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Geronimo the Apache Gunfighter?

In two famous images of Geronimo he holds a gun. Think A. Frank Randall’s 1884 photo of the legendary Chiricahua Apache kneeling with Springfield carbine in hand at the San Carlos reservation in Arizona Territory, and C.S. Fly’s 1886 photo of Geronimo and three followers posing with rifles at Cañon de los Embudos in Sonora, Mexico. Later, as a prisoner at Fort Sill in Oklahoma Territory, Geronimo posed for several William E. Irwin shots in which the leathery warrior wears a buckskin shirt and grips a six-shooter. Those less familiar images call to mind an aged Wild West gunfighter, except for that crazy horned headwear and the fact many gunfighters died young. Billy the Kid was shot down in his early 20s, Wild Bill Hickok and Jesse James were assassinated in their 30s, and John Wesley Hardin made it past 40 only because he did so much prison time. Geronimo lived to be 79 and did not die by the gun, but is it far-fetched to suggest he lived much of his life as a gunfighter?

In this second issue of the redesigned Wild West (you noticed, right?) Louis Kraft suggests in his cover story that Geronimo at times had a gunfighter attitude. Like Jesse he stole from his enemies, like Billy he killed for revenge, like Wild Bill he had a deadly reputation, and like John Wesley he was someone best to avoid to ensure good health. Geronimo was often a wanted man on the run—that is, the U.S. Army sought to capture him and sentence him to life on a reservation or worse. What’s more, Geronimo had at least one genuine showdown. It happened in Mexico, and his opponent on Aug. 28, 1886, was a self-assured Sonoran with a six-shooter. It wasn’t exactly a High Noon confrontation—the real West had few of those. It was, however, intense. Kraft writes, “Although [Geronimo] knew nothing of gunslingers on the American frontier and didn’t sit with his back to a saloon wall, he had become their brethren.”

Paul A. Hutton, whose The Lords of Apacheria is due out next year, calls Geronimo the best-known American Indian leader, though “certainly no grand patriot chief like Pontiac, Tecumseh or Sitting Bull.” But was he anything like Billy the Kid? “The idea of Geronimo as a gunfighter is an interesting one,” Hutton says. “Politicos like President Grover Cleveland thought of Geronimo as an outlaw, not a war leader. General Phil Sheridan wanted to turn him over to the Arizona Territory courts in 1886 so they could hang him, but General Nelson Miles saved him by shipping him off to Florida. He certainly was a killer and lived a life of unrelenting violence. Much of this has been excused as acts of war by historians, but many of the killings really crossed over the line of even those vicious times (although my book is replete with examples of both American and Mexican atrocities against the Apaches).”

Makes one wonder how Hollywood churned out Billy the Kid vs. Dracula but never got around to Billy the Kid vs. Geronimo. WW

Wild West editor Gregory Lalire is author of the novel Captured: From the Frontier Diary of Infant Danny Duly. His article about baseball in the frontier West won a 2015 Stirrup Award for best article in Roundup, the membership magazine of Western Writers of America.