The origins of his name are disputed.
The man who would become the most feared Indian leader of the 19th century was born sometime in the 1820s into the Bedonkohe, the smallest band of the Chiricahua Apache tribe that inhabited what is now New Mexico and Arizona. His given name was Goyahkla (“The One Who Yawns”), but as a young man he earned the moniker “Geronimo” after distinguishing himself in Apache raids against the Mexicans. The source of the name remains the subject of debate. Some historians believed it arose from frightened Mexican soldiers invoking the Catholic St. Jerome when facing the warrior in battle, while others argue that it was simply a Mexican nickname or a mispronunciation of “Goyahkla.”
Geronimo’s wife and children were murdered when he was a young man.
Geronimo came of age during a period of bitter conflict between the Chiricahua Apaches and the Mexicans. In response to the Apaches’ penchant for staging raids to gather horses and provisions, the Mexican government had begun ambushing Apache settlements and offering lucrative bounties for their scalps. In 1851, while Geronimo and several other warriors were in the town of Janos on a trading mission, Colonel Jose Maria Carrasco and a detachment of around 400 Mexican soldiers ransacked his Bedonkohe encampment and slaughtered many of its inhabitants. When Geronimo returned later that night, he found that his mother, his wife and his three young children had all been murdered. “I had lost all,” he said in his autobiography. Following the massacre, Geronimo swore vengeance against Mexico and led a series of bloody raids on its soldiers and settlements. “I have killed many Mexicans,” he later wrote. “I do not know how many…some of them were not worth counting.”
He broke out of U.S. Indian reservations on three different occasions.
In the 1840s and 1850s, the Mexican-American War and the Gadsden Purchase placed the Chiricahua Apaches’ domain within the boundaries of the expanding United States. Geronimo and the Apaches violently resisted the influx of white settlers, but following several years of war with the U.S. Army, they reluctantly negotiated a peace. By 1876, most of the Chiricahuas had been shipped to San Carlos, an arid and inhospitable reservation located in Arizona.
Geronimo avoided the reservation until 1877, when he was captured by Indian agents and brought to San Carlos in chains. He tried his hand at farming, but like many of the Chiricahua, he longed for the freedom of the frontier. Geronimo and his allies would eventually stage three escapes from the reservation between 1878 and 1885. Each time, the renegades fled south and disappeared into the mountains, only resurfacing to conduct marauding expeditions on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. During his second breakout in 1882, Geronimo even staged a daring raid on the Apache reservation and forced several hundred Chiricahuas to join his band—some of them at gunpoint. By the time of his final breakout in 1884, Geronimo had earned an unparalleled reputation for cunning, and stories of his ruthlessness—both real and imagined—were front-page news across the United States.
Geronimo’s followers credited him with supernatural powers.
While he often exerted considerable influence over the Apaches, Geronimo was never a tribal chief. Among the Chiricahua, he was better known for his skills as a shaman, or medicine man. Those who followed Geronimo credited him with a variety of supernatural powers including the ability to heal the sick, slow time, avoid bullets, bring on rainstorms and even witness events over great distances. In one incident described by Apache Jason Betzinez, a few warriors were sitting around a campfire during a raiding expedition when Geronimo suddenly had a premonition that U.S. troops had attacked their base camp. After arriving at the site several days later, they found that Geronimo’s vision had been correct—the Americans had already captured the encampment. “I cannot explain it to this day,” Betzinez later wrote, “but I was there and I saw it.”
Nearly a quarter of the U.S. Army took part in the final hunt for Geronimo.
On May 17, 1885, Geronimo and some 135 Apache men, women and children took flight from their reservation for the final time. The famed warrior was then in his 60s, but he remained as determined as ever, often pushing his group to cover as much as 70 miles per day to avoid the American cavalry and Apache scouts on their trail. Over the next several months, Geronimo’s fugitives raided countless Mexican and American and settlement, killing several civilians. They nearly surrendered in March 1886, but Geronimo and 40 followers reneged on the agreement at the last minute and escaped under cover darkness. Soon, the Indians were being pursued by 5,000 U.S. soldiers—nearly a quarter of the standing army—as well as some 3,000 Mexicans. Geronimo was able elude both forces for over five months, but by August, he and his followers had grown weary of life on the run. On September 4, 1886, he finally gave himself up to General Nelson Miles at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona. In laying down his arms, he became the last Indian leader to formally surrender to the United States military.
He spent the last 23 years of his life as a prisoner of war.
Following their surrender, Geronimo and the Chiricahuas—including the Apache army scouts that had helped catch him—were condemned to manual labor at army camps in Florida. The Indians were later moved to Mount Vernon Barracks, Alabama, and then Fort Sill, Oklahoma, but despite their repeated pleas for a reservation in the West, they remained prisoners of war for the rest of Geronimo’s life. As the years passed, Geronimo busied himself with farming and cashed in on his growing celebrity by selling autographs and peddling walking sticks, bows and other items to American tourists. His captors also granted him permission to appear in occasional World’s Fairs and Wild West Shows, where he was often billed as the “Apache Terror” and the “Tiger of the Human Race.”
Geronimo participated in Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential inauguration.
Geronimo’s most famous public appearance came on March 4, 1905, when he took part in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade in Washington, D.C. Flanked by five other Indian leaders, the elderly warrior rode a pony down Pennsylvania Avenue, eliciting cries of “Hooray for Geronimo!” from spectators. Five days later, the Indians got a chance to speak to Roosevelt in person at the White House. Geronimo—still a prisoner of war—took the opportunity to plead with the President to send the Chiricahuas back to their native lands in the West. “I pray you to cut the ropes and make me free,” he said. By then, nearly 20 years had passed since Geronimo’s surrender, but Roosevelt turned down the request out of fear that war would once again break out if the Apaches returned home. The federal government wouldn’t free the Chiricahuas until 1913—four years after Geronimo’s 1909 death from pneumonia.