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Geronimo

By Robert M. Utley
Winter 1992 • MHQ Magazine

He was the terror of two nations: Mexicans regarded him as the devil sent to punish them for their sins; Americans, as the personification of the merciless brutality of Apache warfare.

THE DESERT SUN SEARED THE ROCKY CANYON AS THE APACHE CLIMBED FROM HIS HORSE and advanced cautiously to face the white general. Hard and wiry despite his more than 60 years, his countenance locked in a perpetual scowl, his dark leathery skin gnarled by a lifetime in the outdoors and scarred by the bullet and arrow wounds of countless battles, Geronimo confronted Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles. “He had the clearest, sharpest dark eye I think I have ever seen,” Miles recalled. “Every movement indicated power, energy and determination.”

For two days each rival took the measure of the other. Rarely had Geronimo trusted any American or Mexican, but now, failing to gain surrender terms, he sought some reassurance that the new soldier chief could be trusted not to hand him over to the vengeful citizens of Tucson who clamored for his execution. Geronimo’s handful of followers, still armed, warily camped nearby, coiled to stampede on the slightest pretext. Suspicion had ruled the volatile Apache too long to succumb to a sudden impulse to trust, but the talks convinced him that his best course was to gamble that the white soldier would keep his word.

The next day, riding side by side across the shimmering flat expanse of the San Simon Valley, Geronimo and Miles scanned the dark mass of the Chiricahua Mountains on the horizon.

“This is the fourth time I have surrendered,” mused the old Indian. “And I think it is the last time you will ever have occasion to surrender,” replied the veteran general.

Miles was right. On September 4, 1886, in Skeleton Canyon, a valley in a chain of mountains tracing the eastern boundary of the Arizona Territory, Geronimo’s career as a warrior drew to a close. The Apache Wars ended. More than that, four centuries of war between Indian and European for mastery of North America ended. The Sioux ghost-dance troubles four years later cannot be dignified as war; they were not an outbreak or a rebellion but rather a spiritual movement that ended in violence. Geronimo, by contrast, rose in true revolt against the U.S. government, employing techniques of partisan warfare honed to perfection in half a century of nearly constant practice. When he yielded his rifle to General Miles on that scorching day in Skeleton Canyon, he laid claim to the distinction of being America’s last Indian warrior.

Other Apaches enjoyed greater stature, but it was the squat, thickset Geronimo who emerged in the 1880s as the preeminent war leader. None of the others equaled him in mastery of the partisan fighting style that so confounded the U.S. Army. In cunning, stealth, endurance, perseverance, ruthlessness, fortitude, fighting skill, and command of the harsh conditions of his homeland, he excelled. Of all the Apache captains, recalled a warrior who rode with him, “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.”

Although not a chief, and despised by many of his own people, Geronimo compiled a record of intransigence in peace and skill in war that made him the terror of two nations. Mexican peasants saw him as a devil sent to punish them for their sins. Americans looked on him as the personification of the merciless brutality of Apache warfare.

For citizens of both countries, it was surpassingly brutal. Nowhere else in the American West did residents work their spreads or travel their roads in more deadly peril. Children might be spared, to be reared as captive members of the tribe, but adults could expect no compassion. If not killed instantly, they were taken back to a rancheria to be dispatched by women who had lost a loved one. “They used to tie Mexicans with their hands behind their backs,” remembered one Apache. “Then they turned the women loose with axes and knives to kill the Mexican prisoner. The man could hardly run, and the women would chase him around until they killed him.”

Settlers on both sides of the boundary recounted dreadful tales of Apache butchery, mutilation, and torture. Doubtless some were true. But what made Apache warfare so brutal was the finality of nearly every encounter. Apache raids were economic in their purpose, centering more on plunder than homicide. But Apache warfare, undertaken only after intolerable provocation, centered on killing the enemy. Both Mexicans and, later, Americans furnished the provocation.

The essence of the Apache fighting qualities so perfectly embodied by Geronimo lay in consummate adaptation of man to environment. No region of North America presented more extreme environmental conditions than the Apache country in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico: vast expanses of sand and stone; islands of rocky peaks webbed by treacherous canyons; widely scattered and uncertain water holes; cactus, mesquite, prickly pear, and a profusion of other flora armed with thorns; snakes, scorpions, centipedes, tarantulas, and Gila monsters. Temperatures soared to 120° in the shade in summer and fell to chill depths at night in winter.

From infancy the Apache warrior was reared to master the environment and turn it to his advantage and the enemy’s disadvantage. Powerful muscles, a barrel chest, and years of practice enabled him to run up to 75 miles a day on little or no water or food. He could function on horseback but preferred to move and fight on foot. With bow and arrows, lance, and knife, he was an imposing foe, but with repeating rifle he became the bravest, boldest, wildest, most formidable fighter in North America. He excelled at ambush, sudden surprise, and hit-and-run tactics. He could appear out of nowhere and disappear without a trace. “No serpent can surpass him in cunning,” marveled an army officer.

Apache warfare confronted the U.S. Army with three daunting challenges. First was the individual fighter himself, superior in every aspect of combat to the typical regular soldier. Second was the deftness of small parties of warriors in staging ambushes. “When you see Apache sign,” cautioned an experienced frontiersman, “be keerful; n’ when you don’see nary sign, be more keerful.” Third was the Apache’s ability to elude pursuit while wearing out his pursuers.

For the army, the third challenge proved the most baffling and most punishing-for it made the terrain and the weather, rather than the Apaches, the true enemy. Almost never could troops close with the foe. The recollection of one soldier typified most:

For five or six nights we climbed the mountains on one side and slid down the other, leading our horses, battered and bruised ourselves among the boulders, pricked our flesh with the cactus spines we ran against in the dark, dodged the rolling stones sent crashing down by those above us on the trail, and suffered for want of water which was hardly to be had at all. We marched all night and lay during the day in the red hot canons, their sides adding, by reflected heat, to the warmth of the sand on which we usually camped, without shade, and without having as much fire as would make a cup of coffee.

 

THESE ENDOWMENTS GERONIMO POSSESSED IN FULL MEASURE. More, he possessed the motivation to use them with ruthless tenacity. Within him lurked an abiding hatred of Mexicans, which powered a 30-year vendetta without parallel even in Apache annals.

Geronimo’s deadly malice had its origins in generations of hostility between his people and the Hispanic colonizers of the land. It was a relationship that was shaped by a strange alternation between raid and trade, by mutual enslavement, and by the bounty the Mexican government offered for Apache scalps. To this heritage Geronimo added his own personal vengeance.

Around 1850, when he was a young warrior approaching 30, Geronimo had accompanied a trading party under the great chief Mangas Coloradas to the Chihuahuan town of Janos. While remaining in enmity with Sonorans west of the Sierra Madre Occidental, the Indians had patched up one of their periodic truces with the Chihuahuans east of the mountains. Late one night, returning from a drinking bout in Janos, the men discovered that a contingent of Sonoran provincials had fallen on their lodges, killed many of their families, and made off with their stock.

Goyahkla, not yet called Geronimo, lost all. “I found that my aged mother, my young wife, and my three small children were among the slain,” he remembered many years later. “I was never again contented in our quiet home. I had vowed vengeance upon the Mexican troops…and whenever I…saw anything to remind me of former happy days my heart would ache for revenge upon Mexico.” Over the next three decades, while acquiring more wives and more children, he carried out his resolve in a scourge that left no village, hacienda, or caravan in Chihuahua or Sonora secure from his pillage and butchery.

His personal tragedy added another dimension to Geronimo’s makeup–the mystical virtue the Apaches called “Power.” Grieving in wilderness solitude, he heard a voice call his name four times–a sacred counting for all Indians–and intone, “No gun can ever kill you.” Indeed, although many bullets hit him, none ever killed him. Besides arming him with a reckless self-assurance in battle, Geronimo’s special Power endowed him with extrasensory perception: Repeatedly he foresaw dangers or sensed distant happenings, astonishing his comrades and enhancing his stature.

In one of his first onslaughts, a well-organized revenge expedition for the Janos massacre, Goyahkla demonstrated his new Power and acquired the name by which his enemies knew him for the rest of his life. During a pitched battle with Sonoran troops near Arispe, according to tradition, Goyahkla fought with such conspicuous ferocity that the soldiers cried out, “Cuidado! Watch out Geronimo’–possibly a rough Spanish corruption of the guttural Apache rendering of Goyahkla. Admiring warriors picked up the shout as a battle cry, and thenceforth Goyahkla was Geronimo. (Another explanation is that the soldiers were invoking the name of Saint Jerome for help on the battlefield.)

The raids in Chihuahua and Sonora were an established element in the Apache subsistence pattern. Deer, small game, and edible desert vegetation afforded a scant and undependable source of food, especially after growing numbers of European invaders thinned the animal population. Plunder evolved as an essential supplement to the traditional diet and an important component of material culture.

The advent of Americans after the Mexican War of 1846-48 did not disturb Apache raiding habits. Except for a few isolated collisions, an uneasy accommodation reigned for more than a decade. The two most powerful chiefs, Mangas Coloradas of the Warm Springs and Cochise of the Chiricahuas, maintained generally friendly relations with Americans while continuing to devastate Mexico. By the early 1860s, however, official blundering and increasing encroachment by white settlers had turned the Apaches against the Americans.

As Geronimo grew in stature, especially after the death of Mangas Coloradas in 1863, he was more and more to be found with Chief Juh’s Nednhis, a composite of offshoots from other Apache tribes, in the rugged, towering Sierra Madre of Mexico. But life was hard, with game scarce and raids on Mexicans dangerous and costly. The prospect of rations and security on American reservations enticed many to try the new life.

Geronimo was not immune to the lure. Joining in the peace concluded between General Oliver O. Howard and Cochise in 1872, he and his family settled down on the Chiricahua Reservation in Arizona. Here he and other warriors could leave their families in safety while conducting periodic forays south of the border. When the government broke up this reservation in 1876 and moved its people to the San Carlos Reservation, Geronimo bolted to New Mexico and joined the Warm Springs Apaches on their reservation at Ojo Caliente. From here he continued to strike at Mexico and also at American stockmen and farmers along the Rio Grande.

These indiscretions focused an official spotlight on Geronimo and his comrades and led to an event that raised Americans to the status of Mexicans in his gallery of personal demons. Ordered to arrest the “renegades,” the brash young agent at San Carlos, John P. Clum, appeared at the New Mexico reservation in April 1877 with a contingent of Indian police. In a tense, face-to-face confrontation with Clum, Geronimo defiantly proclaimed: “We are not going to San Carlos with you, and unless you are very careful, you and your Apache police will not go back to San Carlos either. Your bodies will stay here at Ojo Caliente to make food for coyotes.”

At Clum’s signal, police reinforcements poured out of a nearby building and surrounded the rebellious Apaches. Geronimo’s thumb sprang to the hammer of his rifle, then relaxed as he surveyed the odds.

Geronimo did go back to San Carlos, in irons. There he remained shackled for several months in the agency lockup while Clum prodded the sheriff at Tucson to come get Geronimo and have him tried in civil court for murder. But the sheriff did not come, Clum lost his position, and Geronimo went free. “It might easily have been death for me,” he observed years later.

The humiliation of being taken without a fight, the indignity of the white man’s shackles, and the brush with the hangman’s noose left Geronimo with a deep hatred of Americans and a suspicion so intense it governed all his subsequent dealings with them.

Reservation life could not be expected to calm so fiercely independent a spirit as Geronimo’s. His new home, moreover, was the most forbidding, corrupt, and tumultuous reservation in the West. The government wanted to concentrate all Apaches at San Carlos-the desolate, malarial, sun-blasted bottom of the Gila River. People with a history of intertribal animosity wallowed in boredom, feuded with one another, and longed for the free life of old in the cooler high country.

Geronimo did not remain long. As he later summed up in masterful understatement, although the irons were eventually removed, “I never felt at ease any longer….All went well for a period of two years, but we were not satisfied.” Actually, less than a year of life at San Carlos provoked a breakout–a sudden dash southward, bloody depredations on whites who strayed into his path, a futile scramble by the cavalry to cut him off, and sanctuary in the Sierra Madre.

After this breakout, in the autumn of 1881, the principal Apache leaders gathered in the Sierra Madre. A youth who was present remembered Geronimo as an “erect compact figure” but “blocky and muscular.” Close by Geronimo, as he would be for the next five years, was Naiche, a “tall stately young man.” Easygoing and pleasure-loving, Naiche nevertheless commanded respect as the only surviving son of the great Cochise. Geronimo always took pains to defer to Naiche but easily dominated him.

Conspicuously absent was Loco, a powerful Warm Springs chief who headed the peace faction of his tribe. Loco wanted no part of the fugitive life and kept his people tightly in hand at San Carlos. The determination of the Sierra Madre captains to add Loco and his formidable fighting force to their ranks led to fateful consequences.

At dawn on April 18, 1882, Geronimo and a party of warriors swept down on San Carlos, shot and killed the chief of police and one of his men, and forced Loco and his entire band to flee with them. A cavalry force gave chase and twice skirmished with the Apaches, once on Mexican soil, but failed to close in decisive combat.

More successful was a 250-man Mexican force under Colonel Lorenzo García that crept into position while the Indians were distracted by the Americans at their rear. “Almost immediately Mexicans were right among us all, shooting down women and children right and left,” recalled one of the warriors. “People were falling and bleeding, and dying, on all sides of us.” Geronimo rallied 32 warriors and stood off the Mexicans while the rest of the people escaped, but they left the battlefield littered with the bodies of 78 Indians and 22 Mexicans. Thirty-three women and children had fallen captive to García.

The battle dealt the Apaches a shattering blow, but more portentous was an event prompted by the effrontery of Geronimo’s raid on San Carlos. On September 4, 1882, Brigadier General George Crook assumed command of U.S. military forces in Arizona. A reticent, unpretentious man with forked beard, canvas suit, and durable mule, Crook had served in Arizona in 1871-73. Pioneering unorthodox techniques, Crook had scored a brilliant triumph. Packmules instead of wagons had given him unprecedented mobility, and Apache auxiliary units had turned their own people and their own methods of war against the Apache fugitives.

Now, in 1882, army leaders sent Crook back to Arizona to repeat the performance. Reverting to the tried techniques, he took the field himself. Unknown to the runaways in the Sierra Madre, he secured Mexico’s permission to invade their stronghold.

The Apaches had spent the winter raiding Mexican settlements. A large base camp, containing the families of most of the marauding bands, hid in a pine grove high above the Bavispe River. Here the raiders returned periodically with herds of stolen cattle and other loot.

Raiding to the east, in Chihuahua, Geronimo once again displayed his uncanny Power. One evening in camp, recalled one of the band, “Geronimo was sitting next to me with a knife in one hand and a chunk of beef which I had cooked for him in the other. All at once he dropped the knife, saying, “Men, our people whom we left at our base camp are now in the hands of U.S. troops! What shall we do?’”

It was true. On May 15, 1883, after days of toiling ever upward, Crook’s scouts had burst upon the base camp. Nearly everyone escaped, but nine Indians were killed and five children fell captive to the scouts. Crook’s command–193 Apache scouts, 47 regulars, and 76 civilian mulepackers–seized the camp and all its contents, including a horse herd.

Within three days Geronimo and his band took positions on a rocky slope overlooking the military camp, where the soldiers and scouts threw up defensive barricades. Already, discouraged by Crook’s penetration of their mountain hideout, nearly 50 Apaches had drifted in and surrendered. By May 20 the number had risen to 121, chiefly women and children and old men.

The blow to the Indians’ morale and the widespread sentiment favoring surrender affected Geronimo. Warily, he and some of his men ventured down for a talk with the soldier chief. “He and his warriors were certainly as fine-looking a lot of pirates as ever cut a throat or scuttled a ship,” noted Crook’s aide. “In muscular development, lung and heart power, they were, without exception, the finest body of human beings I had ever looked upon. Each was armed with a breech-loading Winchester; most had nickel plated revolvers of the latest pattern, and a few had also bows and lances.”

Several times in the next few days, Crook and Geronimo talked. The general professed complete indifference to whether the Indians surrendered. If they wanted to stay out, American and Mexican troops would hunt them down and kill them all. Despite his suspicions, Geronimo at length agreed to give up. Like his comrades, he was troubled by Crook’s success in turning their own people against them and in penetrating their stronghold. Even so, he stalled; he needed time to collect his scattered people, he explained.

Crook had little choice but to agree. He had worked a huge bluff on the Indians, as they doubtless sensed. He lacked the men and supplies to enforce any measure to which they did not agree. He could not have campaigned longer in these forbidding mountains. When he emerged from Mexico on June 10, he brought out 325 people, but not Geronimo-only his promise to follow.

He did, but only after long delay. Not until late February 1884 did he and his band cross the boundary to enroll once again at San Carlos.

He remained a little more than a year. Settled in the high country near Fort Apache, north of San Carlos, Geronimo and his fellow captains swiftly grew disgruntled. Impatient at all controls, they especially took of offense at Crook’s ban on two traditional practices: beating and disfiguring wives and manufacturing and drinking the potent brew tizwin. The inevitable breakout came on May 17, 1885, when Geronimo, Naiche, and others–42 warriors in all, with 92 women and children–dashed southward for the border. Once more the Sierra Madre harbored the deadly Apache menace.

Lightning Apache raids flashed across southern Arizona and New Mexico, leaving behind death and destruction. The army seemed powerless, although Crook’s Indian scout units in Mexico scored a success by surprising Geronimo’s camp and capturing his three wives and five children. Later, he slipped into the agency and recovered a wife and a daughter. The terror continued, and in November 1885 the army’s commanding general, Philip H. Sheridan, hurried to Arizona to confer with Crook. They resolved once again to send Apache scout units into Mexico to root out the offenders in their camps.

Again Geronimo had cause to marvel at the ability of Crook’s Apache scouts to find him. His main camp nestled among a tangle of mountains near the head of the Aros River, fully 200 miles south of the boundary. Shortly before dawn on January 10, 1886, braying mules sounded the alarm, and the inhabitants of the camp scrambled for safety just as bullets rattled through their wickiups. No one was hit, but Indian scouts quickly occupied the Apache camp.

Disconcerted by the near disaster and the loss of their horses and food supplies, Geronimo and Naiche decided to parley with the white officer. He was Captain Emmet Crawford–”Tall Chief” or “Captain Coffee.” The Indians had known him on the reservation and respected him as a fair and humane man. They sent a woman to him to make arrangements. Crawford agreed to a conference the next morning.

In the misty dawn, full of the usual suspicion, Geronimo, Naiche, and all their people gathered on a stony hillside above the riverbank appointed for the meeting. Suddenly, below, a volley of rifle fire broke the silence. Mistakenly or not, Mexican militia had opened fire on Crawford’s camp. “Tall Chief” sprang to a rock and waved a white handkerchief. A bullet struck him in the forehead and knocked him off the rock. Furious, his scouts fired back, cutting down the Mexican officers and hitting about ten of their men. From the slope, said one of the warriors, “Geronimo watched it and laughed.”

On January 15, Geronimo, Naiche, Nana, and Chihuahua, with a squad of heavily armed warriors, met with Crawford’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Marion P. Maus. Maus had come unarmed, as instructed, and the odds scared him.

Geronimo fixed the lieutenant with an icy gaze and demanded, “Why did you come down here?”

“I came to capture or destroy you and your band,” Maus replied. The brave honesty of the young officer impressed Geronimo, who walked over and shook hands with him. After pouring out a long list of grievances, the Apache agreed to meet personally with General Crook and discuss still another surrender. Bearing the wounded Crawford, who died several days later without regaining consciousness, Maus and his scouts made their way back to the border.

The conference took place on March 25, 1886, in a shady grove of the Canyon de Los Embudos, a short distance south of the border. The Apaches, wary of treachery, camped in an impregnable position atop a lava cone. They were “fierce as so many tigers,” observed Crook, and “knowing what pitiless brutes they are themselves they mistrust everyone else.”

Again Crook spoke bluntly, even insultingly, although again he lacked the force to back his hard words by storming the Apache defenses. He brusquely rejected Geronimo’s labored explanation of the Apache grievances and delivered his ultimatum.

“You must make up your own mind whether you will stay out on the warpath or surrender unconditionally,” the general warned. “If you stay out, I’ll keep after you and kill the last one, if it takes fifty years.”

As usual, factional disagreements sharply divided the Apache camp. Crook exploited the divisions and succeeded in isolating Geronimo. In the end, the general had his way.

“Once I moved about like the wind,” declared Geronimo. “Now I surrender to you and that is all.”

A handshake sealed the bargain. Almost at once the bargain collapsed. Crook hastened to Fort Bowie to report the news to Washington, leaving Lieutenant Maus to escort the Indians. Just south of the border, however, Geronimo and Naiche fell in with a liquor peddler, got drunk, and on the night of March 28 took off to the mountains with families totaling nearly 40 people. As Geronimo later explained, “I feared treachery and decided to remain in Mexico.”

In fact, something resembling treachery was already taking shape. To persuade Geronimo to surrender, Crook had promised that he and his people could return to their reservation after a two-year exile in the East. Washington, however, balked at these terms. General Sheridan, backed by President Grover Cleveland, wanted no conditions at all. Crook therefore endured not only implied censure for letting Geronimo escape but the repudiation of his promises to those who had not bolted. Disheartened and tired, he asked to be relieved. At once Sheridan named a replacement Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles.

The new general faced a daunting mission: to find and capture or kill 18 Apache warriors and their families. Sheridan gave him 5,000 soldiers–one-fifth of the U.S. Army–but made clear his distrust of the Apache scouts on whom Crook had relied.

Five thousand regular soldiers could watch over the border, but they could not seal it off, nor root a handful of Apaches out of the Sierra Madre. In bold, destructive raids on both sides of the border. Geronimo and Naiche exposed the helplessness of the regular soldiery. Fourteen citizens fell victim to the raiders in New Mexico and Arizona, and many more Mexicans in Sonora and Chihuahua. “We were reckless of our lives,” explained Geronimo, “because we felt that every man’s hand was against us…so we gave no quarter to anyone and asked no favor.”

As the hot summer of 1886 wore on with no progress, Miles made two decisive moves. First, he recruited two Chiricahuas to accompany an officer into Mexico and try to reopen talks with Geronimo. The officer was Lieutenant Charles B. Gatewood, a quietly competent protégé of Crooks who had earned the confidence of the Apaches and spoke their language. Second, Miles set in motion a sweeping plan to isolate Geronimo by moving all the reservation Chiricahuas, nearly 400 people, out of Arizona altogether,

In Mexico, Geronimo spent the late summer dodging a column of U.S. regulars under Captain Henry W. Lawton. In the middle of August, the elusive old warrior appeared in the neighborhood of Fronteras, only 30 miles south of the boundary. Asking for peace talks, he hoped to trick the Mexican authorities into giving him needed supplies. For their part, the Mexicans strove to lure the Apaches into town and massacre them. Into this tense maneuvering, while Lawton and his command hovered in the background, rode Lieutenant Gatewood and his two Chiricahua emissaries.

Sporting a white flag high on an agave stalk, Gatewood’s little party tracked the Apaches into the rugged mountains. Sentinels reported their approach to Geronimo, who ordered them killed. Others, however, had recognized Gatewood’s companions, Kayitah and Martine, as kinsmen and argued against this course. “Let them come,” Geronimo conceded.

The parley, by now almost a set piece in Geronimo’s relations with the United States, began on August 24, 1886, on the banks of the Bavispe River. The Apaches knew and liked the tall, thin officer with the big nose. “Bay-chen-daysen,” they called him–”Beak’ Gatewood. Badly hung over from a three-day drunk, Geronimo had little capacity for concentrating. But he understood the lieutenant’s ultimatum: “Surrender, and you will be sent with your families to 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.” Even these terms, harsher than Crook had offered, would land Miles in trouble with the president himself, who wanted to dispose of Geronimo by handing him over to the Tucson civil authorities to be tried for murder. But Geronimo could not be conquered. He had to be coaxed in, and terms of some sort were imperative.

Fight it out was Geronimo’s angry response to Gatewood’s alternatives. The reservation was acceptable, but Florida, a far-off dumping ground for recalcitrant Indians for a decade, held the terrors of the unknown.

All day the talks continued as tension built. Breaking off for the night, Gatewood confided to Naiche the revelation that was to prove decisive: All the Chiricahuas-the family and kin of Geronimo, Naiche, and the others-had already been sent to Florida. Only antagonistic Indian groups now lived at San Carlos. (Although Gatewood did not know it, this was not yet true, but within two weeks it would be.)

The next day a chastened Geronimo began to waver. Over and over he quizzed Gatewood about General Miles–his appearance, his demeanor, his trustworthiness. Finally, near sundown, Geronimo broke. “We want your advice,” he said. “Consider yourself not a white man but one of us. Remember all that has been said today and tell us what we should do.” “Trust General Miles and surrender to him,” replied the lieutenant. Although trust did not come readily, the Apaches took Gatewood’s advice. Suspicion, doubt, uncertainty, and near stampedes dogged the slow movement north to Skeleton Canyon, Arizona, where the historic meeting between Miles and Geronimo occurred on September 4, 1886. It was, as the general predicted, the last time the Apache would ever have occasion to surrender.

Four days later, on the parade ground at Fort Bowie, Geronimo, Naiche, and the last little knot of Apache holdouts packed themselves into the wagons that would take them to the railroad and the longjourney to Florida. A military band drew up at the flagpole to provide a parting serenade. The music meant more to the whites than to Geronimo, who could not have appreciated the irony of the selection: “Auld Lang Syne.”

The Apache exile proved bitter-bitter for the Indians and bitter for the nation. The prisoners died of strange diseases and longed for their desert and mountain homeland. Controversy between East and West, and within the army between partisans of Crook and Miles, exposed the fate of the Indians to public scrutiny. The nation agonized over the emerging record of broken promises, bad faith, and rank injustices that marked the path of the Apaches from Skeleton Canyon to Florida, then to Alabama. In 1894 they were allowed to settle as far west as Fort Sill, in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), but never would these Apaches return to their Arizona homeland.

Geronimo accepted his fate and in the Fort Sill years came to enjoy growing stature as a celebrity. The Indian wars were now a nostalgic chapter in the nation’s memory, and the ancient Apache became the embodiment of chilling scenes of atrocity out of the penny dreadfuls on the drugstore news racks. He rode in parades and was dragged around the country to be exhibited at expositions. Death finally came, as he approached his 90th year, on February 17, 1909.

The nation last glimpsed Geronimo as the incongruous caricature he had become–topped by a shiny stovepipe hat and perched at the steering wheel of a large touring sedan. The photograph drew a sharp contrast with the crafty, suspicious, powerfully muscled Apache captain who had surrendered to General Miles at Skeleton Canyon more than two decades earlier. On that hot desert day he was truly America’s last Indian warrior. MHQ

This article originally appeared in the Winter 1992 issue (Vol. 4, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Geronimo

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