The Apache have been called the greatest guerrilla fighters the world has ever known. Of these, Geronimo is the most famous. He defied the US government for over 25 years, and while he surrendered twice, he was never defeated.
To understand the significance of this, it's helpful to consider that at his final surrender in 1886 his band consisted of only 16 warriors, 14 women, and six children. The army had been pursuing them with 5,000 troops, a fifth of its entire regular army, and had spent over a million dollars a year to fight them.
Geronimo and his small band were never defeated, but eventually, voluntarily surrendered. And despite spending money and troop for that time, it could be argued that the 100 renegade Apache scouts used by the army were crucial in tracking Geronimo down. His surrender brought an end to the Indian wars, and the violence and uncertainty that followed.
Geronimo has become an American legend, but who was he? To the settlers on both sides of the Mexican border he was a cold blooded murderer. Of course, they say there are two sides to every story. And, Geronimo's story is no exception.
Just as with other Native Americans of the time, Geronimo felt that he was at war and that his actions were justified as a result. In addition, raids and vengeance were an honorable way of life among the tribes of this region and this has been true for three centuries before Geronimo.
The very name Apache is a Zuni word meaning enemy. With this cultural background, it is not surprising that when Apaches were being massacred, first in Mexico and then in the US, Geronimo decided to fight back.
Geronimo was born in 1829 in what was a Mexican territory at the time, but is now western New Mexico. He was called Goyathlay ("one who yawns") by his own people, but was given the name Geronimo by Mexican soldiers. He was not a hereditary leader, but often spoke for his brother-in-law, Juh, a Chiricahua Apache chief, who had speech impediment.
An incident that happened in 1858 changed Geronimo's life forever. While on a peaceful trading expedition in Mexico, Mexican soldiers raided the camp full of women and children. Among the dead were Geronimo's aged mother, his young wife, and his three small children. As he told S. M. Barrett, who published his words in the book Geronimo - His Own Story.
"I stood until all had passed, hardly knowing what I would do - I had no weapon, nor did I hardly wish to fight, neither did I contemplate recovering the bodies of my loved ones, for that was forbidden. I did not pray, nor did I resolve to do anything in particular, for I had no purpose left."
When he returned home, he burned everything ; his wife's possessions, his children's toys, even the tepee in which they had lived. He said: "I was never again contented in our quiet home." From that day on he had a special hatred for the Mexicans, whom he felt had acted without cause.
Later of course, he would also fight against US troops when they decided that the solution to the Indian "problem" was removing them all to reservations. Although he was a courageous and an intelligent leader, his band faced overwhelming odds. Although he evaded the armies of two nations for years, raiding at will, he finally got tired of running.
After his surrender in 1886, he was shipped to Fort Marion, Florida. Along with many of his fellow Apaches he was later shipped to Alabama, where a fourth of them died of tuberculosis and other diseases. After more than twenty years as a prisoner of war, Geronimo wrote this to the president of the United States.
"It is my land, my home, my fathers' land, to which I now ask to be allowed to return. I want to spend my last days there, and be buried among those mountains. If this could be I might die in peace, feeling that my people, placed in their native homes, would increase in numbers, rather than diminish as at present, and that our name would not become extinct."
His wish was never granted. He died on February 17, 1909 on a military reservation in Oklahoma, still a prisoner of war.
By Earl Hunsinger
By Earl Hunsinger