When Theodore Roosevelt invited Geronimo to lead a pageant of legendary Indian warriors in his 1905 inaugural parade, the old Apache renegade eagerly agreed. He figured he could make some money out of the deal and perhaps convince the president to set him free.
Geronimo was a prisoner of war at the time at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, but he wasn’t locked up. He lived in a house with his daughter, farmed a plot of land and played poker with old Apache cronies. He also made a good chunk of change selling souvenirs of himself to white people who regarded him as a vicious murderer or heroic freedom fighter or both. Still, he hated Oklahoma and longed to return to his beloved homeland in the starkly beautiful mountains of southern Arizona.
He was born there in 1829, and grew up in a tribe of proud, fierce Apaches who made their living farming, hunting and raiding the Mexicans who had tried to enslave them. In 1851 Mexican soldiers murdered Geronimo’s mother, wife and three children, and for the rest of his life he eagerly killed Mexicans without qualm or quarter. When Americans began migrating into Apache territory, Geronimo fought them too, raiding mining camps and mule trains, stealing horses and cattle and guns, then fleeing to hidden camps in remote mountains.
Geronimo was shot several times but always recovered, which convinced him that the Apache god Usen was protecting him. “Bullets cannot kill me!” he boasted. He proved to be a ruthless master of guerrilla warfare, using the border to flummox his enemies: His warriors would loot Mexican villages, then flee to the United States, or pillage American ranches and escape into Mexico. The armies of both nations pursued them but soon learned that stalking Apaches was, as one American officer put it, “like chasing deer with a brass band.”
Three times, Geronimo surrendered and led his people to a reservation in Arizona. But the reservation kept shrinking to make way for American miners, and Geronimo, angry at the white man’s broken promises and bored with reservation life, would gather a band of followers, escape to the mountains and begin raiding again.
Finally, in 1886, he surrendered for the fourth time. Wary of his wiles, the Americans shipped him, and hundreds of other Apaches, to Florida, where many perished from strange diseases. “It is too hot and wet,” Geronimo complained to his captors, “and too many of us die here.” In 1894 the U.S. Army moved the surviving Apaches to Fort Sill, where Geronimo raised melons, raced horses and learned that his infamy could earn him money. He carved bows and arrows and sold them to tourists, charging extra to autograph them. Before traveling to an exhibition in Omaha in 1898, he stocked up on buttons and hats. When the train stopped at stations along the way, he’d draw a crowd, sell his hat for $5, then slice buttons off his shirt and peddle them for a quarter each. After the train pulled away from the station, he’d don another hat and sew on new buttons to sell at the next stop.
Before Geronimo left Fort Sill to travel to Roosevelt’s inauguration, an army officer gave him a check for $171 in expense money. Geronimo took it to the bank, deposited $170 and left home with just a dollar, confident that he could earn his expenses at train stations along the way. This time, he didn’t bother with buttons or hats. He just scrawled his name on pieces of paper for 50 cents apiece.
Roosevelt, a politician with a flair for theatrics, had arranged a spectacular inaugural parade for himself. The 35,000 marchers included marines, soldiers, Rough Riders and brass bands, as well as coal miners with lamps on their helmets, Harvard boys in caps and gowns and cowboys on horseback twirling lariats. But what wowed the crowd most was the sight of notorious Indians riding their warhorses down Pennsylvania Avenue—Comanche chief Quanah Parker, Sioux warriors Hollow Horn Bear and American Horse, a Blackfoot named Little Plume, the Ute leader Buckskin Charley and, leading the way, the most hated Indian of them all, Geronimo.
“Stretched across the broad boulevard, in war bonnets and feathers, were six of the most famous Indian chiefs, warriors all, who played no small part in the border battles of the nation’s progress toward the setting sun,” the Washington Post reported. “In the center rode Geronimo, most famous of a long line of famous Apaches. Now an old man, bent yet rugged, sturdy in spite of his age and scars, the noted chieftain was greeted by whoops of delight.”
Among those whooping was Roosevelt, who stood in the reviewing stand, clapping vigorously. His reaction appalled one of his guests, Woodworth Clum, the son of an Arizona reservation official who knew and detested Geronimo.
“Why did you select Geronimo to march in your parade, Mr. President?” Clum asked. “He is the greatest singlehanded murderer in American history.”
“I wanted to give the people a good show,” Roosevelt replied.
Four days later, the six Indians visited Roosevelt in the White House and Geronimo took the opportunity to beg for a pardon. “Great Father, I look to you as I look to God,” he said, speaking through a translator. “When I see your face, I think I see the face of the Great Spirit. I came here to pray to you to be good to me and to my people.”
It was an amazingly obsequious opening. Was the wily old warrior truly feeling humble or was he just putting on a show to hustle Roosevelt?
“When I was young, many years ago, I was a fool,” Geronimo continued. “Did I fear the Great White Chief? No. His people desired the country of my people. My heart was strong against him….When the soldiers of the Great White Chief drove my people from our home, we went to the mountains. When they followed, we slew all we could….We starved but we killed. I said that we would never yield, for I was a fool. So I was punished and all my people were punished with me.”
Now, he told Roosevelt, his people lived in an unhealthy place where they sickened and died. He begged for permission to return to Arizona. “Great Father, my hands are tied as with a rope,” he said. “My heart is no longer bad. I will tell my people to obey no chief but the Great White Chief. I pray you to cut the ropes and make me free. Let me die in my own country, an old man who has been punished enough and is free.”
“Geronimo, I don’t see how I can grant your prayer,” the president responded. “You speak truly when you say you have been foolish. I am glad that you have ceased to commit follies. I am glad that you are trying to live at peace and in friendship with the white people.”
Roosevelt reminded his guest that not all Americans were so forgiving. “You must remember that there are white people in your old home. It is probable that some of these have bad hearts toward you. If you went back there, some of these men might kill you, or make trouble for your people….There would be more war and more bloodshed. My country has had enough of these troubles.”
Fort Sill is not a prison, Roosevelt said. The Apaches were free to grow crops and sell them at a profit. “I feel, Geronimo, that it is best for you to stay where you are,” he concluded. “I do not think that I can hold out any hope for you. That is all I can say, Geronimo, except that I am sorry and I have no feeling against you.”
Geronimo returned to Fort Sill. Later that year, S.M. Barrett, a local school official, offered to ghostwrite his life story and Geronimo agreed, provided that he got half the money. But the military commander of Fort Sill nixed the deal, telling Barrett that Geronimo deserved to be hanged, not celebrated. Barrett appealed to Roosevelt, who overruled the commander. Geronimo dedicated the book to the president, and ended it with another plea for permission to return to Arizona.
“It is my land, my home, my fathers’ land,” he wrote. “I want to spend my last days there, and be buried among those mountains.”
Roosevelt read the book but did not grant the wish.
On Feb. 17, 1909, Geronimo died at Fort Sill and was buried there. On Feb. 17, 2009, the legendary Apache’s great-grandson, a Vietnam veteran named Harlyn Geronimo, filed a lawsuit asking that his famous ancestor’s bones be removed from Fort Sill and reburied in Arizona.
“The only way to bring this to a closure,” Harlyn Geronimo said at a press conference in Washington, “is to release the remains and his spirit, so that he can be taken back to his homeland.”
Originally published in the August 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.