“Legend or reality, Geronimo remains the dominant Indian name in the American memory.”
Robert M Utley
On this blog we’ve already looked at the lives of some great Native Americans, such as Cochise, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, both their real lives and how they have been portrayed on the screen. Today it’s the turn of perhaps the most famous American Indian of them all, Geronimo.
For my little article on Sitting Bull I relied heavily on Robert M Utley’s superb biography The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull (Henry Holt & Company, 1993). Utley is one of my favorite historians of the West, as readable as he is reliable, a writer who wears his undoubted scholarship lightly. In my view his books on Billy the Kid and Custer are the best around. His Geronimo in The Lamar Series in Western History (Yale University Press) came out in 2012, and it’s a superb read.
Great Apache chief?
Geronimo was no great unifying chief of the Apaches. In fact many Apaches disliked and distrusted him, and worked towards his capture. Actually, he was not really a chief at all, not as many whites understood it, being rather an influential medicine man with what Apaches regarded as the Power, who effectively led various bands, numbering between thirty and fifty, in combat in the South-West and in Mexico. The likes of Mangas Coloradas, Cochise, Victorio, Nana and Juh were better leaders and had a wider following among the Apaches. Geronimo himself deferred, at least nominally, to Cochise and his sons, especially Naiche.
Yet Geronimo is the name people remember. He came to be the very symbol of danger and cruelty to the white settlers of Arizona and New Mexico, and beyond, in the 1870s and 80s. He was written about in the sensational press and talked about everywhere. He came to personify the Apache ‘menace’. This was the Geronimo of legend, the Apache butcher who slew endless white settlers. It never went away. World War II paratroopers yelled Geronimo! as they jumped and the word was still being used in Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani compound in 2011. The name has always resonated.
In the second half of the twentieth century, in the time of AIM, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Custer Died for Your Sins and various revisionist novels and Western movies, this legend began to morph into something different. Now Geronimo was a courageous Native American fighting for his homeland against unjust oppression of his people. The slaughter he was responsible for was either justified or glossed over.
We see this shift reflected in motion pictures and TV. In the early days screen Geronimos were savage marauders, and often they were the Apache firebrands who opposed more statesmanlike chiefs who wanted peace. Later ones were valiant defenders of Native American culture and lands.
Last man standing
One reason for Geronimo’s fame and his standing as a symbol of Indian resistance is that he was the last significant hold-out. He was not entirely neutralized until the second half of the 1880s. Other major Indian threats to white supremacy had been taken out of the equation much earlier: Satank of the Kiowa was killed in 1871 and Satanta imprisoned in Huntsville the same year. Quanah Parker of the Comanche had given up after the Red River War in 1875. Red Cloud of the Oglala Lakota decided not take part in the fights of 1876-1877, and went onto the reservation. His fellow tribesman Crazy Horse surrendered and was killed in 1877. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce formally surrendered to General Nelson A Miles in October 1877. Hunger and desperation forced the Hunkpapa Lakota Sitting Bull to come into Ford Buford in April 1881, saying to the commanding officer, “I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle.”
But in Skeleton Canyon, Arizona Territory on September 4, 1886, four centuries of Indian warfare in North America drew to a close. The Ghost Dance troubles four years later were a religious movement, not a war, and Wounded Knee in December 1890 was a massacre, not a battle. With Geronimo’s final surrender, the “Indian Wars” came to an end.
He came into the white American consciousness quite late. Though Mexicans were very well aware of Geronimo (it was they who gave him the name we know him by), and he fought fiercely in Mexico all through the 1850s and 60s – he often said that he could accommodate some white Americans but never the hated Mexicans, who had killed his family in 1851 – he was unknown to most white Americans before his 1880s resistance, when he was already in middle age. In the late 1850s and through the 1860s he had occasionally been fighting American soldiers, yes, under other chiefs, in Arizona and New Mexico territories as much as south of the border, and indeed Apaches held that artificial international line in scant regard, but he wasn’t on the white American ‘radar’ as we would say now, until later. But then he became what we would these days call a celebrity. And how.
In fact we often tend to think of Geronimo as an old man. The first known photograph of him, the iconic one that Utley uses on his cover, was taken, by A Frank Randall, at San Carlos in 1884, after Geronimo came in following General Crook’s campaign of the previous year. His face is lined and leathery. He was 61. After his final surrender, he lived on, as a famous and almost fêted prisoner of war, elderly, gawked at by curious sightseers. Most photographs of Geronimo date from this period and so we are used to seeing him as an old man. He died in 1909, at the age of eighty, when a quart of whiskey, a fall from his horse and subsequent pneumonia finally did for him.
But Utley tries to give us (as far as is possible) the real Geronimo, and he is perfectly ready to describe the good with the bad. He has no ‘agenda’. This is not a pro-Geronimo or anti-Geronimo book.
Complex and contradictory
He makes the point that Geronimo’s character and deeds were complex and contradictory. As an example, we see Geronimo demonstrating great courage and exceptional skill against Mexican troops at Pozo Hediondo in 1851 when, alongside Mangas Coloradas and Cochise, he fought superbly and contributed largely to the complete defeat of the Mexicans – “the greatest victory Apaches had ever won over Mexican military forces,” as Utley describes it. On the other hand, at Alisos Creek in 1882 he was accused by many Apaches of blunders and cowardice, saving himself by abandoning his people.
As for his personality, deep suspicion and mistrust alternated with utter gullibility. He was also an inveterate liar whose word could simply not be trusted. But he was a deeply committed family man who clearly loved his wives and children.
He could veer from the furiously defiant to the completely submissive, as happened when Lt Gatewood’s scouts Martine and Kayitah found him in August 1886 and in the space of a few hours his complete refusal even to parley turned into abject surrender. The man who fought tooth and nail to defend his life way became in later life almost servile, encouraging Chiricahua youth to attend the white man’s school, serving as a justice of the peace and declaring that he now considered himself a white man.
Though Geronimo professed undying devotion to Usen, traditional Apache ceremonies and cosmology, he later allowed himself to be baptized into the Dutch Reformed Church. Many would call this pragmatism. Others would call it faithlessness. His stature as an Apache medicine man led him to perform healing ceremonies, dispense herbal remedies and use sacred pollen. Yet when afflicted with a venereal disease he turned immediately to the white man’s doctors.
These different Geronimos are hard to reconcile with one or other set view (aka prejudice) of the Apache leader. There are other contradictory examples. You never quite know where you are with Geronimo.
On balance, Utley comes down on the plus side, at least militarily:
For all his strategic or tactical lapses during the final two years of freedom, he merits admiration for outwitting five thousand American soldiers and keeping them on the run with few shots fired in anger. His skill at evading pursuit, at hiding in mountainous enclaves, at avoiding any semblance of battle, reveal his finest period of leadership.
Utley makes an interesting comparison between Geronimo and Sitting Bull – as biographer of both men he is ideally placed to do so. He says Sitting Bull was not a man of complexity or contradiction. He was entirely and undeviatingly loyal to his culture. “He never wavered, even when overcome by the white man.” Geronimo, however, deviated all the time. Unlike Sitting Bull, he behaved selfishly, impulsively, deviously and at variance with the dictates of his culture. “With Sitting Bull, his people came first. With Geronimo, he came first.”
There are wagonloads of books about Geronimo. Mr Utley has probably read them all but most human beings could not. If you do want to dig deeper, though, you could try Geronimo’s ‘autobiography’, Geronimo, His Own Story: The Autobiography of a Great Patriot Warrior, Penguin, 1996. This is far from impartial, authoritative or definitive: in 1905 Geronimo, aged 76 and with faulty memory (the dates are often wrong) dictated highly selective, subjective and self-justifying reminiscences to his nephew Asa Daklugie (the son of Juh and Geronimo’s sister) who translated them to SM Barrett, Superintendent of Education in Lawton, Oklahoma, who wrote them down with his own ‘polish’. This was later revised by Frederick Turner. So it is hardly straight from the horse’s mouth.
There are some eye-witness writings. Try, for example, the account of a Chiricahua who had been with Geronimo, Jason Betzinez, written with Wilbur Sturtevant Nye, I Fought with Geronimo, Bonanza Books, 1969, or General Crook’s life, General George Crook: His Autobiography, edited by Martin F Schmitt, University of Oklahoma Press, 1946.
An early and influential book was by Britton Davis, a key figure in the 1880s Army actions against Apaches, The Truth About Geronimo, first published in 1929, the best edition being that edited by MM Quaife, Yale University Press, 1963, with a foreword by Robert Utley.
The standard biography hitherto has been Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place by Angie Debo, University of Oklahoma Press, 1976.
This is just a personal selection!
If you only read one book on Geronimo, though, make it Utley’s.
Geronimo’s youth is shrouded in mystery to most whites. Goyaałé, or Goyahkla,”the one who yawns”, was a Bedonkohe Chiricahua born in 1823 in the upper Gila Valley in the modern state of New Mexico. He himself, in his autobiography, claimed to have been born in 1829 in present-day Arizona, but Utley insists this could not have been the case.
As he grew, the strongest influence on him was his fellow Bedonkohe Mangas Coloradas (c 1793 – 1863), who by the 1850s excelled in every way and was the leading Chiricahua, looked up to by all. Goyaałé‘s boyhod friend was the young Juh of the Ndéndai (or Nednhi) band of the Chiricahua, born in 1825. They would remain close comrades until Juh’s death in 1883.
In 1831 the Mexicans had abandoned their policy of giving food rations to the Apache in return for peace and raiding resumed, with Mangas Coloradas as the principal war leader, so Goyaałé grew up in an atmosphere of what we might call guerrilla warfare. By 1837 this became full-scale war. The Sonoran authorities recruited an Anglo renegade named John Johnson to launch a campaign of extermination of the whole Apache people, and Chihuahua followed suit by hiring Indian trader James Kirker to do the same. Johnson and Kirker made their profit from scalp bounties and keeping half their plunder.
It was at this time that Goyaałé became known as Geronimo, though there has always been debate as to why this name was chosen. Some claim that it was appeals by the soldiers to Saint Jerome (“Jeronimo!”) for help. Others source it as the mispronunciation of his name by the Mexican soldiers.
Geronimo becomes a seasoned fighter
From early adulthood to middle age, Utley tells us, Geronimo’s life is almost impossible to follow. An occasional event is documented but often only simply stating he was there. What is certain is that Geronimo participated actively in raiding in Mexico, and became a seasoned fighter who rose in stature and was the trusted ally of Mangas Coloradas, and then of Cochise. It was during this time, in March 1851, that Geronimo returned to the Apache rancheria of Janos, which had been attacked by forces under Colonel Carrasco, to find that, in his own words, “My aged mother, my young wife, and my three small children were among the slain.” He said that for ever after “my heart would ache for revenge against Mexico.”
Mexicans were indeed the enemies and at first, for example during the US war against Mexico, the Apaches established a wary friendship with the Americans. It didn’t last. The perhaps inevitable conflict would be hastened by the discovery of gold in 1860, the grievous wrong done to Cochise at the hands of the foolish and incompetent Lt Bascom in 1862, and the brutal and treacherous murder of Mangas Coloradas, the greatest of all the Apache chiefs, on the specific orders of General West in 1863.
But let us fast-forward through the rest of the 1860s and the 70s. This post is not supposed to be a detailed life of Geronimo – read the book for that! And in fact even Utley can only say, “What part Geronimo played in Cochise’s battles … for the three years after the death of Mangas Coloradas … can only be speculated [upon].” The years 1869 and ’70 featured some of the fiercest fighting between American soldiers and the Chiricahua but Geronimo’s part in the struggle is shadowy at best.
When an aging Cochise, encouraged by his friend Thomas Jeffords (the basic story of the movie Broken Arrow), persuaded some of his key followers that peace was the only way forward, Geronimo wanted no part of it. Utley says that he “determined to take life and property as long as he pleased. Peace formed no part of his thinking. With Juh, he ranged between Mexico and Arizona, murdering and depredating at will.” Then Cochise died in 1874 and that removed all restraints. There was no clear succession and many bands resumed raiding.
In April 1877 Indian Agent John Clum, backed by a goodly number of Apache police, arrested Geronimo when he came in to the agency at Ojo Caliente for rations after a particularly vicious period of raiding. Clum placed him in irons and removed him to San Carlos where he was thrown into jail, and where he remained for three months. He would stay at San Carlos for two years, promising Clum’s successor Henry L Hart (the most corrupt of all the Indian Agents of the time) that he would not break out. But promises meant little to Geronimo. In August 1878, after a tiswin drunk which involved the death of a nephew, Geronimo and his immediate family packed up and left, moving into Chihuahua and resuming raids. There he was joined by Juh.
In November 1878 Geronimo’s band was surprised and attacked by a Mexican force in the mountains east of Nácori Chico and lost twelve warriors. Juh and Geronimo gave some thought to returning to San Carlos but for the moment continued raiding in Mexico. In the fall of 1879 Juh and Geronimo briefly joined in Victorio’s war, attacking both Mexican army forces and civilians. This ended in October 1880 at Tres Castillos when Mexican troops completely defeated Victorio’s band and Victorio himself died, but Juh and Geronimo had parted company with Victorio the previous November, to pursue their own campaign of pillage.
Now patient diplomacy was conducted by General Willcox, who served as commander of the Department of Arizona between March 1878 and September 1882, between the two terms of General Crook. Willcox charged his aide-de-camp Lt. Harry L Haskell, aided by Tom Jeffords and the scout Archie McIntosh, to engage with Juh and Geronimo. Haskell slowly wore the leaders down and finally, in January 1880 the ‘renegade’ Apaches returned to a site designated by the Army near San Carlos.
Back on the reservation
It was at this time that Geronimo came conspicuously to the notice of officialdom and the public beyond. Hardly anyone thought well of him. “Thoroughly vicious, intractable and treacherous,” said one officer. “Schemer and liar,” said another. Many Apaches mistrusted him too, though many also respected his Power. Chatto later said, “I have known Geronimo all my life up to his death and have never known anything good about him.”
For the moment, though, Juh and Geronimo remained uneasily in the camp, receiving rations.
It couldn’t last. Trouble erupted among the Cibicue Apaches in August 1881 and their holy man Nakadoklini was shot and killed. Joined by other White Mountains, the furious Cibicue attacked Fort Apache. General Willcox organized a major campaign and sought White Mountain chiefs George and Bonito, who fled to the Chiricahua camp and claimed that the soldiers were coming to kill them all. There was a council, which Juh and Geronimo dominated, and at 10.30 pm on September 30 Juh and Geronimo, joined by Naiche (Cochise’s son and, since the death from pneumonia of Taza, the most authoritative leader), with Bonito (but not George), as well as the highly respected Chihuahua, and seventy-four men and their families, 375 Apaches in all, stole away and headed south.
Troops followed quickly but the Apaches had started killing and looting, for example a freight train of twelve wagons bound for San Carlos: the Apaches slew all the teamsters, plundered the goods and took the horses and mules.
There were fights with soldiers at Cedar Pass and in the Dragoon Mountains but the Apaches conducted a masterly withdrawal and slipped across the border.
Geronimo abducts Loco
Geronimo and Juh now joined with Nana in the Carcay Mountains. Nana, a fierce Chihenne Chiricahua chief more properly named Kas-tziden (“Broken Foot”) or Haškɛnadɨltla (“Angry, He is Agitated”) had led a savage raid of reprisal after the loss of his ally Victorio in 1880, and he was another who married a sister of Geronimo. Born about 1800, he was an old man but he was a skillful and ferocious fighter.
Loco remained at San Carlos. Loco’s Apache name was Jlin-tay-i-tith, “Stops His Horse” but he probably got his Spanish name from his actions at a battle against the Mexicans, where he supposedly braved gunfire in order to save an injured warrior. He was a Copper Mines Mimbreño Apache chief who was known for seeking peace.
It is not entirely clear why Geronimo was so determined that Loco should join him and the others in Mexico. Loco had few men, fewer weapons and would bring more women and children who had to be fed. But Geronimo was determined and boldly led an expedition in April 1882 to secure him, informing Loco that any who refused to come would be killed. Agency police and cavalry units pursued them but once again Geronimo avoided them with great skill. Jason Betzinez, who was present, wrote, “Geronimo was pretty much the main leader although he was not the born chief of any band and there were several Apaches with us, like Naiche, Chatto, and Loco, who were recognized chiefs. But 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.”
Captain Tullius Tupper, with the great Al Sieber as chief scout, sent out by General Willcox from the Arizona department, pursued. At the same time, commissioned by the Department of New Mexico and without liaison, Colonel George Forsyth with the Fourth Cavalry also followed. This lack of coordination between the two departments would cause confusion and damage the effectiveness of the action.
It was one of Forsyth’s men, Lt McDonald, accompanied by the legendary Yuma Bill, who located the Apaches first, in Horseshoe Canyon on April 23. Yuma Bill was killed but McDonald survived and called up Forsyth. The result was a furious battle which Forsyth afterwards liked to claim as a great victory but which in reality was a stalemate, with one killed and five wounded on Forsyth’s side and perhaps two Apaches killed. Geronimo waited until nightfall then slipped away, again.
On 27th, however, Sieber located Geronimo’s band, but their attack went awry when a scout fired too early. Almost out of ammunition, Tupper withdrew.
Before daybreak on April 28, however, the Apaches, now in Mexico, who had not even posted lookouts, suffered a surprise attack from Forsyth, who had incorporated Tupper’s men into his own command. Most Apaches just managed to escape the Americans (though Loco’s son was killed) but they lost all their horses and belongings.
But now they walked straight into a Mexican ambush in the ravine of Alisos Creek. Soldiers shot and bayoneted women and children. Geronimo had been managing the rear guard and came up as fast as he could, driving the Mexicans back. He claimed to have shot and killed the Mexican commander himself. But 78 Apaches lost their lives and 33 were made captive, including another of Geronimo’s wives. It was a crushing blow.
The remnants found shelter in the impenetrable natural fortress of the Sierra Madre. Forsyth met with the Mexican commander, Colonel Garcia, who was angry that Mexican territory had been unlawfully entered by foreign troops. But Garcia assured Forsyth of the complete rout of the Apaches, and the Americans turned round and marched back north.
Utley says, “The Loco campaign did not display the US Army at its finest. The efforts to find, much less intercept, the fleeing Chiricahuas proved fumbling at best.” Willcox was relieved and Crook came back.
Geronimo in Mexico
Once again I’m going to fast-forward here and just say that from April 1882 through 1883 Geronimo stayed in the Sierra Madre and near Casas Grandes, alternately trading and raiding. Juh especially wanted strong drink and was ready to trade to get it. Officials plied the Apaches with liquor and talked peace. When the Apaches were completely drunk the Mexican soldiers swooped down on them, killing ten and capturing thirty-seven.
Juh and Geronimo seem to have had a disagreement at this point for the group now divided, Juh along with Loco, Chatto, Nana, Naiche and Bonito seeking safety in a mountain fastness, while thirty men and teenage boys followed Geronimo, raiding one Sonoran ranch or village after another with extreme violence, though, contrary to popular belief, scalping and raping were extremely rare among Apaches.
In January 1883 Juh suffered a devastating attack from Mexicans, losing fourteen dead and thirty-seven taken captive, including many of Juh’s family and that of Chatto and Bonito. It broke Juh, who never recovered his tribal stature or self-esteem. Geronimo was now the undisputed leader.
Crook in the Sierra Madre
The appointment of Orlando Willcox’s successor brought an unorthodox commander back to the South-West. Crook believed that only an Apache could catch an Apache and he also regarded pack mules as vastly superior to wagon trains. He did not love spit and polish, preferring to wear an old canvas suit and eat and sleep with his packers. He said that he “had more use for a good pack mule than a second lieutenant” but he did admire and make use of young officers who knew and understood the Apache.
In particular he chose three enterprising officers, Captain Emmet Crawford at San Carlos, Lieutenant Charles B Gatewood at Fort Apache and Lieutenant Britton Davis, who found and recruited the invaluable Tzoe, a White Mountain married to a Chiricahua, known to the whites because of his complexion as Peaches. Somehow these men had to dig the Chiricahuas out of the Sierra Madre in Mexico.
Another vital change was that Crook had orders from General Sherman to ignore departmental and even international boundaries. The US and Mexico had concluded a treaty which permitted “hot pursuit” by the forces of one country into the territory of the other.
The raids of Chatto and Bonito and in particular the slaughter of Judge McComas and his wife and the abduction of their young son Charley, enraged opinion. In May 1883 Crook crossed into Mexico with 40 troops and 193 Apache scouts. He was also accompanied by Al Sieber, Archie McIntosh and Mickey Free as interpreter. Immediately the scouts found and attacked a rancheria, killing several Apache men and capturing a young woman who proved to be Bonito’s daughter, who told Crook that the majority of the Chiricahuas wanted peace. He let her go and soon the chief Chihuahua came in, then in the following days Chiricahuas arrived in small groups. Finally, on May 21, Geronimo sidled up to Crook and Mickey Free and said he wanted to negotiate. Crook would have none of it. Surrender unconditionally or fight. At length Geronimo said, “We give up, do with us as you please.”
Mood swing? Realpolitik? Who knows. Geronimo’s motives are rarely readily comprehensible.
Return to San Carlos
The chiefs’ promise to return to San Carlos was not immediately fulfilled. They had raiding to do to replenish lost horses and other items and they had captives to recover. Geronimo led one raiding party. In September 1883 Geronimo along with Juh, Naiche and Chatto, tried to negotiate with the local Mexican authorities for the return of Apache captives. The Mexicans stalled them, as always plotting a massacre. Now Juh, drunk, ran his horse off a steep trail and fell to his death. Though his stature had greatly diminished in recent years, his death was mourned by the Chiricahua. Naiche and Geronimo detected the Mexicans’ planned treachery and the Apaches hastily withdrew.
On October 26, a full five months after their agreement to come in, met the Chiricahuas under Naiche met Lt. Britton Davis about fifteen miles north of the border – but Geronimo was not among them. He was leading yet another raid in Sonora. Chatto came in six weeks later but Geronimo, with seven men and 22 women and children, did not meet Davis until February 26 the following year.
There was a little incident when two customs collectors insisted on confiscating Geronimo’s cattle, illegally imported into the US without paying duty. Davis knew that Geronimo would rather fight than surrender them and so he colluded with the Apaches, plying the customs men with whiskey then stealing away in the night. He called it “a great joke.” On March 16, 1884, nearly a year after Geronimo’s promise to Crook, Davis returned Geronimo, his entourage and his livestock into San Carlos.
The last break-out
Lt Davis early named Geronimo as one of the malcontents, adding that he was “a thoroughly vicious, intractable, and treacherous man.” Geronimo reciprocated and distrusted Davis. Geronimo claimed that everything had been promised him by Crook (it had not) and nothing was being delivered. Crook insisted on banning tiswin (it was an ineffectual ban and tiswin drinks continued). Chatto and Geronimo fell out and Britton made Chatto a sergeant in the Apache police (in fact he was a competent and loyal one), which did not please Geronimo. The land was ill-suited to the farming the Apaches were supposed to do.
Geronimo suborned two of his cousins who were members of the Apache police, urging them to kill Davis and Chatto. On May 17 Davis was tipped off and with Gatewood went to arrest Geronimo. But it was too late. Geronimo was gone, and by lying to Naiche, Chihuahua and Nana that Davis was already dead, he persuaded them to come too. Loco and Bonito refused, and in total 144 Apaches left for Mexico but 400 remained. Geronimo had been back on the reservation a mere two months and one day.
The last two years of freedom
The period May 1884 to September 1886 is a fascinating one and Utley devotes 60 pages to it. Once again, I won’t detail it here (this post is already overlong) but Chapters 19 to 24 are especially good in Utley’s book.
Just a few salient points that interested me:
- The dissension in the ranks, such as when Chihuahua and his brother Ulzana vowed to kill Geronimo when they learned how they had been lied to
- How adept Geronimo proved militarily despite this, facing all the challenges – Utley describes this time as “his finest period as a fighting Apache”
- How careless the Apache leaders became once they were in Mexico
- How the Arizona and New Mexico newspapers blasted Crook for failing to stop the Apache outrages
- Sherman had retired and was replaced by Sheridan who was skeptical of the use of Apache scouts and hard a hard time from the new President Cleveland who was angry that the Apache nuisance could not be quelled
- The rivalry, even enmity between Crook and his eventual successor, General nelson A Miles and how different Miles’s approach would be
- The taking by Geronimo of young James Santiago McKinn, about whom I have written elsewhere (here, in fact)
- The pictures taken by Tombstone photographer CS Fly in the Canyon de los Embudos in March 1886
Prisoners of war
From September 8, 1886, when Geronimo embarked on the train to Florida, to his death on February 17, 1909 at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, was a period of nearly a quarter of a century, but it is, rightly, dealt with in fewer pages by biographers (41 in Utley’s case) than the 26 months after the last break-out. It was really a sad time. Geronimo was, for the whole time, a “prisoner of war”, as were, to the great shame if those responsible, the Apache scouts who had assisted in Geronimo’s capture but who had nevertheless been dismissed and exiled to Florida with the others.
Geronimo ‘acclimatized’ and changed into ”a good Indian”. He was a school disciplinarian, introduced football and baseball, sent his son to the Indian school at Carlisle, took a pride in his garden, became a justice of the peace and got baptized. It was all a far cry from the savage marauder of the 1880s.
He headed a delegation to the Trans-Mississippi International Exposition in Omaha, Nebraska in 1898 and was as much a draw there as the other exhibits. For the rest of his life he was in demand as an attraction at fairs – he went to Buffalo, NY in 1901 and St Louis in 1904. He was shown a film, which fascinated him. He was photographed driving a motor car. In 1905 he met President Roosevelt in the White House, who refused him permission to return to Arizona.
Geronimo was buried in the Apache graveyard at Fort Sill.
Geronimo was the title character in four Hollywood movies, staring with Paramount’s Geronimo in 1939, with Chief Thundercloud playing the Apache, United Artists’ Geronimo in 1962 with Chuck Connors in the title role, and two pictures released in December 1993, Geronimo: An American Legend, with Wes Studi, and a more Apache-oriented telling, Geronimo, with Joseph Runningfox.
The first one was only nominally a Geronimo picture. It was really just a generic cavalry Western in which the fearsome Indian chief could have been anyone. It happened to be Geronimo because the name was a good box-office draw. The story is entirely fictional, and in fact is a bit of a pot-boiler. Geronimo is only billed ninth. Thundercloud has very few lines and it’s almost a silent movie for him (and old-fashioned in other ways too).
The Chuck Connors one was a footling farrago, though to be fair, the opening titles to this movie do say that fact and fiction have been blended. The blend is about 90/10 in favor of fiction. It starts in 1883 with Geronimo’s first ‘surrender’, to a poisonous, sadistic Indian-hating Army officer, Capt. Maynard (Pat Conway) but Geronimo’s stay in San Carlos only lasts three days before he busts out again. He does this partly because he believes it wimpish to farm and live ‘like women’, partly because he is not treated with the dignity becoming a chief and partly because of the corrupt Indian Agent Burns (a Bible-thumping John Anderson) who is stealing Indian land for personal gain. So off he goes. At the last minute there’s a Denver ex machina as a Senator (Denver Pyle) sent by President Cleveland waddles up the Mexican mountain in a caped coat to assure Geronimo of the great white father’s bona fides, and so Geronimo surrenders again (it’s 1886 now) and they all live happily ever after. Geronimo has a fair Indian maiden to woo and wed, obviously. They used a real Indian for this part: Kamala Devi was born in Bombay. Actually it was love on the mountain indeed, for the following year, 1963, Miss Devi became Mrs Connors.
The two 1993 pictures were much better. Geronimo was a TV movie screened by TNT and it wasn’t at all bad. It looked at the story from a more Apache perspective, which was refreshing. Jimmy Herman was especially convincing, I thought, as the old Geronimo. There were weaknesses: Geronimo is shown as a strategic commanding general, disposing ‘his’ troops and giving commands as to when and where to attack. Apache warfare was more individualistic than that and as we have seen, Geronimo was by no means the authoritative commander-in-chief of all the Chiricahuas. The Indians are all very well washed and have Daz-white clothes, gleaming teeth and very clean hair. I also think that Geronimo’s role as a medicine man and prophesier is underplayed, to make him ‘only’ a warrior. And the Indians speak English, not Apache. Noteworthy actors were August Schellenberg as Cochise, Brian Frejo as Geronimo’s nephew Daklugie and the person unnamed in the credits but very good, I thought, the one who played Mangas Coloradas.
Geronimo: An American Legend, directed by the excellent Walter Hill, rectified several of these shortcomings. The Apaches speak Apache (with subtitles), and the actors, who, though of Native American descent, are not Apache, must have studied hard with a dialogue coach. They look more authentic in their costumes and some of the faces look more Apache too. Geronimo has visions, for example seeing the train that will carry them to Florida. And he is less of a general in the white sense. The movie was beautifully shot by Lloyd Ahern in Moab, Utah locations. Particularly good are Gene Hackman as Crook and Robert Duvall as Sieber.
Wes Studi as Geronimo is outstanding. He manages to look bitter and sour throughout, which Geronimo undoubtedly was (probably had reason to be).
Otherwise, Geronimo appeared in many Hollywood movies and TV Westerns in smaller roles. The first time (that I know of, correct me if I am wrong) was in Hawk of the Wilderness in 1938, played by Tony Urchel. There were no fewer than 19 screen Geronimos in the 1950s. Jay Silverheels played him three times (Walk the Proud Land, The Battle at Apache Pass, Broken Arrow).
As I said before, these Geronimos varied, reflecting the prevailing view at the time they made, from savage killer sans merci to noble defender of his homeland. Perhaps one day we’ll get a more accurate Geronimo on screen. But don’t hold your breath!
Well, that’s enough on Geronimo. I’ve already prattled on far too long. Thanks for reading, if you got this far!!