He was stocky, not more than 5-foot-7 in his calf-length mocassins. Raven-black hair hung to his shoulders. His skin was the color of penny-copper and his broad seamed face was interrupted by a knife-slash mouth that appeared never to have smiled, fixing his features into a baleful, glowering scowl. He was Geronimo, an Apache war leader whose name froze the blood of white settlers in the Southwest in the 1880s; a warrior so feared that hysteria swept the Arizona territory at the news of his break from the San Carlos Reservation in 1882.
Historians do not know at what age he was first given a name or precisely what was meant by it. As a boy he was called by his people Goyahkla (He Who Yawns). In his manhood, he earned another name from his enemies. They called him Jerome–in his own language, Geronimo–and it became his warrior-name.
While Geronimo in the winter of his years recounted his life story through an interpreter in 1905 to S.M. Barrett, an Oklahoma schoolteacher, little is known of this Apache who waged war in the Arizona and New Mexico territory for decades. What detail exists of his early years must be extracted and interpolated from his own account, told in Apache from memory battered by time and perception. Geronimo would brook no questions, so the narrative is frustratingly silent in many areas.
He placed the time of his birth into the Bedonkohe Apache people about 1829 near the upper Gila River on the Arizona side of the New Mexico border. (Southwest historian Dan Thrapp believes that date is off by at least five years.) As a young brave he took to wife a Nednhi Apache named Alope, and his sister was married to Juh, a young Nednhi chief-to-be. With these tribal ties, Goyahkla and Juh turned to raiding south of the border until the northern Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua enacted laws posting a bounty for every Apache scalp taken–women and children included. Scalp-hunting became a lucrative, savagely bloody business that intensified when the professionals found the government could not tell the scalp of one tribe from another. Comanche hair served as a frequent substitute.
Goyahkla’s life was to change–forever in March 1851, when a troop of 400 soldiers from Sonora, under command of Col. Jose Maria Carrasco, descended upon a Bedonkohes camp outside Janos in northwestern Chihuahua. Men of the camp had gone to Janos to trade, leaving only a token guard with the old men, women and children. Carrasco’s surprise attack left twenty-one Apaches dead–sixteen men and five women–but it is also likely that the colonel did not report the full number of women and children slain. Among the dead were Goyahkla’s mother, his wife and three children. Bitterness could not adequately describe his grief; he nurtured a hatred for the rest of his life, and he recalled in those later years, “My heart ached for revenge upon Mexico.”
Nearly a year after the Janos massacre he would exact his first measure of vengeance. In a raid planned by the strategist Juh, and with some 200 painted Chiricahua warriors rallied by Mangas Coloradas and Cochise, the band made its way to Arizpe in northern Sonora, where two companies of Mexican cavalry and two of infantry were posted.
On the first day, a supply train carrying guns and ammunition was seized, and when eight townspeople came out to parley they were captured, killed and scalped. “This was to draw the troops from the city, and the next day they came,” Goyahkla said. Because he had been “deeply wronged” more than the others by soldiers, the honor of leading the attack was granted him. After two hours of furious hand-to-hand fighting, the Mexicans were defeated, losing twenty-six dead and forty-six wounded. It was regarded at the time as the Apache victory of the century. From it came Geronimo’s warrior-name, and with it was born the Geronimo legend.
Soldiers involved in the bloody struggle were heard to shout, “Cuidado! Cuidado! Geronimo!” But no one, not even the Apaches, could give a reason for the name. Some scholars have thought the terrified men were invoking the Catholic St. Jerome in Spanish–but it is more likely that in the frenzy of battle, the soldiers’ frightened screams were misunderstood.
In any case, it is now a footnote in history: The name Geronimo has become a war cry symbolizing daredevil courage and ferocity in battle. From that raid, Geronimo’s ascendancy began. His “power”–that is, his influence–increased despite all attempts to keep him on a reservation. Despised by whites as a renegade, he continued to vex the U.S. and Mexican military and harass townspeople. Though he was a minor figure in Apache history until the 1880s and his followers pitifully few in comparison to the great warrior chiefs Victorio, Mangas, Cochise and Juh, he was able to run the military of two countries ragged.
Fact: Geronimo never was captured. During the Army’s infamous “Geronimo campaign” of 1885-86, the height of his terrifying career, this renegade eluded 5,000 U.S. Army regulars, 3,000 Mexican soldiers, some 500 Indian scouts, and a huge number of vengeful civilians–all thirsting for his blood.
And what of Geronimo’s raiders? During the time the military pursued him, Geronimo led barely three dozen Chiricahua warriors, men and boys. Yet those three dozen killed seventy-five residents of Arizona and New Mexico, rubbed out a dozen friendly White Mountain Apaches, two commissioned U.S. officers and eight enlisted men–and murdered another hundred or more Mexicans not on record. Geronimo’s losses totaled six warriors, two older boys, two women and a child.
In those turbulent days, Apache attacks were so lethal and vicious that white settlements clamored for extermination of the raiders. When in 1871 a party of vigilantes slaughtered more than a hundred Apache women and children at Camp Grant, an Arizona jury refused to convict the perpetrators even as the rest of the nation howled its outrage. Mutilation and torture were common on both sides.
For a time, General George Crook–who learned his Indian-fighting tangling with the Sioux and Cheyenne at Rosebud Creek, Montana, in ’76–seemed to be gaining on Geronimo in 1885. But as historian C.L. Sonnichsen described the temper of the times, “A mass meeting in Tombstone declared, If Crook brings these murderous scoundrels back to the reservation and turns them over to the civil authorities again . . . it would be a heroic act for the people of Arizona to massacre every one of them.'” The reservation system, they complained, was a farce.
When Geronimo decided to surrender, it was to Crook. And it might have come about, too, if a whiskey trader named Tribolet had not sold the Apaches mescal and whispered warnings to Geronimo and a chief named Naiche that the soldiers planned to take them prisoner and kill them. In later years, Geronimo admitted, “I feared treachery,” and he blamed Crook.
Geronimo and Naiche, with their followers, slipped away in the night. And General Crook found himself reassigned to a command in the Midwest. His replacement was General Nelson A. Miles, a posturing officer given to glorifying his own exploits. In the end, however, it was not the military but attrition that wore Geronimo down. Without food, medicine and supplies, the hopelessness of his situation closed about him thick as night. He sent word he would bring his band in, if they were allowed to return to the reservation. It was September 1886 at a place known as Skeleton Canyon that Geronimo abandoned the warpath with his thirty-four Chiricahuas. It was his fourth and final surrender.
Expecting the San Carlos Reservation, the Indians instead were put aboard a train and shipped off to Fort Marion, Florida, as prisoners of war. The old warrior in captivity learned farming–raising watermelons near Fort Sill, Oklahoma. And he was outrageously exploited–by himself–better than any white eyes could have done, hawking his photograph, selling autographs, and making bows and arrows at fairs and expositions.
Geronimo never again saw his Arizona homeland, and regretted to the end of his days having surrendered rather than fighting to the death in the mountains he loved. He died February 17, 1909, of pneumonia in the Fort Sill Military Hospital.