When Geronimo died, he had been a legend for more than a generation. But his courage and determination did more than provide a battle cry for paratroopers of another day. It helped sustain the spirits of his people, the Chiricahua Apaches, in the last desperate days of the Indian wars.
Geronimo was born in the upper Gila River country of Arizona. He came to maturity in the final years of Mexican rule of the region. His antagonism toward the Mexicans was as deep-rooted as it was understandable. In one fateful encounter, Mexican soldiers killed his mother, his wife, and his three small children. This tragic event steeled the young man for a long life of frequent conflict.
In 1848, soon after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which Mexico ceded extensive lands in the Southwest to the United States, the Anglo-Americans made it clear they intended to restrict the old patterns of raiding and territorial use by the different Apache bands. The Anglo-American mines, ranches, and communities disrupted established Apache lifeways. The intruders set limits on where the Apaches could live and how. The Apaches, of course, had other ideas.
The initial reservation established for the Chiricahua Apaches in 1872 included at least a portion of their homeland. The Chiricahuas were unhappy with the prospect of any reservation life, but their dismay turned to anger when they were evicted from this reserve and forcibly gathered with other Apache groups on the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona in the mid-1870s. Geronimo bitterly resented the move, and he especially disliked San Carlos. For the next decade he and his followers repeatedly broke out from what they saw as imprisonment. Once clear of San Carlos, they were difficult to locate and bring back, for they knew well the country of southern Arizona and northern Mexico. Time after time, Geronimo sought a more unfettered existence, despite the best efforts of the U.S. Army.
Geronimo’s repeated escapes embarrassed and provoked politicians, army officers, and the non-Indian populace of the Southwest. His very name brought terror to the people who continually heard of his evading capture and occasionally killing Anglo-Americans and Mexicans. Territorial newspaper headlines blared his name, time and again.
His final surrender to Gen. Nelson Miles in Skeleton Canyon, Arizona, just north of the Mexican border, on September 4, 1886, truly marked the end of a chapter in Apache and western American history. It meant exile for himself and almost four hundred of his fellows. They were sent by train to incarceration at Fort Pickens, Florida; Mount Vernon Barracks, Alabama; and finally, in 1894, Fort Sill, near Lawton, Oklahoma. Geronimo spent more than fourteen years at Fort Sill, although he was allowed sporadically to appear at world’s fairs and other gatherings. He was a celebrity in defeat but still a captive when he died and was buried at Fort Sill in the new state of Oklahoma.
Angie Debo, Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place (1976).
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.