Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Geronimo has ascended into legend and is perhaps the most legendary figure to emerge from the final days of the Southwestern frontier. This legend has obscured and embellished many of the facts of Geronimo’s life. Cutting through the legend and rediscovering the man is what Robert Utley has attempted to do in his new biography of the warrior. In the process, Utley has also chronicled U.S. policy toward the Apaches, specifically the Chiricahua.

With the discovery of gold throughout the Southwest, the Apaches began to come in contact with more white settlers, and as more people came into the region, the two peoples came into conflict. This conflict drew the U.S. military into the Southwest and began a conflict that would span four decades. Even during the Civil War, the Apaches faced soldiers from both the Union and the Confederacy. Following the Civil War, the federal government began to devote more attention to the Indian presence on the frontier with the goal of forcing the native tribes onto reservations as U.S. citizens expanded further into the West.

As part of the reservation policy, the federal government provided rations to the Apache, which was a continuation of the Spanish practice, established in the 18th Century (at the latest). This policy was described by Jose Cortes – a lieutenant in the Royal Corps of Engineers – as a means adopted by the Spanish to prevent raids on the various settlements in the New World. However, these rations would often dwindle despite the requirements of the treaties agreed to, and the Apache would return to raiding for sustenance. All of this would be repeated under the U.S. reservation policy.

Geronimo and his band of Apaches first settled on the reservation at Apache Pass, which had been negotiated with General Howard as part of the peace terms with Cochise in 1872. This reservation was different than others due to the relaxed supervision of the agent Tom Jeffords, who was friendly with Cochise and some of the other chiefs and who allowed the Apache to continue raids into Mexico, but all this would come to an end as Washington pressed its policy of consolidation of the tribes onto a few reservations (a policy Gen George Crook would advise against).

After the death of Cochise, tensions grew on the Chiricahua Reservation, and in 1876 it boiled over with the death of Nicholas Rogers, who was shot by two Indians for refusing to sell them more whiskey. His death provided the pretext for the closure of the Chiricahua Reservation and the removal of its inhabitants to the White Mountain Reservation, where they were located on a desolate portion of the Gila River. This environment made farming impossible and malaria spread. Geronimo joined Juh and others in fleeing to Mexico, where they would continue raiding. Geronimo was arrested in 1877 and imprisoned at the San Carlos Reservation in about August of the same year.
Geronimo would remain on the reservation until 1878. As Utley relates, “The scarcity and uncertainty of ration issues caused anxiety and threatened hostilities.  Appropriations failed to provide the full amounts. Contractors proved consistently late in delivery. Graft continued to take its toll.” Due to these circumstances, as well as a malaria outbreak in early 1878, people began to flee into the mountains, and Geronimo, after his nephew committed suicide following a drunken berating from Geronimo, would flee to Mexico once again, from which he would raid both sides of the border. This pattern would continue until 1886, when Geronimo was finally captured and made a prisoner of war along with the rest of his tribe. 
As prisoners of War, Geronimo and others were transported by train from the Southwest to Florida, where they remained until 1888, attracting tourists and spending time repairing the fort that was their prison/home. In 1888, they were moved to the Mount Vernon barracks in Alabama, where the other Chiricahua had been moved a year earlier. Mount Vernon was a drastically different climate than the Southwest and many of the Apache began to succumb to tuberculosis, as well as malaria. Despite the rampant disease, they attempted to make the best of their situation. The health situation would lead to the Apache being moved once again – this time to Fort Sill in 1894. Here Geronimo would remain until his death in 1909.

By the time Geronimo died in 1909, he was no longer the warrior who had fascinated and terrorized the Southwestern United States. He grew watermelons, attended events such as the Pan American Exposition and local fairs, and even converted to Christianity (although how sincere this conversion was is debatable). After almost three decades of on and off warfare, the United States had finally succeeded in taming Geronimo.

While reading about Geronimo, who was far from the heroic figure he has been portrayed as by some, we should also bear in mind the policy of the U.S. at this time and what we can learn from it, particularly the lesson of attempting to understand a way of life that may be unfamiliar to us. We cannot always succeed in policy, and in this, I am thinking foreign policy, by attempting to impose our way of life on other people. Our goals may come to better fruition if we make an effort to understand them and bend our policy that understanding.


Cortes, Jose. Vews from the Apache Frontier: Report on the Northern Provinces of New Spain. Ed Elizabeth A. H. John. Trans by John Wheat. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

Roberts, David. Once They Moved Like The Wind: Cochise, Geronimo and the Apache Wars. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Utley, Robert. Geronimo. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

Yenne, Bill. Indian Wars: The Campaign for the American West. Yardley: Westholme Publishing, LLC, 2006.

No comments:

Post a Comment