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General Nelson Miles and the Expedition to Capture Geronimo

Originally published by Wild West magazine. Published Online: July 25, 2006 
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On March 27, 1886, Geronimo and Naiche, the hereditary Chiricahua chieftain, along with the remnants of their band of Chiricahua Apaches, surrendered to General George Crook at Cañon de los Embudos, Sonora, Mexico. That surrender should have ended the last Apache war. Should have. It did not. Instead, it set in motion a series of events that would resurrect a lieutenant's career that had all but ended when he stood up for Indian rights.

Geronimo began drinking after the surrender. At the second camp on the trip back to the United States, he, Naiche and 34 other men, women and children slipped into the night and vanished. In short order, Crook resigned as commander of the Department of Arizona (April 1), and General Nelson Miles, who had campaigned for his assignment, replaced him (April 11). Miles immediately dumped Crook's strategy of using Indians to defeat Indians. Reducing Indians to auxiliary duty only, Miles assembled 5,000 U.S. troops to patrol the international border and guard all known water holes. Using the U.S. 4th Cavalry as his primary offensive weapon, he began sending seek-and-destroy missions into Mexico.

Three months passed. Geronimo and those with him were worn out, hungry and shot up. Even so, they avoided capture.

Miles had no intention of sharing Crook's fate. While continuing the hunt, he decided to send an officer into Mexico to negotiate with Geronimo. Although he was unsure who to select, he knew the officer had to be a Crook man (none of his own men knew the Chiricahuas). Unfortunately, two of the three men perfectly fitted for the assignment were no longer available: Captain Emmet Crawford was dead, and Lieutenant Britton Davis had resigned his commission. That left the Crook outcast–Lieutenant Charles Gatewood.

The Apaches called Gatewood Bay-chen-daysen, which translates to 'Long Nose. Tall, slender and Southern born, Gatewood graduated from West Point in 1877. Shortly after reporting for duty with the 6th U.S. Cavalry at Fort Apache, Arizona Territory, in 1878, he became a veteran Indian campaigner. By 1884, Gatewood had emerged as one of Crook's handpicked subalterns to bring peace to the Southwest. An experienced commander of Apache scouts, he also served as military commandant of the White Mountain Indian Reservation, headquartered at Fort Apache. His career looked promising.

Then he arrested Thomas Zuck, a territorial judge, for defrauding his wards. When Crook asked him to drop the charges, Gatewood refused. This set off a series of litigations that led to the end of Gatewood's working relationship with Crook and the Apaches but ultimately to his participation in the last Apache war.

On July 13, 1886, Miles summoned Gatewood–who knew every member of the hostile band–to his office in Albuquerque, New Mexico Territory. He ordered the lieutenant to take two Chiricahua guides, find the elusive warring Apaches in Mexico and demand their surrender. Gatewood balked. The mission sounded like a fool's errand. Besides, he was not healthy; his arthritic body could not handle a prolonged campaign in the wilds of Mexico.

Miles offered to eventually make the lieutenant his aide-de-camp. The position appealed to Gatewood. After outfitting at Fort Bowie, Arizona Territory, he set out with Martine (a Nednhi Chiricahua) and Kayitah (who was either a Nednhi or a Chokonen Chiricahua), both of whom were related to members of the hostile band; interpreter George Wratten; and packer Frank Huston. Everyone rode mules. Courier Tex Whaley joined Gatewood before he dropped into Mexico on July 19.

Gatewood traveled eastward in Sonora, cut through the Guadalupe Mountains and into Chihuahua. The trek south played havoc with his health. His joints ached, he suffered from dysentery, and he had an inflamed bladder. When he reached Carretas on July 21, Lieutenant James Parker, who had supposedly followed Geronimo's trail, told him there was no trail to follow.

Gatewood refused to quit. After resting for six days, he set out to find Captain Henry Lawton (U.S. 4th Cavalry), who was leading Miles' primary seek-and-destroy column in the field. Lawton was somewhere to the south in the Sierra Madre. After traveling 150 miles, on August 3 Gatewood found Lawton on the Aros River.

Lawton–who also had no idea where the hostiles were–was not pleased with Gatewood's appearance. After making it clear he intended to hunt Geronimo down and kill him, Lawton allowed Gatewood to join his command.

Rains pounded the earth nightly. During daylight hours, a merciless sun reached 117 degrees. Days passed. Lawton meandered one way and then another. He found nothing. During this time, Gatewood's health continued to deteriorate. On August 8 he asked Leonard Wood, Lawton's surgeon and second-in-command, to medically discharge him. Wood refused.

While moving northward, on August 18, Lawton and Gatewood heard that two Apache women had opened negotiations for peace at the pueblo of Fronteras, some 70 miles to the northwest. Gatewood, with Kayitah, Martine, Wratten, several packers and six of Lawton's men, set out for Fronteras the next morning at 2 a.m. He rode and walked 55 miles, arriving at Cuchuta late that night.

On August 20, Gatewood pushed on the remaining 15 miles to Fronteras. He presented himself to Jesus Aguirre, the prefecto of the Sonaran district of Arispe, to which Fronteras belonged. The meeting did not go well. Aguirre did not support Gatewood's mission.

After his interview with Aguirre, Gatewood camped with an assembly of American troops three miles below Fronteras. After dark, Aguirre visited the American camp. Although Aguirre told several officers he did not want them present when he negotiated peace with Geronimo, he told Gatewood he hoped to get the Apaches drunk and then massacre them.

During the next two days Gatewood made no attempt to contact Geronimo. When Lawton heard, he rode to Fronteras to find out why. However, before he saw Gatewood, he got drunk. Wood, who had accompanied Lawton, assumed command and ordered Gatewood to find Geronimo.

Gatewood told Aguirre he had ended his search for Geronimo and would rejoin Lawton's command. At dusk, the lieutenant moved south. He enlisted two additional interpreters, Tom Horn and Jesus Maria Yestes, and between six and eight soldiers. Horn was serving as chief of scouts for one of the columns in Mexico; Yestes lived in Fronteras. Gatewood had no intention of rejoining Lawton. The march was little more than an act to convince anyone who watched that he would rejoin Lawton. After traveling six miles, it was dark enough for his purposes. Gatewood ducked into an arroyo, then turned eastward into the mountains. Shortly after midnight, he turned northward, toward Fronteras.

Early on August 23, he found the trail of the two Apache women who had spoken with Aguirre. It led eastward, down the mountain toward the Bavispe River. By the time Gatewood reached the Bavispe, all signs indicated that the Chiricahuas were close. Gnarly crags towered above. Fearing ambush, Gatewood slowed his pace to a crawl.

The following morning the women's tracks joined Geronimo's. Gatewood followed them through a canyon and into the valley of the Bavispe. Just past noon, he reached a canebrake below a peak that offered a good view of the surrounding country. After setting up camp, he sent Kayitah and Martine out to find Geronimo.

During the wait, Gatewood sent several messengers back to Lawton. Anticipating meeting Geronimo the next day, he requested tobacco and supplies.

Lieutenant Robert Brown (4th Cavalry) and 30 Indian scouts showed up at Gatewood's camp shortly before Martine returned by himself at sundown. Kayitah had remained at the Chiricahua stronghold. Martine described the stronghold as an exceedingly rocky position high up in the [Teres] mountains in the bend of the Bavispe. Martine said that Geronimo and Naiche wanted to talk peace–but only with Gatewood.

On August 25, an anxious Gatewood packed 15 pounds of tobacco, cigarette papers, and matches that had arrived from Lawton during the night. He moved out at sunrise. Martine led the way, and Brown's scouts served as escort. After traveling several miles along the canyon floor, Gatewood began to ascend the mountain that Geronimo held. An unarmed Chiricahua warrior appeared, then three armed warriors. Geronimo would meet at the bend of the river where there was water, wood, grass and shade, but only if Brown's Indian scouts left. Gatewood sent Brown back to the canebrake.

Gatewood, with Martine, Wratten, Yestes, Horn, maybe one soldier and the four Chiricahuas, reached the bend of the Bavispe shortly after 8 a.m. Suddenly, armed warriors appeared on the mountain and began their descent. We were very anxious for a few minutes, Martine remembered, thinking that maybe Geronimo had changed his mind and meant trouble for us.

It was too late to run.

When the Chiricahuas reached the mountain base, they vanished, only to explode out of the bush from different directions. Some 35 to 40 Chiricahuas, including 21 warriors, surrounded Gatewood. Kayitah appeared. There was no sign of Geronimo.

Gatewood greeted everyone, then took off his arms. The Indians immediately asked for tobacco and alcohol. Gatewood had no alcohol, but passed out the makings for smokes. Everyone rolled cigarettes and lighted up.

Geronimo appeared, set his Winchester down and crossed to Gatewood. As they shook hands, Geronimo said Anzhoo–How are you? Before Gatewood could reply, Geronimo commented on the lieutenant's thinness and apparent bad health and asked him what was the matter. Gatewood answered and they sat down together–too close for the lieutenant's comfort.

Gatewood asked about the negotiations with the Mexicans. Geronimo explained that he wanted supplies, mescal and time to rest and figured the Mexicans would let him have those things if they thought he would surrender to them.

The moment of reckoning had arrived. With warriors surrounding him and Geronimo staring at him, Gatewood felt chilly twitching movements. He said, I am directed by General Miles to ask the surrender of yourself and followers to the United States government.

On what conditions? Geronimo asked.

An unconditional surrender. Feeling his way carefully, Gatewood continued: Surrender and you will be sent to join the rest of your people in Florida, there to await the decision of the President as to your final disposition. Accept these terms or fight it out to the bitter end.

Silence.

Geronimo rubbed his face, his eyes. Then, holding his arms before Gatewood, made them tremble. We have been on a three days' drunk, Geronimo said. The Mexicans expected to play their usual trick of getting us drunk and killing us, but we have had the fun; and now I feel a little shaky.

[We] can't surrender. [We do] not want to go to Florida. He then said, [We want] to go back to the White Mountains the same as before.

Gatewood told Geronimo that he had no authority to offer terms. If I was authorized to accede to these modest propositions, the war might be considered at an end right there, the lieutenant said.

After Geronimo recited all the wrongs done to his people, the talk turned to what the Chiricahuas should do. Warrior tempers flared. They moved away from Gatewood to speak in private.

Geronimo resumed negotiations with Gatewood after a lunch break. He said he wanted the usual terms, including no punishment. Geronimo then snapped: To expect [us] to give up the whole Southwest to a race of intruders [is] too much….[We] are willing to cede all of it except the reservation. [We] will move back on that land or fight till the last one of [us] is dead. Geronimo looked Gatewood square in the eye. Take us to the reservation or fight.

Gatewood could do neither. Surrounded, he could not even run. It did not look good. Naiche spoke for the first time, saying that Gatewood had come in peace and would be allowed to leave in peace.

Breathing easier, Gatewood decided to gamble and say a truth that had not happened yet. He told Geronimo and Naiche that the rest of their people had been removed to Florida. These words shocked the Indians.

[Are you] telling the truth, or…[is this] a trick to get [us] in the white man's clutches? Geronimo asked. Abruptly, Geronimo, Naiche and the others moved to the other side of the canebrake.

An hour later they returned to Gatewood. Nothing had changed–a return to the reservation or fight. Gatewood passed out more tobacco and paper. Everyone rolled cigarettes and smoked. The talk drifted from the problem at hand, easing the tension. Hours passed. Everyone ate, smoked, joked and drank muddy warm water from the river.

When Gatewood prepared to leave, Geronimo stopped him. We want your advice, he said. Consider yourself one of us and not a white man. Remember all that has been said today, and as an Apache what would you advise us to do under the circumstances?

I would trust General Miles and take him at his word, Gatewood replied.

Geronimo said he would announce their decision in the morning. You can come to our camp anywhere, he said. Never fear harm. Gatewood shook hands all around, mounted and left. Night had fallen by the time Gatewood reached his bivouac. He told Lawton, who had arrived in the afternoon, that Geronimo declined to make an unconditional surrender.

Next morning scouts yelled for Gatewood. Geronimo, Naiche and several others appeared beyond the picket line and wanted to see him. Gatewood took Wratten, Yestes and Horn and met the Apaches. Geronimo said: If you will give your word that we can meet General Miles with safety, we will go to him and accept his terms. We will throw ourselves on his mercy, something we have never done before. He then insisted upon several conditions: (1) Lawton would follow the Indians back to the United States to protect them from Mexican and American troops; (2) both parties would have the freedom of the other's camp; (3) the Indians would keep their weapons until they surrendered; and (4) Gatewood would march and sleep with the Indians. Gatewood accepted the terms.

Gatewood led the Apaches into the white bivouac and introduced them to Lawton, who also agreed to the terms set forth by Geronimo. They selected Skeleton Canyon, some 35 miles north of Mexico on the Arizona­New Mexico border, as the location for the official surrender to Miles.

The two groups left on the morning of August 28. Gatewood and Geronimo kept to the foothills, while Lawton's command skirted the San Bernardino River.

That afternoon after the two camps were set up, Aguirre and his army approached from the west. Geronimo thought the Americans intended to join forces with the Mexicans. Gatewood told him that this was not true, that the Americans would stop the Mexicans while he ran with the Chiricahuas. Everyone mounted and moved northward.

Aguirre met Lawton and demanded the Indians be punished. Lawton said no, the Chiricahuas had surrendered to the Americans. Then, to avoid a clash, Lawton set up a meeting with Geronimo.

Aguirre and six men, along with Lawton and his officers, arrived at the designated location first. No one dismounted. Suddenly, Geronimo walked in from the bush. He carried a Winchester; a revolver dangled on his left hip. An unarmed Gatewood followed him, then Wratten, Naiche and four others. The Indians held cocked rifles. They crossed half the distance to the Mexicans and halted.

The Mexicans didn't move. Several nervously clutched their revolvers. Finally, they dismounted and walked forward.

Gatewood introduced Aguirre and Geronimo. When Aguirre reached to shake hands, Geronimo dropped his free hand to his revolver, then changed his mind and shook the prefecto's hand. Unnerved, Aguirre grabbed his revolver.

Too close for comfort, Gatewood backed up. He later claimed that the whites of Geronimo's eyes turned red. The old warrior gripped his revolver a second time. Aguirre fidgeted, then let go of his gun. So did Geronimo, averting gunplay.

Aguirre asked Geronimo why he did not surrender to him. Geronimo snapped that he did not want to be murdered. Next, Aguirre stated he intended to accompany the Chiricahuas to the border. No, you are going south and I am going north, Geronimo said. I'll have nothing to do with you nor with any of your people.

The conference ended.

That night Gatewood realized that he had a major problem. The Indians still believed that the Mexicans and Americans might join forces and kill them. After discussing the problem with Kayitah, Martine and Wratten, he suggested to Geronimo that he and his band run for the border–about 30 miles to the north–while the Americans remained behind with the Mexicans. The Indians agreed.

After selling the plan to Lawton, Gatewood departed. As daylight arrived on August 29, Gatewood and his companions were exhausted, but they pressed onward. Lawton, Wood and several soldiers then caught up to them. The Mexicans had gone off and would not cause problems.

Everyone waited for Lawton's command to appear. It never did. Lawton sent Wood's orderly back to find the troops. When the orderly failed to return, Lawton set out to find his missing command.

Gatewood–with Wood in attendance–and the Chiricahuas resumed their trek after dark. After traveling eight miles, Geronimo halted at a defensible position east of the San Bernardino. At dawn on the 30th, they moved on, reaching Alias Creek by midmorning. Everyone was tired and hungry. Gatewood and Geronimo halted for the day. Soon after, Wood left to find Lawton.

Lawton had found his command. By the time Wood reached it, however, Lawton had set out for the nearest heliographic station to send a message to Miles. Lieutenant Abiel Smith (4th Cavalry) was now in command. This development came about when Lawton confided to Smith that he was nervous about keeping his promise of delivering the hostiles safely. I haven't promised them anything, Smith told Lawton. You…communicate with Miles and I'll take command. Smith and Wood decided not to wait for Lawton to return. They set out for Geronimo's camp.

On August 31 both outfits broke camp at 7 a.m. The soldiers maintained a discreet distance. That morning a messenger overtook Smith and Wood. It is unknown what the communiqué stated. However, it must have been strong for it changed their outlook.

The Apaches became nervous when they approached Guadalupe Canyon, which marks the entrance into the United States. It was here, 15 months earlier, that they had killed some of Lawton's men. Although Gatewood tried to reassure them, he could not change the destination. Guadalupe Canyon contained much needed water.

As soon as the two camps were set up, warriors rode to the soldier camp to study the back trail and watch the Americans. Ignoring his Indian guests, Smith reviewed the situation with his fellow officers. He wanted to disarm the Chiricahuas and make them true prisoners. Smith underestimated the Indians' comprehension of English and spoke openly. We had quite a discussion about the matter, Wood wrote, and it was arranged that in case of any ugly spirit breaking out during the conference or the Indians refusing to be reasonable that each man should kill the Indian next to him. The warriors got the gist of what he proposed. They raced back to Gatewood and Geronimo and reported that Smith expressed a desire to pitch in with the troop and have it out right there.

Panic reigned. As the Chiricahuas mounted and hustled to get out of the canyon, the soldiers started for Geronimo's camp. Wratten, who had also been in the white camp, told Gatewood that Smith and Wood approached at a leisurely pace.

Gatewood leaped on his mule and raced after the fleeing Geronimo. After catching him, he repeated what he had just heard. Geronimo slowed his mount to a walk. What…should [you] do in case [we are] fired on by the troops? he asked.

I [will] proceed toward the troops and endeavor to have the firing stopped, Gatewood replied. Otherwise I [will] run away with [you].

They kept moving until they found a defensible spot. After setting up camp, Gatewood took Geronimo and Wratten and rode back to confront the white men. When he saw the soldiers in the distance, he halted and waited as the Americans came forward in single file.

Gatewood asked what the officers wanted. Smith said he wanted to meet with the Chiricahuas. Gatewood said there would be no meeting. Smith cited his seniority in rank and demanded a meeting. Gatewood refused. Tempers flared. Finally, Gatewood stated he knew Smith's real objective: the proposed murder of Geronimo.

When Smith continued to insist upon the meeting, Gatewood threatened to blow the head off the first man if he didn't stop. Wood happened to be first in line. Sensing the reality of Gatewood's threat, he pulled back and sent an orderly to fetch Lawton. Smith, now first in line, also backed down.

Murder had been averted. The refugees reached Skeleton Canyon without further incident. Geronimo surrendered on September 3, 1886, Naiche surrendered on September 4, and the last Apache war ended.


This article was written by Louis Kraft and originally appeared in the October 1999 issue of Wild West magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!


5 Responses to “General Nelson Miles and the Expedition to Capture Geronimo”


  1. 1

    [...] The best articles available online currently about Geronimo's capture are: Captain Lawton's Campaign as recounted by Captain Leonard Wood and General Nelson Miles and the Expedition to Capture Geronimo [...]

  2. 2
    Jessica says:

    Thank you very much for the information in this article, it
    helped fill in some gaps in the history of the area where I live.
    The tomb of Geronimo is located on Ft. Sill 8.3 miles from my
    front gate and we discuss his life and customs a lot.
    regards, Jessica McPherson

  3. 3
    geraldine Wrobel says:

    I enjoyed your article. I am researching a painting I have of Geronimo on calfskin that was given to John McCabe, atty, who helped Geronimo during his surrender. The cafeskin was framed in 1901 at Marshall Field & Co., Chicago, IL. The frame is 48in.x40in. The painting, either in caulk or watercolor is signed Frank Iler, artist in Albquerque, N.M. Any help would be appreciated. Thank you. G. Wrobel

  4. 4
    W. D. Spain, Jr. says:

    Lt. Abiel Smith, West Point class of1878, 4th. Cav. was my great grandfather. He was a brave and honorable soldier, served for 40 years, retired as a general and died in 1946. He never intended to "murder" Geronimo. What is the source of these remarks.

    W. D. Spain Jr.

  5. 5
    cole says:

    It was a long story. It was cool because we have a spoon that was his and its singed he built my great great great grandmas house and left it behind when he moved.



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