FORT SILL — Geronimo.

The name alone evokes an iconic, Western American image of the defiant Apache warrior – none more famous than the black-and-white photograph of him kneeling, gripping his rifle, and glaring into a camera with a leathery face and piercing eyes. Beyond the famed name and face, relatively few know the true story of Geronimo.

Geronimo remains entrenched as a giant in the American psyche 100 years after his death as a prisoner of war Feb. 17, 1909, at Fort Sill.

Over the past century, Geronimo has been featured in movies, books, paintings, statues, magazine articles, postcards and even posters celebrating his life. Today, thousands flock to Fort Sill annually to visit his gravesite. Many pay homage by leaving offerings of coins or dangling medicine bags from the limbs of the cedar tree that shades his cobblestone monument.

Geronimo the legend shines as bright as ever.

“Geronimo had a little bit of PT Barnum in him and a whole lot of courage,” said Bob Boze Bell, True West Magazine’s executive editor. “He was a tough son-of-a-b—-. And that’s the ingredient to being successful in America.

“He’s without a doubt the most famous Native American ever.”

Bell points to Geronimo’s name as one reason for his enduring mystique.

The life of Geronimo

open interactive timeline

June 1829 — Geronimo placed his birth date at this time, although historians generally agree it occurred at an earlier date. He identified his birth place at “No-doyan” Canyon at the headwaters of the Gila River in what is now southeastern Arizona. Originally, he is named Goyahkla or “One Who Yawns.”

March 5, 1851 — Geronimo returns to camp with other Apache men after a day of trading at Janos in the Mexican State of Chihuahua. They discover a company of 400 Mexican soldiers attacked the camp, killing Geronimo’s wife, Alope, his children, and his mother in the process.

1872 — The U.S. government establishes the Chiricahua Apache Reservation in southern Arizona Territory, and moved Geronimo there with his fellow tribesmen.

1876 — Citing economic reasons, U.S. officials relocate Geronimo and the Chiricahua Apache to the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona Territory. Defiantly, Geronimo leads a large band of Apache into the Sierra Madre Mountains of Old Mexico where they conduct raids. Military officials brand Geronimo a renegade.

April 21, 1877 — San Carlos Reservation agent John Philip Clum coaxes Geronimo, other Apache leaders, and their families into a conference near the Warm Springs Agency in New Mexico Territory, only to arrest them. The band is escorted back to the San Carlos Resveration.

1878 —Geronimo again breaks away with a group of Apache to seek refuge in the Sierra Madre Mountains. The U.S. fugitives again orchestrate violent raids on wagon trains and ranches.

1879 — Weary from the pursuit of military forces on both sides of the border, Geronimo willingly returns to the San Carlos Reservation.

1881 — A restless Geronimo again leaves the San Carlos Reservation, this time with 76 warriors and their families. U.S. Army officials are outraged as Geronimo and his followers resume their raids from a camp deep in the Sierra Madre Mountains.

1884 — Geronimo again surrenders — this time to Gen. George Crook — and returns to the San Carlos Reservation.

1885 — Unhappy with imposed regulations, Geronimo once again leads a group of more than 100 men, women, and children in an escape from the San Carlos Reservation.

1886 — Geronimo surrenders to Gen. Crook at Canon de los Embudos in Sonora, Mexico. Fearing for his life, Geronimo escapes a few nights later with a band of 41 men, women, and children.

Sept. 3, 1886 — Geronimo and the Apache Chief Naiche — son of the great Cochise — surrendered to Brig. Gen. Nelson A. Miles in Arizona Territory’s Skeleton Canyon near the Mexican border. With them are 16 warriors, 14 women, and six children. Their surrender marks the end of a massive manhunt that at one time encompassed 5,000 U.S. troops — a quarter of all American military forces.

Oct. 25, 1886 — Chief Naiche, Geronimo, and 13 other warriors arrive at Fort Pickens, Fla., as prisoners of war. They are separated from their families, who are held captive at Mount Vernon Barracks in Alabama.

May 13, 1888 — Geronimo and other Fort Pickens prisoners of war are reunited with their families at Mount Vernon Barracks in Alabama. Dohn-say, Geronimo’s daughter, emerged from a building. Overwhelmed by emotion, she ran into the arms of her father and wept wildly. One observer noted how Geronimo never flinched, perhaps wanting to appear strong to all who watched.

Oct. 4, 1894 — Geronimo and his fellow POWs — 296 souls in all — arrive at Fort Sill, Oklahoma Territory, making the final 30 miles of their journey by wagon from Rush Springs.

1904 — Geronimo appears at the St. Louis World’s Fair.

March 4, 1905 — Geronimo appears in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade.

March 9, 1905 — President Roosevelt permits a meeting with Geronimo, who makes a passionate plea for the return of his people to their native Arizona Territory. Roosevelt denies Geronimo’s request, citing a fear of “more war and more bloodshed.”

1905 — Lawton Superintendent S.M. Barrett receives permission from President Theodore Roosevelt to interview Geronimo about his life story. Geronimo’s words are translated and published in the appropriately titled “Geronimo’s Story of His Life.”

Feb. 17, 1909 — Geronimo dies of pneumonia two days after falling from his horse drunk and lying overnight in a puddle where he fell.

By Geronimo’s own account, he was born in 1829 at the headwaters of the Gila River in Arizona as Goyahkla, meaning “One Who Yawns.” As an adult, he developed a deep hatred for the Mexican people after Mexican troops stormed an Apache village, killing his mother, wife and three children. Goyahkla sought revenge. He rode fearlessly into battle, oblivious of gunfire, and killed as many Mexican soldiers as possible.

Each time Goyahkla emerged, the Mexicans nervously cried, “Cuidado! (Watch out!) Geronimo!” Perhaps they were trying to spit out his name, or as some historians have theorized, crying out for the protection of Saint Jerome. Either way the name stuck, even with Geronimo’s own people.

“His original name was Goyahkla – One Who Yawns,” Bell said with a chuckle. “I don’t think we’d be talking about him as much today with that name. So the name was critical. He had a fabulous name — Geronimo.”

A living legend

This photo of Geronimo at the 101 Ranch is one of three taken on June 11, 1905. At the time, Geronimo was still imprisoned at Fort Sill, Okla., and guards accompanied him as a performer to the Millers’ wild west show.

Naturally, Geronimo isn’t remembered merely for his name. His legend is rooted in real deeds of bravery and bloodshed.

By 1872, U.S. government officials were keenly aware of Geronimo’s fighting exploits when they corralled him and hundreds of his fellow Chiricahua Apache people onto an Arizona Territory reservation. Four years later, Geronimo led a large band of Apache dissidents off the reservation and into the Sierra Madre Mountains of Old Mexico, where they staged raids on anyone unlucky enough to cross their paths.

Military officials soon branded Geronimo a renegade.

During the next decade, Geronimo repeatedly returned to reservation life in peace only to bolt with others for the refuge of the Sierra Madres. They often left a trail of blood. Hidden in the myriad mountain passes and caves, Geronimo and his followers embarrassed military officers by eluding them time and again, at one point with as many as 5,000 U.S. soldiers on their heels.

By 1886 — with Native American contemporaries like Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and Quanah Parker either dead or resigned to reservation life — Geronimo defiantly remained the “last of the holdouts.” Only by then, newspaper correspondents reported Geronimo’s exploits in eastern publications such as Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie Illustrated.

Geronimo became a household name.

“Geronimo was a living legend in his time,” said Towana Spivey, Fort Sill’s historian. “The late timing of his life contributed a lot to his legacy. In a lot of ways, his story isn’t unlike other Native American warriors who resisted white encroachment on their land. Had he been born during an earlier period, he probably wouldn’t have been remembered as much as he is today.

“He even lived into old age and into the 20th Century where he was able to capitalize on his notoriety.”

Geronimo shrewdly used his celebrity to earn money. He charged promoters for appearances in Wild West shows, parades and photo shoots. He charged for his autograph and even for the buttons off his shirt. Once he sold a button, he sewed a new one on his shirt for the next customer.

At the time of his death Geronimo reportedly had $10,000 in the bank.

“I have a theory about those who are successful in America, and that is they aren’t afraid to leave home,” Bell said. “Geronimo wasn’t afraid to leave home. He would travel wherever he could as long as he was getting paid. He was a shrewd guy, and promoters tried to swindle him all the time. But he would stand tough on negotiations.”

In death, Geronimo’s legend would only grow.

Overshadowing legacy

Spivey has repeatedly witnessed the towering shadow of Geronimo’s legacy. He routinely accommodates documentary crews, historical authors, and even leaders of other tribal nations who desire to research Geronimo’s life.

Yet no story reveals the power of Geronimo’s name more to Spivey than when the commanding general of the People’s Liberation Army of China visited Fort Sill.

“He knew all about Geronimo,” Spivey recalled. “He asked me all these questions. I even mentioned Quanah to him. He didn’t know Quanah, but he sure knew Geronimo. That’s the name recognition of Geronimo.”

Lost in the legend is often the flesh-and-blood man — someone whom Bell describes as “a conflicted, controversial guy.” For instance, Geronimo is often referred to as a chief. Geronimo had followers, but never held the lofty status of chief. He was a great warrior whose path of resistance wasn’t always accepted by the majority of his own people.

“There are various aspects of Geronimo,” said Michael Darrow, the Fort Sill-Apache’s tribal historian. “If you use that of our tribal perspective, then Geronimo wasn’t a very important person. Importance seems to have been assigned to him by people outside the tribe.

“People tend to deal with Geronimo not as an actual person, but as an ideal. There was an iconic Geronimo. That’s why when people ask me about Geronimo, I ask them if they are talking about Geronimo the person or Geronimo the myth.”

A great part of Geronimo’s enduring appeal is what he has been able to symbolize to each generation.

(top left)Geronimo with his family at the reservation in Ft. Sill, Oklahoma where he would be buried after his death. (bottom left)Geronimo’s son is seen here at his father’s grave marker. (Right)Copy of a photo of Geronimo late in his life, the copy of the photo is dated 1939, the original is not dated.

Early Western films depicted Geronimo as nothing more than a blood-thirsty savage. Yet in the 1993 major motion picture “Geronimo: An American Legend,” actor Wes Studi starred as an honorable and largely sympathetic Geronimo. Historically, the truth rests somewhere in between.

“Geronimo was a brutal guy,” Bell said. “People tend to forget that part of the story. He would go down into Mexico every summer and kill anyone he met. That was his idea of a vacation.”

Yet Geronimo wasn’t void of nobility, either. Late in life he used his celebrity status to gain counsel with President Theodore Roosevelt, apologizing for his misdeeds and begging for his freedom and that of his people.

Darrow marvels at what Geronimo has become.

“The iconography of Geronimo is such that one is able to change him into whatever people want to think or feel,” Darrow said. “It’s as if there was this mythological vacuum that needed to be filled by American society. So they used the image or idea of Geronimo to fill that need. And you can use that image or idea to make him whatever you want him to be whether it’s a hero or a villain.”


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