Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans- Geronimo

Aug 22, 2015 by



An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans- Geronimo

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Again, acknowledging that Native Americans were here long before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, in this interview we will discuss Geronimo. Obviously accurate records were minimal in those days, but what do we know about his early years?

As is the case with his contemporary Sitting Bull, the Native American known as Geronimo was born into a culture that kept no written records. We therefore need to rely on the oral traditions of his people (the Bedonkohe Apache) to explain what we believe to be true about the origins of Geronimo. It appears that he was born in June of 1829 near a tributary of the Gila River. He and his family lived with the Bedonkohe tribe in that area until his father died. At that point, his mother decided to associate the family with the Chihenne Apache. When he was 17, Geronimo married a young woman from the Chiricahua Apache, and in the next five years they had three children. Unfortunately, his happiness would not last for long.

2) Apparently, Geronimo had more difficulties with the Mexicans at that time period. What was the most significant early event?

At the time when Geronimo was born, his birth area was part of Mexico. Independent only since 1821, Mexico had experienced difficulties in its northwestern regions in relation to certain Native American tribes. When Spain had controlled these lands, they had coupled a strong military presence with a subsidy system to secure peace with the Native American tribes that lived there. Mexico, however, felt that it did not have the resources to continue these policies. This lead to increasing unhappiness among Native Americans that had come to depend on subsidies. A number of them resumed a nomadic lifestyle that included raiding Hispanic settlements, and the Mexican government came under pressure to suppress the Native Americans. This resulted in a series of campaigns by the Mexican Army o force the Native Americans to sue for peace. As part of this process, in 1851 a contingent of Mexican soldiers attacked a camp where Geronimo’s family resided. During this raid, his wife and children were killed. From that point on, Geronimo used every opportunity that came his way to try to even the score by killing Mexicans.

3) There were apparently exploits in the Robledo Mountains of southwest New Mexico. What occurred there?

A significant change for the Apache occurred during Geronimo’s lifetime through American expansion. First, Mexico was forced to cede a great deal of its northern territory to the U.S. as a result of the Mexican War. This included most of present-day New Mexico and Arizona. And second, the Gadsden Purchase in 1854 allowed the U.S. to purchase a strip of land from Mexico that added more territory to New Mexico and Arizona. At this point, it became the responsibility of the American government to keep the peace in the area that Geronimo called home. Resistant to American efforts, Geronimo then embarked on a hit-and-run campaign against settlers who had moved to the Southwest.

American military forces were tasked with bringing him to bay, and a number of these forays took place in New Mexico. According to a popular legend, one of these saw American soldiers force Geronimo to seek refuge in a cave in the Robledo Mountains. Rather than attack, the American soldiers decided to simply wait him out. Instead of having to surrender, however, Geronimo managed to extricate himself from the cave, even though a second entrance was never found. While this is a fascinating story, it probably never happened, as there is nothing in the very detailed records kept by the U.S. military that corroborates this incident.

4) The Massacre at Casa Grande seems to be a turning point in his life. What happened there?

Geronimo proved remarkably adept at evading American forces sent out to capture him, largely through his superior mobility. This is not to say that Geronimo operated with impunity; rather, he and his followers suffered losses as they attempted to elude their pursuers. This was also true of other groups of Apaches on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. In Mexico, a group of Apaches decided in 1873 that it was in their best interests to agree to peace negotiations with that nation. These discussions took place at a location known as Casa Grande, and resulted in a peace treaty being agreed to.

After the discussion ended, the Mexicans offered the Apaches mescal in celebration. Once the drug took effect, the Mexicans killed a number of the Apaches and took others prisoner. Although not directly involved in the incident, it undoubtedly gave Geronimo an increased hatred of the Mexicans.

5) Geronimo left an autobiography behind, which is somewhat unusual. How was it received, and how is it regarded today?

Although he and his followers were more successful than most Native Americans in avoiding coming to terms with the U.S. government, inevitably time ran out for Geronimo as well. With his group whittled down to only 38 members, in 1886 Geronimo finally agreed to surrender to the U.S. military. Held captive in a number of locations, Geronimo was finally moved to Ft. Sill in Oklahoma. While he was there, he was approached by S.M. Barrett, the Superintendent of Schools in nearby Lawton about the possibility of writing an account of his life. Geronimo agreed, but on the condition that Barrett would simply transcribe his words. Barrett agreed, and the result was Geronimo: His Own Story. Because the book is Geronimo’s story in his own words, it is impossible to independently verify many of the details, but it still stands as a remarkable insight into the life of one of the last Native Americans to come to term with the U.S. government.

6) How and where did he die and what mysteries surround his remains?

As was the case with Sitting Bull, Geronimo was a figure of great interest to the American public. Accordingly, he was allowed to make appearances ranging from the St. Louis World’s Fair to the inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt. He lived long enough to ride in an automobile, but retained many of his traditional ways of life, including riding horses. Unfortunately, that habit lead to his death. In February of 1909 he was riding his horse home one night when suddenly he was thrown from his mount.

No one found him until the following day, and by that time he was clearly suffering from exposure. Pneumonia set in, and Geronimo would die a few days later. His remained were buried in the Apache Prisoner of War Cemetery on the grounds of Ft. Sill. A legend eventually developed that a group of U.S. Army officers stationed at Ft. Sill, all of them members of the Skull and Bones Society while in college at Yale, had dug up his remains and stolen Geronimo’s skull.

The main piece of evidence was a letter written by a member named Winter Mead in 1918 that states the society was in possession of the skull. Recent research, however, has discredited this legend—Mead, for example, was not at Ft. Sill during the period in question—but it still persists in some circles.

7) What have I neglected to ask?

Throughout our nation’s history, there have been a number of Native American leaders who tried to preserve a traditional way of life for their people. Ultimately, none were successful in these efforts, but some managed to stave off the inevitable for a significant period of time. Of these, Geronimo was undoubtedly the most successful. Nothing if not resolute, Geronimo continues to serve as an example of the desire to live free held by Americans of all backgrounds.

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