Book Review: Geronimo, by Robert M. Utley

Geronimo, by Robert M. Utley, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 2012, $30

He was so famous that a one-word title is all you need to sell a book about him. You don’t even need an exclamation point after the name Geronimo—it is implied. Because of that catchy name, his depredations (real or otherwise) reported by the national press, his ability to elude the U.S. Army and his years as a prisoner of war, Geronimo is the most recognizable American Indian name today. Author Bob Utley, one of the best-known names in Western historical nonfiction, writes in the epilogue of this 376-page sure-to-be-a-classic book, “In modern times, few of the public know the names of any [Indians] but Geronimo.”

That seems an exaggeration, given that historians still pore over Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse’s infamous 1876 whipping of Lt. Col. George A. Custer at the Little Bighorn more than anything Geronimo ever did. Utley, former chief historian of the National Park Service, does say that Sitting Bull’s name recognition approaches that of Geronimo. In fact, in 1993 the author came out with a book featuring the Indian with the No. 2 name—The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull (no one-name title there). And Utley doesn’t remotely suggest Geronimo is more important to history. “Unlike Sitting Bull,” he writes, “[Geronimo] often behaved selfishly, impulsively, deviously, mercilessly, egotistically and at variance with the dictates of his culture.”

As Utley points out, Geronimo did not rise to the leadership levels of such fellow Apaches as Mangas Coloradas, Cochise, Victorio, Nana and Juh. The author profiles those men as well, so consider this book “The Life and Times of Geronimo.” For more about those life and times see Edwin R. Sweeney’s sweeping 2010 work From Cochise to Geronimo: The Chiricahua Apaches, 1874–1886. Sweeney’s research and counsel proved indispensable to Utley, who has turned out a scholarly yet fast-paced and engrossing tale about a man whose greatest achievement was avoiding war with American soldiers rather than successful raids pulled off in the American Southwest and Mexico.

Utley presents some episodes of Geronimo’s life from both the Apache and white perspectives, starting with what the Indians knew and following right after with how soldiers and/or settlers viewed the events. This may bother some readers, but it works. Geronimo comes across as anything but a simple man, what with his many breakouts and returns to the reservation, his plundering and spiritual beliefs, his butchery of families yet love of family, his suspicion and gullibility, his Apache followers and Apache enemies. Among the more interesting information Utley provides is a narrative of Geronimo’s life after his September 4, 1886, surrender to Brig. Gen. Nelson Miles at Skeleton Canyon in Arizona Territory. For instance, while he was a prisoner at Alabama’s Mount Vernon Barracks (1888–94), Geronimo became something of a capitalist entrepreneur, inscribing his name on walking sticks he had made and selling them to tourists for $1 each. At the Louisiana Purchase Exposition at St. Louis in 1904, Geronimo went to the Nebraska theater to watch a film promoting agriculture. When he died in February 1909, he was technically still a prisoner of war like the other Chiricahuas. Not until 1912 did most of the survivors move from the Fort Sill Military Reservation in Oklahoma to the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico and shed that lingering uncomfortable label.

—Editor

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