. It took over five months to track Geronimo to his camp in Mexico’s Sonora Mountains—over 1,645 miles away.
On March 27, 1886, exhausted and hopelessly outnumbered, Geronimo surrendered. His band consisted of only a few warriors, women and children. Also found was a young captive, a white boy, name Jimmy “Santiago” McKinn who had been kidnapped six months earlier. The boy had become so assimilated to the Apache way of life that he cried when he was forced to return to his parents.
As the group began the trek back to Fort Bowie, Arizona, Geronimo and some of the warriors, women and boys escaped once more, making their way back into the Sierra Madre.
On September 4, 1886, Geronimo surrendered for the last time to General Nelson A. Miles at Skeleton Canyon in southern Arizona. He was sent to Florida in a boxcar, a prisoner of war. It was May of 1887 before he was reunited with his family, and they were once again moved; this time, to Mount Vernon Barracks near Mobile, Alabama.
In 1894, Geronimo was again moved with other Apaches to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He attempted to try and fit in, farming and joining the Dutch Reformed Church. He was expelled from the church for his penchant for gambling.
The federal government made many empty promises to Geronimo and his people, but they allowed him to keep the money he made from selling buttons from his clothing or posing for pictures at numerous fairs and exhibitions such as the Omaha Exposition in Omaha, NE (1898), the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, NY (1901), and the St. Louis World’s Fair in St. Louis, MO (1904).
In 1905, Geronimo rode in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade. It was also during this year that he told the story of his life to S. M. Barrett, who wrote “Geronimo: His Own Story”, which was published in 1906.
In 1909, Geronimo was riding home after drinking too much. He fell off of his horse and lay, wet and freezing, beside the road until he was discovered several hours later. Never having seen his beloved Arizona homeland again, he died of pneumonia on February 17, 1909.
Geronimo is buried at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in an Apache POW cemetery. There is a simple stone monument at his gravesite where people still bring icons and offerings and leave them. Baggies of sage, seashells, scraps of paper—homage to the greatest warrior who ever lived.
Geronimo was not a chief. He was not a medicine man. He was a leader of men—a fighter whose battle tactics are studied still in military institutions. In the quiet of the cemetery, his children, warriors, relatives and wives buried nearby, he is still a leader, respected and recognized all over the world.
Did you know: “Apache” is a word for “street thug” in France?
Did you know: There is a rumor that some of Geronimo’s warriors “disappeared” mysteriously from the boxcar as they were being transported to Florida?
Did you know: Signers of the Medicine Lodge Treaty were given burial rights in the main post cemetery at Fort Sill? (Quanah Parker and others are buried with white soldiers in the regular base cemetery.)
Did you know: The custom of paratroopers yelling, “Geronimo!” is attributed to Aubrey Ebenhart, a member of the U.S. Army’s test platoon at Ft. Benning, Georgia. He told his friends he would “yell Geronimo loud as hell when I go out that door tomorrow!” Which he did!
In my novel, Fire Eyes, Kaed Turner was abducted by the Apaches as a young boy, just as Jimmy McKinn was kidnapped by Geronimo’s band. Kaed and his younger siblings were traded to the Choctaw, where they were assimilated into the tribe.
This excerpt is a remembrance between Kaed and Chief Standing Bear, the man who raised him. I hope you enjoy it.
EXCERPT FROM FIRE EYES
Standing Bear dismounted and came forward to stand beside Kaed, and Kaed turned his full attention to the warrior, waiting for the older man to speak.
It was as it had been all those years ago, when Kaed had come to live with the Choctaw people. The Apache had killed his mother and father, then taken Kaed and his younger brother and sister into captivity. The Choctaws had bartered with the Apaches for the youngsters, so they’d been raised in the Choctaw way.
The healing bruises Kaed wore today were reminiscent of the ones he’d been marked with when he first met Standing Bear, close to twenty years earlier.
“Seems we’ve stood this way before, Chief.”
“Yes, Wolf. You were marked as you are today. But still strong enough to wear defiance in your eyes. Strong enough to stand, and fight.”
Kaed gave him a fleeting grin, remembering how, as a nine-year-old boy faced with being traded away, he had rammed his head into Standing Bear’s rock-hard belly, catching him off guard, nearly knocking him to the ground in front of the Apaches and Standing Bear’s own warriors.
Standing Bear smiled and put his hand to his stomach. “This recovered before my pride did.” He nodded at Kaed’s arm. “I hope it is not so with you, Wolf. You did all you could, yet I see you still hold some blame in your heart for yourself.”
Kaed had to admit it was true, and he didn’t understand it. When he went over it logically in his mind, as he had done a thousand times, he knew he wasn’t to blame, that he’d done everything he could have. But he’d never expected White Deer to do what she had done, and he understood the parallel Standing Bear was drawing. The chief had never expected the young boy Kaed had been to lower his head and run at him, either.
Standing Bear spoke in his native tongue. “Have you thought upon my words concerning Fire Eyes? Or will she go to one of my warriors?”
“She is my woman now,” Kaed said in the same language, “and will belong to no other man.”