Best known for his deadly raids in Mexico and the American Southwest, and for eluding the U.S. Army, Geronimo also claimed the power to heal.
His reputation as a fierce hostile, the last of the American Indians to formally surrender and accept American authority, was well earned and finely honed. Though he was never a tribal leader in the mold of Cochise or Mangas Coloradas, for a four-month period in the early 1880s, as Juh’s influence within the tribe declined, three main Chiricahua bands living in Mexico’s Sierra Madre looked to him for leadership. As the Chokonen warrior-scout Kayitah remembered it, “Geronimo was never really a chief but became one because of all the trouble.”
His Chiricahua name was Goyahkla (“One Who Yawns”), but his Mexican foes saddled him with the Spanish name Geronimo. His lifelong hatred for Mexican soldiers stemmed at least in part from a March 1851 attack near Janos, Mexico, in which soldiers killed his family. In the years that followed, he raided in the Mexican provinces and in the American Southwest (New Mexico and Arizona territories). He became best known in the United States in the 1880s for his breakouts from the reservation and his knack for eluding the Army. After his surrender to Brig. Gen. Nelson Miles in September 1886, which ended the Army’s extensive Geronimo campaign, he remained in the national spotlight as a photogenic prisoner of war in Florida, Alabama and Oklahoma Territory. But while Geronimo remains a familiar figure today as a warrior and prisoner of war, little remembered is his lifelong reliance on supernatural power, with which he claimed to have healed himself and others. Indeed, Geronimo’s people regarded him as not only a strong war leader but also an accomplished medicine man, or shaman.
Anthropologist Morris Edward Opler, who inter- viewed elderly Chiricahuas in the 1930s, believed Geronimo “was not a chief in the accepted Chiricahua sense of the term.” Opler had the impression that Geronimo’s followers largely comprised relatives, close friends and others with kinship connections through marriage. Though he lacked sufficient knowledge of the events of the 1880s to make a call, Opler also heard that Geronimo’s reputation as a warrior was below average. He had mistakenly concluded that Naiche was the Apaches’ military strategist, while Geronimo’s role depended on ritual and ceremony.
In fact, the two chiefs camped apart for most of their time in Mexico’s Sierra Madre during those turbulent years. Naiche remained with Juh between 1881 and 1883, while Geronimo split off with his own band, taking fewer than 20 percent of the Chiricahuas to raid Sonora. Again, in 1885 and 1886, Naiche and Geronimo led separate groups in Mexico and were apart much of the time. When they were together, as Juh’s son Asa Daklugie later told historian Eve Ball, Geronimo “scrupulously required the warriors to render to Naiche the respect due a chief.” The shaman did lead war parties, but his relationship to Naiche was pretty much that of general to commander in chief.
Opler was certainly correct in observing that Geronimo’s followers believed he had supernatural power. It was a quality nearly every Chiricahua Apache, man or woman, could theoretically possess. Opler said most Chiricahuas depended on “some sort of ceremony, little or big,” and concluded there was “a ceremony for nearly everything in life,” notably for sickness, love, hunting and war.
While yet a boy in the early 1820s Geronimo learned from his mother to kneel and pray to Usen (God) for strength, health, wisdom and protection. From his father he learned of the brave deeds of the Apache warriors, the pleasures of the hunt and the glories of the warpath. And from Usen, Geronimo said: “[The Apaches] knew what herbs to use for medicine, how to prepare them and how to give medicine. This they had been taught by Usen in the beginning, and each succeeding generation had men who were skilled in the art of healing.”
Geronimo had his first encounter with the supernatural within months of the March 1851 massacre of his family. He had gone into the mountains alone when he heard a voice calling his Apache name, Goyahkla, four times—a sacred Apache number. Then he heard: “No gun can ever kill you. I will take the bullets from the guns of the Mexicans, so they will have nothing but powder. And I will guide your arrows.” Geronimo also practiced the gun ceremony, a series of prayers and songs that gave the parts of guns specific ceremonial names and was thought to grant protection. Convincingly, the guns of his enemies often jammed or misfired when they tried to shoot Geronimo, and he was never seriously wounded. When artist Elbridge Ayer Burbank visited Geronimo in Alabama in 1893 to paint his portrait, the number of scars he saw on the elderly Apache’s body astounded him. He joked with Geronimo that “he was probably so far away that the bullets did not penetrate him, but that had he been nearer, they probably would have killed him.” Geronimo set Burbank straight. “No, no!” he shouted. “Bullets cannot kill me!” Though Burbank claimed the Apache’s body bore at least 50 wounds from bullets and buckshot, in his autobiography Geronimo claimed to have been wounded only eight times. William Hill, who knew the Apaches at the Mescalero Reservation in New Mexico Territory, reported that Geronimo’s “band was thoroughly convinced that being with [him] made them immune to white man’s bullets. They will tell you tales of soldiers shooting point-blank at the men and the bullets never finding their marks. [Geronimo’s men] were nearly fanatics.”
Geronimo reportedly had a second supernatural encounter around 1869 on a mountaintop near Fort Bowie in Arizona Territory. He had gone there to pray to Usen to save the life of Juh’s wife, Ishton, who was experiencing difficulties related to childbirth. Usen told Geronimo she would live and also promised that Geronimo himself would live to an old age and die a natural death. It was that promise that provided Geronimo his great courage in battle. After seeing him in many life-threatening battles and witnessing his miraculous escapes, the chief’s men were impressed. His warriors believed Geronimo survived thanks to Usen’s protection and his own marvelous power.
In addition to Usen’s assurance he would not be killed in battle, Geronimo enjoyed other advantages from his power. For one, his people regarded him as an important medicine man, able to act as both surgeon and herbalist to cure his patients. Geronimo confirmed reports he had used a knife to remove embedded arrowheads and spear points from his wounded men. Others recalled a healing ceremony Geronimo held at Fort Sill, Oklahoma Territory, for a man bitten by a dog or coyote. A crowd gathered at dusk by an arbor outside of his home, where, according to an eyewitness interviewed by Morris Opler, “Geronimo sat facing the east, and the patient lay stretched out before him.” Several of the man’s relatives were present. “Geronimo had an old black tray basket before him, filled with the things he used for the ceremony,” the eyewitness continued. “He had a downy eagle feather in it and an abalone shell and a bag of pollen.” Geronimo rolled a cigarette and puffed to the four directions. He then rubbed the patient with pollen and prayed in turn to the four directions. The prayers expressed how “coyote was a tricky fellow, hard to see and find, and how he gave those same characteristics to Geronimo so that he could make himself invisible and even turn into a doorway. They told how the coyote helped Geronimo in his curing.” The shaman sang and beat a drum with a curved stick. When each song ended, he emitted a call like a coyote. The ceremony lasted four nights, with Geronimo chanting the same songs and prayers each night. Opler did not record the patient’s fate.
Perico, Geronimo’s second cousin, witnessed a ceremony Geronimo conducted in 1880 at the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona Territory. The patient was suffering severe abdominal pain and had asked Geronimo to cure him. Perico thought the man to be mortally ill. For four nights Geronimo sang for him. “He used pollen to make signs to the four directions,” Perico recalled. He then put pollen in the man’s mouth and crossed pollen on the man’s chest, head and his shoulders. Geronimo told the man he would get well— and he did. Perhaps he was already on the mend, but maybe Geronimo really did cure him. Also at Fort Sill, in the mid- 1890s, Naiche asked Geronimo to cure his ailing daughter Hazel. Geronimo promptly attended to the toddler and held a similar four-night ceremony. She, too, steadily recovered.
In explaining why they followed Geronimo, his Apache warriors often mentioned his supernatural power. Foremost in their estimation was his ability to foresee the results of fighting. Juh’s son Asa Daklugie said that Geronimo’s medicine revealed to him what was going to happen before it occurred. Edwin Yahnozha, a warrior from the Sierra Madre days, recalled: “Geronimo was a great medicine man who saw the enemy in a vision even when far away. He had a spirit in the mountain that helped him, and to this spirit we all prayed.”
That foresight greatly benefited Geronimo. In April 1882 he led 60 Chiricahua warriors from the Sierra Madre in a crossborder raid on San Carlos to free Loco’s and Zele’s bands and return with them to Mexico. En route to the reservation Geronimo sang four songs, and his power assured him “all was going to be well on their way to San Carlos.” About this time, reported one of Opler’s sources, Geronimo fixed it so that morning would not come too soon. How did the shaman do that? By singing. “He saw the enemy while they were in a level place,” recalled the source, “and he didn’t want them to spy on us. He wanted morning to break after we had climbed over a mountain, so that the enemy couldn’t see us. So Geronimo sang, and the night remained for two or three hours longer.”
Jason Betzinez, Geronimo’s second cousin, traveled with the de facto chief from April 1882 through May 1883. They were mostly in the Sierra Madre. In mid-May 1883 Brig. Gen. George Crook’s trusted officer Captain Emmet Crawford captured a Chiricahua rancheria in those mountains. Geronimo was absent, having led a 36-man war party into Chihuahua. He was, in fact, about 120 miles east of their camp. But as they sat down to dinner one evening, Betzinez recalled, Geronimo suddenly dropped his knife and cried out: “Men, our people whom we left at our base camp are now in the hands of U.S. troops! What shall we do?” Betzinez was amazed. “This was a startling example,” he insisted, “of Geronimo’s mysterious ability to tell what was happening at a distance. I cannot explain it to this day. But I was there and saw it. No, he didn’t get the word by some messenger. And no smoke signals had been made. Every one of us replied to Geronimo that we wanted to go back right away. We believed what he had told us.”
After Geronimo’s September 4, 1886, surrender to General Miles, the Army held his band in limbo for several weeks in San Antonio as authorities in Washington, D.C., decided his fate. President Grover Cleveland favored hanging the renegade Apache. But the Chiricahuas said Geronimo prayed so fervently to his power that he inspired a favorable response, and thus his life was spared.
Geronimo seemed to be at the center, directly or indirectly, of virtually every milestone in Chiricahua Apache history between 1876 and 1886. The exception was Victorio’s War (1879–81), al- though he even played a role in the events leading up to that conflict. Geronimo was also a follower of Mangas Coloradas and an associate of Cochise. It comes as no surprise that in his autobiography, published in 1906, he emphasized the U.S. military’s treachery against these two chiefs. When threatened by troops, Geronimo consulted his power. This supernatural source usually told him to leave the reservation before the troops seized him. The advice corroborated his well-honed instincts, which led the shaman to flee the moment his life or liberty was threatened.
Geronimo Relates his Early Life
In an 1893 interview at Mount Vernon Barracks in Alabama—given by Captain William Holman Cary Bowen and interpreted by George Wrattan—Geronimo was surprisingly candid about his early life but avoided the subject of war.
Geronimo’s birth came during a time of relative peace between the Mexicans and the Chiricahua Apaches. Between 1790 and 1830 the Spanish and then the Mexicans issued provisions to the Apaches in order to keep the peace. Leading Geronimo’s Bedonkohe band was a chief known to the Spanish as Fuerte, who later took the name Mangas Coloradas. The Bedonkohes lived along the Gila River at Santa Lucia Springs and in the high country of the Mogollon Mountains and the Black Range in what would become New Mexico. Geronimo’s grandfather Mako was chief of the Bedonkohes before Fuerte. Mako had fiercely resisted the Spaniards, and Geronimo heard about his daring exploits as a war chief from his own father, Taklisham (“Gray One”). Geronimo gave his birth date as 1829, though recent research suggests 1823 as a more likely year. He recalled that his father “had a big ranch, and I was born on this ranch at the head of the Gila River in Arizona, while it was still a part of Mexico.” Actually it was near the Gilar Valley, south of the Mogollon Mountains, in the Mexican-controlled province of New Mexico.
Recalling his childhood, Geronimo described the Chiricahuas as “farmers and herders, a pastoral people, tilling the soil in the valleys to raise our wheat and corn and vegetables and herding our cattle, horses and sheep in the high tablelands and on the hillsides.” He also claimed, “As for warfare, then we knew little of war.” But after Mexico won its war of independence from Spain in 1821 and took over administration of the northern presidios, the existing relationship with the Chiricahuas worsened. Burdened by the cost of provisions and administration, the Mexican government stopped issuing food and supplies to the Apaches in 1831. War soon followed.
Geronimo told Bowen that during the years of peace with the Spanish and Mexicans his people had engaged in “fights with other tribes of Indians.” He was referring to raids and skirmishes with the Western Apaches, Navajos and Mescaleros, east of the Rio Grande, and the Pimas and Papagos, in Arizona and Sonora. “Once in a while [these Indians] came to steal our stock or our women, and then we retaliated on our turn on the homes of our enemies and on their fields and on their herds,” he recalled. “Our people had lived on these lands for many years, and few of our people had ever seen the face of a white man when I was a boy. Of course, we did not call the Mexicans ‘white man.’ The nearest Mexicans were on the Rio Grande, many, many miles away. And we lived our lives, married our wives and raised our families happily and undisturbed, except for the forays of other Indians occasionally. As a boy I worked with the rest planting corn and pulling up grass for the cattle….We had to pull the grass up by the roots or else twist it off, for we had no way of cutting it.”
Geronimo was 9 or 10 years old when his father died from an illness. “I had to take care of myself,” he said. When he was 14 or 15 he and three other boys went out hunting together. “We had good bows and arrows,” he recalled. “We knew they were good because we had made them ourselves. We saw three deer running way over on the other side of a deep ravine. We were all excited, but I wasn’t as excited as the other boys were. I got down on my knee and carefully aimed one at the deer. Then I let an arrow fly, and it hit the deer and went all the way through him. There we were, all excited and glad. Now we laughed and clapped our hands. We felt so good that we could not help laughing and feeling well.…We built a fire and cut the deer up and roasted the pieces over the coals and the ashes. We ate the deer all up. We ate the whole of it, for we were hungry. But it was good. I can almost taste it now. That was my first deer.”
After this hunt Geronimo decided it was time to raise a family. “[I] took a squaw, got married and supported my wife [Alope] and my family by hunting.” He used horses for hunting and was getting rich when disaster struck his village near Janos in the Mexican state of Chihuahua on March 5, 1851. He was away from home when Sonoran troops under Colonel José María Carrasco “came to our village to steal,” recalled Geronimo. “During the fight they killed my wife and two papooses, who were about 3 and 5 years old.” (This account differs from his 1906 autobiography, in which he said he lost three children, his wife and also his mother in Carrasco’s assault.) When Geronimo returned to camp and found their bloody remains, “It made my heart sorry for myself and hard for the Mexicans.” Bowen asked whether Geronimo had retaliated on the raiding Mexicans. “But the shaman would say nothing whatever of fight nor talk about war,” Bowen reported. “He said, ‘I will not talk about the warpath.’”
Only years later did Geronimo tell Barrett how he felt after losing his family. He described his efforts to organize a Chiricahua response to the Mexican massacre. Geronimo claimed to have led the Chiricahua warriors into the January 1851 clash at Pozo Hediondo, where they defeated a Mexican force under Captain Ignacio Pesqueira, killing 26 and wounding more than 40 of Pesqueira’s 100 soldiers. But that battle occurred six weeks before Mexican soldiers slaughtered Geronimo’s family near Janos. Thus, he could hardly claim to have been at peace with Mexicans or seeking revenge for the loss of his family. His cousin Jason Betzinez said Geronimo never forgot what Sonora “had done to his family [and] carried that bitterness in his heart all his life.”
The last event Geronimo disclosed to Bowen was a Mexican act of treachery at Fronteras, Sonora, “about 30 years ago” (actually 35 years earlier, in July 1858), “when Mexicans got a lot of Apaches down to a town [Fronteras] in Sonora to make a treaty. The Mexicans brought out large buckets of mescal, and they told us to help ourselves. Most of the Apaches were fools enough to drink, and they got drunk, and then the Mexicans attacked all that got drunk and killed every one of them. I and two or three others who were not drunk got on our horses and rode away. The Mexicans killed every one of the others—six women and 34 men. That is the way they wanted to make treaties with us—to kill us all.”
That incident involved the Chokonen band of Chiricahuas. Betzinez explained that after the massacre near Janos, Geronimo had married a Chokonen woman and went to live with that band. Military authorities in Fronteras had been negotiating with the Chokonens and Bedonkohes since late April 1858. Given the experiences his father-in-law, Mangas Coloradas, had had in 1857 with the newcomers, Cochise decided to cast his lot with the Mexicans at Fronteras.
On July 11, 1858, an Apache woman and 10 men and women stopped in at Fronteras to solicit peace on his behalf. She said he would arrive in town within four days to discuss a truce. The Sonoran newspaper, La Voz de Sonora, opined that the only reason Cochise was talking terms was that the Sonoran military was planning a campaign against the Chiricahuas. It suggested that the governor was acting to guard against the treachery so common to the Apaches. On July 14, 1858, the stage was set for the Indians’ appearance at Fronteras. Frustrated at previous overtures that hadn’t come to fruition, and exposed to Apache hostilities, the Fronteras commanders came up with an ingenious plan to slaughter the Apaches, one that had met with success in the past and for which the warriors should have been prepared. Although there the Apaches suffered losses, there are predictable discrepancies between Mexican and Apache accounts of the affair. According to garrison commander Captain Santiago Garcia, the Mexicans were compelled to defend themselves because the Chiricahuas had entered the presidio looking for trouble. He claimed that when the Chiricahuas arrived, many were already drunk and obnoxious. Geronimo in turn claimed the Mexicans had liberally furnished the Apaches with mescal and then turned their weapons on the unsuspecting Indians. But Garcia insisted that a drunken Apache chief named Colchon had stabbed a soldier, prompting the Mexican commander to confine all intoxicated Apaches to the guardhouse until they sobered up.
The Mexicans then rounded up about 15 men, including the chiefs Colchon, Lucas and Carlos, and held them in the guardhouse. Colchon then reportedly organized a breakout, and a general melee erupted in the Fronteras plaza. The citizens joined forces with the soldiers and “suffocated the insurrection by the Apaches.” Together they slaughtered the inebriated Chiricahuas, killing 26 men, including the three chiefs, and 10 women. The Sonorans saw one Indian ride away from the fort in a southerly direction. This was Geronimo, who, when the shooting started, had mounted his horse with a few others “who had not drank” and rode back to alert their camp at Cuchuta. All then immediately abandoned the camp and fled into the Sierra Madre.
Mexican authorities at Fronteras issued two reports—one from the justice of the peace, another from garrison commander Garcia. These reports were biased on several points. Foremost, the Chiricahuas did not arrive at the conference drunk; the Mexicans had prepared an elaborate feast and supplied the Indians with all the mescal they wanted. Only in this drunken stupor could the Chiricahuas have been so easily entrapped and massacred. In fact, a Chiricahua source who spoke to anthropologist Morris Opler may have been referring to this incident when he recalled that the Mexicans “would give them liquor, get them drunk, take them in their houses and cut off their heads.” Some two months later the Apaches provided an account of the incident to an American party, insisting the Indians were made “intoxicated and then killed.” They reported 25 casualties.
The Fronteras massacre, along with the killing of his family, left Geronimo bitter toward the Sonorans for the rest of his life. “With me, they were always treacherous and malicious,” he stated in his autobiography. In the early 1900s, by which time Geronimo had reached his early 80s, he again reflected on his lifelong hatred of Sonorans: “I am old now and shall never go on the warpath again, but if I were young and followed the warpath, it would lead into Old Mexico.
Edwin R. Sweeney, an independent scholar and preeminent Apache historian, is a frequent contributor to Wild West. Sweeney completed his Apache trilogy with his 2010 book From Cochise to Geronimo: The Chiricahua Apaches, 1874–1886, which is recommended for further reading. His preceding volumes were Cochise: Chiricahua Apache Chief (1991) and Mangas Coloradas: Chief of the Chiricahua Apaches (1998).
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.