Born June 1829
No-doyohn Cañon, Arizona
Died February 17, 1909
Fort Sill, Oklahoma
Warrior and tribal leader
"He stood erect as a mountain pine, while every outline of his symmetrical form indicated strength and endurance.... His proud and graceful posture combined to create in him the model of an Apache war-chief."
John Clum, the only Indian agent to capture Geronimo, as quoted in Geronimo and the Struggle for Apache Freedom
The world has come to recognize Geronimo as one of history's great warriors. Leading small bands of Apache on bloody raids, Geronimo struck fear into the hearts of early settlers of New Mexico and Arizona. His ability to disappear into the dusty landscape proved frustrating to the U.S. troops who pursued him throughout the arid region. When he finally surrendered in 1889, Geronimo was the last renegade of the Chiricahua Apache. His final surrender marked the ending of Indians' real threat to white settlers of the Southwest. The story of Geronimo's life is one of the most recounted tales in Native American history—despite the fact that little is known about Geronimo's personality or his day-to-day experiences.
Geronimo related that he was born in June 1829 in No-doyohn Cañon, Arizona, but many historians claim Geronimo was born in 1827. Geronimo was given the name Goyathlay (also spelled Goyahkla; which means "One Who Yawns") at birth and was called this until his late teens. Goyathlay's grandfather was the chief of a Chiricahua Apache tribe: Goyathlay's father was not a chief because he had joined his wife's tribe of Bedonkohe Apache, thereby losing his right to rule by heredity. Mangas Coloradas succeeded Goyathlay's grandfather as chief of the Chiricahua Apaches, a position Goyathlay might have held otherwise.
At the age of seventeen, sometime around the year 1846, Goyathlay was invited to join the council of warriors, signifying that he was now considered a man in the tribe and not a boy. As a member of the council, he was eligible to fight in battle and to marry. Goyathlay gave many ponies to the father of a young woman named Alope, and she became his wife. In his lifetime, Goyathlay married about eight times. His many children from these marriages would not live easy lives. Four of his children were killed by Mexicans, and four were imprisoned by the U.S. government.
Intermittent warfare broke out between Mexican settlers and the various bands of Apache in the mid-1800s. Conflict was not new to the Apache. Centuries before, the Spanish conquistadors had eagerly ensnared the Indians in order to sell them on the lucrative slave market. The Apaches—unlike other, more subdued Indian tribes—had responded with swift counterattacks before retreating into the harsh mountain terrain, which was unsuitable for farming; thereafter, the Apaches' economic structure grew dependent on raiding settled communities. Following the Mexican-American War (1846–48)—in which the United States acquired most of present-day Arizona and New Mexico, California, Nevada, Utah, Texas, and parts of Wyoming and Colorado—the Americans pledged to prevent Apaches from raiding across the border into Mexico. But this was a difficult policy to implement, as the Apaches could not relinquish a pattern of raiding that had sustained them for centuries.
In 1858 a group of Apaches was attacked near Janos, Chihuahua, by a mixed group of Mexican troops and settlers. Goyathlay's mother, wife, and three children were killed. After the death of his family, Goyathlay sat alone in the mountains weeping for his loss. As he grieved he heard his name called four times by spirits, after which he was told that he could never be killed by a bullet and that the spirits would always guide his arrows. Armed with his new power, Goyathlay began a personal crusade for the revenge of his family that would not end for more than thirty years. Though he could not bring his family back, Goyathlay claimed in his autobiography that he "could rejoice in this revenge."
Goyathlay was given the name "Geronimo" during his first fight after the spirits spoke to him. Mexican troops involved in the Janos massacre were stationed at the small town of Arispe in Sonora, Mexico, and they met the Apache war party outside of town in the summer of 1859. Goyathlay led the two-hour fight, and when it was finished, the Apaches were in command of the field. Impressed by Goyathlay's bravery, the Mexicans called him "Geronimo." Some suggest that the name is a Mexican mispronunciation of Goyathlay. Others speculate that the troops that day might have named the Apache war leader for Saint Jerome, the fiery fourth-century saint depicted in Christian art as a lion. Indeed, Geronimo's ferocity in battle became so legendary that Americans would later shout his name as a battle cry. After the Apache victory at Arispe, Geronimo led almost yearly raids against the Mexicans.
White settlements on Apache land
Around 1851, Geronimo heard about some white men coming to measure land to the south of his homeland. These men, led by John Russell Bartlett, were surveying the land to try to figure out a new boundary between Mexico and the United States. Accompanied by other warriors, Geronimo went to visit them. While not understanding each other's language and lacking an interpreter, the two groups still made a treaty with one another promising to be brothers. After this group of surveyors left, the Apaches soon discovered miners combing the Indian hunting grounds for precious minerals. Apaches raided the miners' camps and stole their mules to show their anger over the invasion of Apache lands. Apaches thought gold was a symbol of the sun and sacred to their god, Usen, and they resented the miners coming to take it away.
During the 1860s, whites advanced into the West and onto Apache land. Geronimo led many raids against white settlements and immigrant trains, terrorizing those who wished to settle in the region. U.S. soldiers were soon sent to protect the white settlers. In an effort to stop the fighting, U.S. officers invited the Apache leaders to hold a conference at Apache Pass (Fort Bowie) in 1863. There, treacherous soldiers massacred many of the Apaches. Further trouble erupted, and the Apaches renounced their friendship with the white men, vowing never again to trust the U.S. troops.
By 1871 Congress had passed a measure to fund the confinement of Apaches from Arizona and New Mexico to reservations. In 1872 President Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) sent General Oliver O. Howard (1830–1909) to Arizona to make peace with the Apaches. Geronimo claimed to have traveled to Apache Pass to make a treaty with the general. In Geronimo's view, General Howard kept his word with the Apaches and treated them as if they were brothers; he claimed he could have lived in peace forever with him. "If there is any pure honest white man in the United States Army, that man is General Howard," Geronimo recalled later, according to Geronimo: Apache Freedom Fighter.
But peace did not last long. Even though Geronimo was ordered by military authorities to remain on the San Carlos Reservation, he managed to escape in 1875. For two years, Geronimo lived with a small band of followers, stealing Mexican cattle and horses and selling them in New Mexico. Meanwhile, the new Indian agent (a government official in charge of protecting Indians on a reservation and distributing government aid to them), John Clum, blamed every raid in the Southwest on the renegade Geronimo. Clum succeeded in capturing Geronimo in 1877 and kept him in prison for four months. A new Indian agent was appointed, and he freed Geronimo, who was now in his late forties.
Geronimo tried to live as a farmer on the reservation, but he and his people were not given enough rations. The Apache resolved to break out of the reservation again in 1881. Geronimo and a small band of followers left the reservation, raiding in Mexico and the Southwest for food and supplies. While in the Sierra Madre mountain range, leading one of the bands on a raiding spree, Geronimo and his warriors were surrounded by U.S. general George H. Crook's troops and forced to surrender to government authorities in 1883. Geronimo was kept a prisoner under chains for four months and then transferred to San Carlos. He lived there peacefully until the summer of 1885, when a rumor surfaced that officers were planning to imprison Apache leaders.
A life on the run
Fearing for their safety, the Indian leaders held a council meeting and decided that they would leave the reservation; Geronimo believed it would be better to die on the warpath than to be killed in prison. With 250 Apache followers, Geronimo and Whoa led the Apaches through Apache Pass, where they met with soldiers in battle. Heading toward Old Mexico, they again encountered soldiers on the second day and fought well into the night. The soldiers were unaccustomed to fighting on the rough terrain, and the Apaches were well equipped with arms and supplies that they had accumulated while living on the reservation. After this battle, the Apaches were able to flee south to Casa Grande and camp in the Sierra de Sahuaripa Mountains. Geronimo claimed that the Apaches roamed the area for one year and then returned to San Carlos, taking with them their cattle and horses. Upon their return to the reservation, General Crook ignored Geronimo's pleas and confiscated all the livestock that the Apaches had obtained rightfully from the Mexicans. Once again, the white men had cheated Geronimo.
Alcohol and Native Americans
The Apaches had a powerful desire for alcohol but a particularly difficult time handling it. For centuries, the Apaches drank tizwin, a fermented corn drink. Angie Debo notes in Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place that although the drink had a "relatively low alcoholic content," the "Apaches were efficient drinkers." She adds that "after a preliminary fast they achieved a calculated debauch that threw the whole band into disorder." The resulting unruly behavior caused Indian agents (government officials in charge of protecting Indians on a reservation and distributing government aid to them) to ban tizwin on the reservation. Rules against drinking angered the Apache and influenced many to leave the reservation. Although Indians eventually returned to the reservations, alcohol continued to be a persistent problem for them. Some reservations continue to ban alcohol into the twenty-first century. Many scientific studies have pondered the problem of alcoholism among Native Americans. Peter Cooper Mancall explores the relation between alcohol and Indians in Deadly Medicine: Indians and Alcohol in Early America. "Alcohol abuse has killed and impoverished American Indians since the 17th century, when European settlers began trading rum for furs," writes Mancall. Indian deaths related to alcohol are four times higher than for the general population in the United States, according to Mancall.
Upset with the decision, Geronimo undertook plans to travel to Fort Apache. Upon instructions from General Crook, officers and soldiers were told to arrest Geronimo—and to kill him if he resisted. Informed of Crook's plans, Geronimo prepared to head south to Old Mexico with about four hundred Apache. But while the Apache were camping in the mountains west of Casa Grande, they were surprised by government troops. Geronimo recounted that one boy was killed and nearly all of the women and children were captured. Geronimo and the others took refuge in the foothills of the Sierra Madres, but they were soon attacked again by a very large army of Mexican troops. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army also continued their efforts to rout the Indians. The Apache were weary from the fighting when Geronimo and his men decided to surrender to General Crook and a party of about two thousand soldiers (some say five thousand). But as the soldiers prepared to return the Indians to their reservation, Geronimo sensed treachery and escaped with forty others back into the mountains of Mexico. As a result of Geronimo's escape, General Crook resigned and was replaced by General Nelson A. Miles. General Miles would pursue Geronimo like no other.
Determined to capture and secure Geronimo under government control, General Miles ordered U.S. troops to trail the Apaches. Though they stayed ahead of the troops, the Apaches feared that if they returned to the reservation they would be put in prison and killed; and if they stayed in Mexico, soldiers would continue to fight them. Hemmed in on all sides, Geronimo surrendered, for the last time, to General Miles in a canyon near Fronteras in Sonora, Mexico, on September 4, 1886. Geronimo told Miles that "this is the fourth time I have surrendered." Miles replied, "I think it is the last," according to Miles's Personal Recollections. Geronimo did not know that this was the beginning of his life as a prisoner of war.
Prisoner of war
Instead of being killed as he had feared, Geronimo became a prisoner of war. After his final surrender, Geronimo and his followers were shipped by train to San Antonio, Texas, where they were imprisoned. Shortly thereafter, Geronimo and his band were moved to Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Florida. The Florida climate was devastating to the Apache; many died of tuberculosis and other diseases. Geronimo and other Apache leaders pleaded with the government to allow them to return to their homelands, but to no avail. Other tribes heard the Apache's pleas. In 1894, the Kiowa and Comanches, both former Apache enemies, invited the Apache to live with them on their reservation near Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Geronimo spent the remainder of his life at Fort Sill growing watermelons. When the government agents let him leave the reservation, the once ferocious warrior supplemented his income by peddling his signature and coat buttons to curious onlookers at fairs and exhibitions like Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in Buffalo, New York; Omaha, Nebraska; and St. Louis, Missouri.
In February 1909, with a belly full of whiskey, Geronimo fell from his horse and spent the night sprawled in damp weeds. He contracted pneumonia and died a few days later on February 17, 1909. At the time of his death, Geronimo was still listed as a prisoner of war. Although Geronimo did not succeed in his attempts to return his people to their homelands, he had spent his life trying. Geronimo had fought against enormous odds to save his people, and he refused for thirty years to obey the commands of his white oppressors. During his numerous battles, Geronimo suffered seven serious injuries, reinforcing his notion that no bullet could kill him. In 1913, Geronimo's people were permitted to return to Apacheria to live quietly with the Mescalero Indians in New Mexico.
For More Information
Barrett, S. M. Geronimo's Story of His Life. New York: Duffield and Company, 1906.
Debo, Angie. Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976.
Hermann, Spring. Geronimo: Apache Freedom Fighter. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1997.
Kent, Zachary. The Story of Geronimo. Chicago: Children's Press, 1989.
Mancall, Peter C.Deadly Medicine: Indians and Alcohol in Early America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.
Miles, Nelson. Personal Recollections. New York: Werner, 1897.
Shorto, Russell. Geronimo and the Struggle for Apache Freedom. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1989.
Wyatt, Edgar. Geronimo: The Last Apache War Chief. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1952.
Apache war leader
A Living Legend. Geronimo was one of the most famous Native American leaders of the late nineteenth century. He has earned a reputation in American history as the ultimate holdout, a renegade willing to fight for his freedom long after many of his people had accepted defeat. His tribe, the Apache, lived in present-day Arizona and New Mexico. A group of nomadic bands that relied upon hunting for their subsistence, they were considered one of the most warlike tribes in the Southwest. In fact, the tribe’s name was derived from the Zuni word apachu, meaning “enemy.”
Early Life. Geronimo was born near present-day Clifton, Arizona, in 1829. His Indian name was Gokhlayeh or “One Who Yawns.” Why the Mexicans called him Geronimo (Spanish for Jerome) is not certain. Some believe it was a Spanish attempt to pronounce the name Gokhlayeh. Others maintain that his enemies prayed aloud to Saint Jerome whenever the Apache leader struck. In 1846 he gained admittance into the warriors’ council of the Chiricahua Apache and started to lead raids on Mexican and American settlers, stealing their horses. He quickly became known for his cunning and ferocity. A fellow warrior observed that “Geronimo seemed to be the most intelligent and resourceful as well as the most vigorous and farsighted. In times of danger he was a man to be relied upon.” When Mexican soldiers killed his mother, wife, and three children in 1858, Geronimo swore vengeance and for the next nineteen years conducted many raids into Mexico. In April 1877 American authorities apprehended the Apache leader and placed him on the San Carlos Indian Reservation.
Reservation Life. The United States had acquired the Apache homeland by treaties with Mexico in 1848 and 1853. In 1872 the federal government established the San Carlos Reservation on the banks of the Gila River in eastern Arizona. The five-thousand-square-mile tract became known as “Hell’s Forty Acres” by all who resided there. Sandstorms blew frequently across a landscape of cactus, mesquite, and cottonwood trees. The temperature in the summer regularly reached 110 degrees. By the 1880s the government had forcibly placed on this barren wasteland approximately five thousand Apache, hoping to turn these people into self-sufficient farmers. The Apache, however, refused to plow the fields or to dig irrigation trenches. Instead, they relied on weekly food rations of flour and beef from the U.S. Army and the Office of Indian Affairs. Civilian contractors who distributed beef for the government cheated the Indians out of fifteen hundred pounds per week. Reservation authorities made the Apache organize a police force and set up courts. Traditional ceremonies and practices were banned, including the brewing of tiswin, a beer made from corn. The greatest hardship on the reservation, however, proved to be boredom. Women and children tried to keep busy by gathering bundles of hay that they sold at a penny a pound for cavalry horses. The men, meanwhile, had little to do except play traditional games and brood.
Flight. In 1880 white squatters and miners started to appear on reservation lands, where deposits of copper, coal, and silver had been discovered. The next year an Apache shaman named Noch-ay-del-klinne began to preach that dead Apache leaders would arise and reassert the tribe’s greatness. When reservation police tried to arrest the mystic, he was shot and killed in a scuffle. Fearing that he, too, would be arrested, Geronimo fled to Mexico with seventy-four followers. For the next two years his band eluded capture and raided American territory. In March 1883 the renegades killed three white men outside of Tombstone, Arizona; a few days later they killed a federal judge and his wife. Meanwhile, the American and Mexican governments negotiated an agreement whereby soldiers of either nation could cross the border when pursuing the renegades. Believing that he needed an Apache to capture an Apache, American Gen. George Crook enlisted 193 Apache scouts who tracked down Geronimo in May. Crook convinced him to return to San Carlos, but the Apache leader again became disenchanted with reservation life. In May 1885 he went on a spree of drinking corn beer in direct defiance of reservation policy and then decamped with forty-two men and ninety-two women and children. Throughout the winter 1885-1886 Crook gave chase with three thousand troops. In March 1886 he found the fugitives, but this time they were not so willing to return to the reservation. Crook observed that “they were in superb physical condition, armed to the teeth, fierce as so many tigers.” On a dark and rainy night Geronimo slipped away with twenty warriors and eighteen women and children.
An Emissary. After an immense public outcry against him, Crook resigned. His replacement, Gen. Nelson Miles, had orders to “capture or destroy.” Miles had five thousand troops and built thirty heliograph stations consisting of large mirrors to flash Morse code messages across southeastern Arizona and into northern Sonora, Mexico. Troops guarded the springs and passes of the Sierra Madre to prevent the renegades from moving about. Miles, like Crook, found his Apache adversary to be an elusive foe. (An Apache warrior could travel as far as seventy miles per day over rough terrain.) In April 1886 the renegades killed some ranchers and ambushed an army detachment. Miles became so exasperated that he tried a different strategy. He dispatched Lt. Charles Gatewood by himself to find Geronimo and convince him to return to the reservation. Gatewood, who had served at San Carlos for two years, had met Geronimo on several occasions. In late August Gatewood found Geronimo, who was impressed by the officer’s poise and courage. When Gatewood told the Apache war leader that his remaining family members had been exiled to Florida, Geronimo lost all heart and surrendered.
Exile. Geronimo never saw his homeland again. From 1886 until 1888 he was imprisoned in Pensacola, Florida. In 1894 federal authorities allowed him to take up residence at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he spent his time making and selling bows and arrows and peddling photographs of himself. In 1901 Geronimo marched in the parade of President Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration, and three years later he appeared at the World’s Fair in Saint Louis. In 1906 he dictated his autobiography. Following a drinking spree in 1909, Geronimo fell from his horse, lay on the chilled ground all night, and died of pneumonia shortly thereafter.
S. M. Barrett, ed., Geronimo’s Story of His Life (New York: Duffield, 1906);
Benjamin Capps, The Great Chiefs (Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1975);
The career of Apache warrior Geronimo (1829-1909) was symbolic of the struggle for a Native American way of life in conflict with that of the advancing American frontiersmen.
Geronimo was born in No-doyohn Canyon in Arizona in June 1829. As he grew to manhood, he was apparently indolent, for he was called Goyakla, "He Who Yawns." In 1858 his mother, wife, and three children were killed by Mexican bounty hunters, seeking scalps. "I could not call back my loved ones, I could not bring back the dead Apaches, but I could rejoice in … revenge," he later declared. During the next 15 years he rose steadily as a war leader among the Apaches. Apache agent John Clum, who arrested Geronimo in 1877, described him as "erect as a mountain pine, while every outline of his symmetrical form indicated strength and endurance. His abundant ebony locks draped his ample shoulders, his stern features, his keen piercing eye, and his proud and graceful posture combined to create in him the model of an Apache war-chief."
Forced onto the reservation at San Carlos in Arizona, Geronimo was a minor leader in the 1881 Apache outbreak. Gen. George Crook pursued the Apaches and forced them to return. In 1885 they fled San Carlos again, angry at being cheated on their rations and unhappy with rules which forbade many of their tribal customs; Geronimo led the renegades. Pursued by American and Mexican troops, the Apaches nevertheless conducted numerous raids on both sides of the international boundary. In 1886 they met to discuss surrender terms but reneged and escaped again.
For 4 months these 39 renegades were pursued by 5,000 American soldiers, an equal number of Mexican troops, plus many bounty hunters, but they never were forced into battle. In September, Geronimo agreed to surrender to Gen. Nelson A. Miles on the condition that after 2 years' imprisonment he would be returned to Arizona. President Grover Cleveland ignored these terms, however. Geronimo and his followers were imprisoned at Ft. Pickens, Fla. In 1894, moved to Ft. Sill in Oklahoma, they were interred as prisoners of war, although allowed to prosper as farmers.
Geronimo later toured with a "Wild West" show, was an "attraction" at the Omaha and Buffalo expositions, and was exhibited at the St. Louis World's Fair (1904). He died at Ft. Sill in 1909, still a prisoner of war.
Geronimo's reminiscences, Geronimo's Story of His Life, were recorded and edited by S. M. Barrett in 1906. The best account of Geronimo's career by one of his contemporaries is John G. Bourke, On the Border with Crook (1891). More recent and comprehensive is O. B. Faulk, The Geronimo Campaign (1969). □
Crook, his methods under fire from Washington, asked to be relieved. Brig. Gen. Nelson A. Miles took his place, but eventually had to adopt Crook's unorthodox approach. Geronimo surrendered to Miles at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona, on 4 September 1886. Confined in Florida, Alabama, and finally near Fort Sill in present‐day Oklahoma, he became a celebrity in parades and expositions. Pneumonia took his life in his eighty‐sixth year.
Angie Debo , Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place, 1976.
Robert M. Utley
His name is used as an exclamation to express exhilaration, especially when leaping from a great height or moving at speed. The expression dates from the Second World War, and was adopted as a slogan by American paratroopers.