Growing up and living most of my life in the Arizona desert, I’ve heard many stories and legends about the famous Apache warrior, Geronimo. Many movies have been made about Geronimo and his exploits and like most Hollywood movies, they are mostly fiction with just a little sprinkling of fact. Today I know that the majority of those stories were more myth than fact, but one thing is certain, he was an exceptional leader and fierce warrior.
In 1829, a young Bedonkohe Apache Indian was born in what was known as No-doyohn Canyon. Most sources say that No-doyohn Canyon is near present day Clifton, Arizona while a few sources claim it was a bit further south in Mexico. The Apache boy was named Goyahkla – more commonly spelled in English Goyathlay – which means ‘one who yawns.’ The Bedonkohe were a small band of Indians that were part of the larger Chiricahua Apache.
The southeastern part of Arizona where Goyathlay grew up varied from desert to canyons lined with cottonwoods and willows to mountains with more wooded lands. It was plentiful with game and the Goyathlay was taught to hunt and survive off the land. One of the legends that surround him is that as a youth, he swallowed the heart of one of his first kills, believing this gave him great power which in the eyes of the other Indian youth, did give him great power.
In 1846, Goyathlay turned 17 years of age and earned the right to sit in the tribal council he was given permission to marry and soon married an Apache maiden named Alope. Around the same time, Goyathlay was becoming a writer, poet and inspired leader. He also was learning the cruelties of the world around him as the Indians were being hunted and persecuted by first the Spanish, other Indian tribes, then the Mexicans and then by white settlers.
In March 1851, a Mexican military troop traveled into Apache territory. In a raid on a village, they killed the mother, wife and 3 children of Goyathlay. His grief never left him for the rest of his life and he swore vengeance against those who murdered his family.
In the 1850s, a greater influx of white settlers began to move into Apache territory. When the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, the US took control over large areas of land in the Southwest, including Apache territory. The lure of gold, silver and new lands brought more whites into Apache land. They relied on the US Army to protect them and their claims and to help force the Apache off their historic lands.
By this time, Goyathlay had become a respected leader of the Chiricahua Apache. He leads a band of warriors south into Mexico and begins raiding and murdering many Mexican troops and settlers for the murders of his family.
Mexicans began referring to Goyathlay as Geronimo, pronounced with an H at the beginning. Some believe it was in reference to Catholic St. Hieronymus, also known as St. Jerome. Regardless, Goyathlay is best known by his Mexican nickname Geronimo.
In the 1860s and 1870s, a Chiricahua elder by the name of Cochise being the principle tribal leader who led the Chiricahua Apache into war against all those who persecuted them and tried to drive them off their lands.
In 1872, the US government moved the Apache onto a reservation in the mountains of Arizona. Geronimo does accept the reservation life and leaves the reservation with a following of over 30 loyal men. He wants to be free to travel and hunt in the way of the Apache, not farm and give up hunting as required on the reservation.
In 1874, Cochise died and his son, Naiche assumed the position of tribal leader. However, many reports state that it didn’t take long before Geronimo became powerful enough to take over as the principal leader of the Chiricahua Apache. For the next decade, Geronimo continued to lead his warriors in battles against other tribes, Mexicans and Americans who ventured into Apache territory which consisted of southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico and the northern Mexico area across the border.
Geronimo was known not only as a brilliant leader and warrior, but he was also considered to be a great shaman or spiritual leader. He once claimed that he was told by the Great Spirit that he would never be killed by a bullet, which gave him a sense of bravery in battle beyond what many others had.
In 1876, the US government attempts to confine the Chiricahua Apache to the desert reservation at San Carlos, Arizona. Geronimo takes his family and warriors and flees to Mexico, where he continues to raid and attack Mexican troops and settlers.
In 1877, Geronimo was arrested and put in jail at San Carlos, Arizona.
In 1878, Geronimo manages to obtain his freedom and again takes his band of warriors and flees San Carlos to the mountains in Mexico. Other sources say that Geronimo escaped in 1881 and left the San Carlos Reservation at that time. Much of the history surrounding Geronimo – Goyathlay – varies from source to source but still makes very interesting reading and research.
On this day, September 4, 1886, US Army General Nelson Miles corners Geronimo and his braves, forcing the Apache warrior and leader to turn over his rifle and surrender. It took nearly 5,000 soldiers and 500 government employed Indians to track down and capture Geronimo and his band of 30 warriors. A part of the terms of surrender, Miles promised Geronimo that after an indefinite period of exile and imprisonment in Florida that he would be allowed to return to Arizona to live out his days on the reservation.
Geronimo was known for his brilliant guerilla warfare and ability to elude the US and Mexican armies for years.
Upon his surrender, Geronimo is soon sent to a military prison in Florida, then on to the Mount Vernon Barracks in Alabama. Geronimo was the last Apache Warrior and leader to surrender to the US Army, ending decades of warfare and bloodshed in the American Southwest.
In 1894, Geronimo, along with many of the remaining Chiricahua Apache at the San Carlos Indian Reservation are transferred to Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
In 1898, Geronimo becomes a main attraction for events like the Trans-Mississippi and International Exhibition in Omaha, Nebraska, the first of many public spectacles.
In 1905, Geronimo is displayed as part of President Theodore Roosevelt’s second inaugural parade.
In 1906, Geronimo’s autobiography, Geronimo’s Story of His Life, is published.
On February 14, 1909, at Fort Sill, Geronimo fell off his horse and laid alone in a ditch overnight. Three days later, he died at the age of 70 from pneumonia brought on when he fell. The great warrior was no more but I’m sure his legend will live on for centuries to come. Geronimo was then buried in the Apache cemetery at Fort Sill. General Miles promise of returning him to Arizona was never kept and once shipped by boxcar to Florida in 1886, Geronimo was never allowed to visit or return to his beloved homeland of Arizona, but his legend still lives in the deserts and mountains of his Apache homeland.
Sources for the above includes: Geronimo; Geronimo: Apache Warrior: Timeline; Geronimo Biography; Geronimo – The Last Apache Holdout; Geronimo Surrenders; Native History: Geronimo Is Last Native Warrior to Surrender; 1886: Apache Armed Resistance Ends; Geronimo Surrenders; Geronimo’s Last Surrender; Geronimo: Shaman, Seer, and Warrior