The tragic real-life story of Geronimo

You certainly know his name — Geronimo is one of the most notable Native Americans who ever lived, at least in the minds of many today. Dictionary writers William and Mary Morris have offered several explanations for why paratroopers jumping from airplanes (and basically anyone else who has ever jumped off an object higher than 3 feet) shout Geronimo's name. Depending on which version of the tale you believe, Geronimo was fleeing soldiers in Oklahoma when he rode his horse down a steep, nearly vertical cliff. His horse handled it beautifully, but the pursuing army wasn't up for the dare and Geronimo escaped. Another explanation, perhaps closer to the truth, is that a division of airborne trainees saw a movie featuring Geronimo around the time they were to begin their parachute training, someone later shouted Geronimo's name on a jump, and the practice stuck because it was such good fun.

But the generally positive way we remember Geronimo now belies his true story. Much of Geronimo's life was occupied by fighting the U.S. government's restrictions on his people in the mid-1800s through the American Southwest, and as with most things for Native Americans during that time, it didn't exactly go well. Here's the tragic, true story of Geronimo.

Geronimo lost out on being chief because of his dad

People who knew Geronimo at a young age could be forgiven for thinking he wouldn't turn out to be a big name in history. First, because he was given the birth name "Goyahkla," meaning "One Who Yawns," according to noted biographer Angie Debo. It's just not what you think of as a future household name. And although his grandfather Mahko had been chief of the Nedni Apache, his father joined his mother's tribe, the Bedonkohe, when they married. The historian S. M. Barrett, to whom Geronimo dictated his life story, explains that this effectively removed him from any hereditary leadership position in either tribe, and he had to fight or bargain for whatever he wanted in life. Geronimo became a great leader of warriors while still in his twenties, like the young Apache man pictured above, but he was never a tribal chief. Smithsonian Magazine reports that he "bristled" whenever he was called a chief by ignorant whites, which happened often.

Tradition holds that Goyahkla received his better-known moniker after a particularly brutal battle, although historians disagree whether Mexican soldiers were mispronouncing "Goyahkla" in the thick of things or whether they were praying aloud to St. Jerome for mercy in the face of his ruthless attack.

Geronimo's first family was murdered when he was 29

When Geronimo reached manhood, he set his sights on marrying and paid "many ponies" to No-po-so, father of Alope. Described in his autobiography as being beautiful and skilled in beadwork, Geronimo said marrying her was "the greatest joy." They were very happy together, and she bore him three children.

The Apache typically traveled in bands to trade with other tribes and the people across the Mexican border. They would leave the women and children in a secure encampment a short distance away with a few warriors to protect them in case of emergency. While in Mexico on one such trading mission, Mexican troops attacked and looted the Apache encampment, slaughtering nearly everyone there while the men were away. Geronimo returned to discover that he had lost his entire living family: his wife Alope, his mother Juana, and all three of his children.

According to historian Edwin R. Sweeney, the attack on the Apache was in retaliation for earlier raids against the Mexicans, but it is very possible that Geronimo hadn't actually taken part in them. When he told his life story he didn't shy away from admitting to other raids, but he never mentions participating in any before the massacre of his family. The end result was nevertheless the same: Geronimo developed a lifelong and visceral hatred for Mexicans that drove him for much of his life.

Geronimo fought a lot of battles

In his autobiography, Geronimo related that within a year of his family's massacre, he had gathered a war party. Men from the Chokonen and Nedni (including their chiefs, Cochise and Whoa, respectively) accompanied Chief Mangus-Colorado's Bedonkohe to take their revenge on Mexican soldiers near Sonora, Mexico. The Apache were victorious; they successfully lured the soldiers out of town and killed them all in a pitched battle, and Geronimo claimed that he himself slew the last enemy standing. 

Soon Geronimo began raids in Mexico in earnest, whether leading his own band of warriors or as a tribesman fighting under Mangus-Colorado. There were some successful raids, including one so productive that the Apache had supplies and food for a year. But just as often they weren't so lucky. Geronimo described one particularly disastrous cattle raid when he and a small band of Apache were surprised and outmaneuvered by Mexican troops, who fired upon them with rifles and stayed out of range of the Apache arrows. When the Apache abandoned their cattle and ponies to take cover, the Mexicans simply rounded up the animals and retreated, leaving the defeated Apache to walk home empty-handed in disgrace.

Geronimo claimed to have been shot at least five different times during these skirmishes, including once in the face, and he carried a bullet in his right thigh to his grave. 

The Apache were in the way of western expansion

In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had ended the overt hostilities of the Mexican-American War, and some of the terms dictated that America would protect Mexico from attacks by native tribes crossing over their common borders. Mexico also expected the U.S. to compensate it financially for the damage incurred during raids that got through. The U.S. never much cared about marauding bands attacking Mexico, much less making any monetary reparations to their victims, but as Office of the Historian reports, that all changed with the Gadsden Purchase of 1854.

This was a section of land nearly 30,000 square miles in size, which now forms Mexico's border with present-day Arizona and part of New Mexico, and it overlapped significantly with the Apache homeland. The U.S. purchased it from Mexico for $10 million in order to expand the transcontinental railroad through the Southwest. Since any disturbances in this area were now happening on U.S. soil, the government suddenly took an interest in Geronimo and the Apache, determined to round them up and put them on reservations out of the way, or "civilize" them by teaching them white ways.

Geronimo tried to escape the reservation three times

When white men began appearing on their lands, Geronimo considered them an improvement on the Mexicans. The Apache were peaceful, making treaties and exchanging gifts. But the white men were treacherous and looked for reasons to betray them. One such incident, described on DesertUSA, has become famous among the Apache as well as white historians, when a peaceful meeting between the Chokonen Apache chief Cochise and Lieutenant George N. Bascom turned out to be a trap. Cochise escaped by cutting a hole in a tent and evading the soldiers who had surrounded him, and Geronimo and other Apache helped him get back his captured tribesmen and settle the score.  

But the Army was relentless in their pursuit and determination to round up all of the Apache, as they had done with Sitting Bull and the Sioux in 1881. Eventually Geronimo grew tired of always being chased, and with the help of scouts working with the Army against their own people, his band of Apache was captured and sent to the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona in 1886.  Geronimo hated the restrictions the reservation placed on him. He made three attempts to break out from the reservation but none were ultimately successful. When he surrendered for the third and last time, it effectively brought the organized resistance of the Apache against the U.S. government to a close.  

President Cleveland wanted to hang Geronimo

Smithsonian Magazine reports that President Grover Cleveland wrote to Secretary of War William C. Endicott that he didn't see any point in treating Geronimo after his surrender as anything but an ordinary prisoner of war, "if we cannot hang him, which I would much prefer." Since most of his raids had been conducted in what is now Arizona, it was decided to move the Apache to more neutral ground where local tempers didn't run quite as hot. The warriors were shipped off to restore the abandoned Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Florida, where they would be imprisoned and treated as tourist attractions for a couple years. Meanwhile, their families were sent to Fort Marion, (the present-day Castillo de San Marcos) in St. Augustine, Florida, where they were forced into cramped quarters. Many of the children (those who hadn't fallen ill from various diseases, that is) were shipped off to be assimilated into white society.

The families were eventually reunited and later moved to Fort Sill in Oklahoma, where they were permitted to recreate their tribal way of life as best as they could. In his autobiography Geronimo described how the land was unsuitable for his people but he agreed to stay, trusting that white men would not mistreat him or his people.

Geronimo was put on display at the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition

In 1904, the World's Fair was held in St. Louis to celebrate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase, and Geronimo was considered the perfect attraction to symbolize the taming of the West. He exhibited his skills with bow and arrow, and signed autographs for 10 cents apiece, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, as he posed with Apache crafts. Still the same Geronimo, he told his biographer, "During all the time I was at the Fair no one tried to harm me in any way. Had this been among the Mexicans I am sure I should have been compelled to defend myself often." 

Geronimo also took part in Wild West shows, where, as part of his act he suffered the ignominy of staging a buffalo hunt that would end with him missing the kill, requiring that the beast be then finished off by white cowboys. Despite his advanced age he was still kept in shackles for these events and whenever he traveled. Historian Angie Debo describes how, during a train journey to participate in one of these shows, Geronimo would be mobbed by curious folk at every station, and he sold the buttons right off his coat for a quarter each. The hat off Geronimo's head went for $5. Of course, he kept his suitcases stocked with plenty of hats and buttons so he would be ready for each stop.

Geronimo's children weren't there at his death

Liquor has long been an enemy of the Apache. Geronimo described his warriors overindulging in mezcal after a raid to the point where he had to confiscate it and pour it on the ground. During his last attempt to make peace with the Mexicans, the Apache took oaths of brotherhood with them, and as they drank mezcal in celebration, nearby troops arrived and killed nearly two dozen of the Apache leaders while the rest had to flee for their lives. And whiskey played a part in Geronimo's death, as well. 

There was a law against selling liquor to Indians, so whenever Geronimo earned any money he had to ask someone else to buy it for him. In his biography of Geronimo, historian Robert Utley writes that the old warrior arranged to get some whiskey after selling some bows and arrows one February day, and fell off his horse when riding home that evening. He lay on the ground all night before he was discovered and developed pneumonia as a result. He died within the week. His son and daughter, who were attending school 200 miles away, were notified but arrived a day too late, since they had been sent a letter instead of a telegram. Geronimo had been a prisoner for 23 years, and according to a PBS documentary, it is said that with his dying breath he expressed regret that he had surrendered. 

Not even Geronimo's grave is sacred

The Apache hold their land sacred, which is why they hated being on the reservation so much. Geronimo ended his autobiography by expressing a desire to be allowed to return to Arizona (if not for himself, then his people). When he died this was refused, and he was buried in Fort Sill's Apache Prisoner of War Cemetery, away from the land of his fathers. Speaking to the New York Times, his great-grandson Harlyn said he believes Geronimo's spirit is restless because of it.

During the '90s, two branches of the family — his descendants among the Fort Sill Apache Tribe and his relatives counted among the San Carlos Apache in Arizona — found themselves in disagreement over what should be Geronimo's final resting place. To complicate matters, as a final indignity for a proud warrior, the Albuquerque Journal reported that there were rumors of Geronimo's skull having been stolen in 1918 by white men, among them Prescott Bush, father and grandfather respectively, of Presidents George H. W. and George W. Bush, and taken to Yale to serve as a talisman for the secret society known as the Skull and Bones. While it's probably just a rumor (naturally Yale spokesmen denied it), we'll never know, since the Army encased Geronimo's burial site in concrete in 1928.