One of my greatest childhood heroes was Geronimo, though I’m not sure why.
I do know that my favorite childhood toy was my Fort Apache set, even though it looks very little like the real Fort Apache, not to be confused with the set built for John Ford’s Fort Apache starring John Wayne, my favorite series of westerns as a child. In fact, it wasn’t until I returned from Vietnam at twenty five that I lost my taste for John Wayne westerns. Sadly, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was probably the most influential movie in my life.
My best friend in the fourth and fifth grade was a full-blooded Apache who suffered from polio. As a result, we spent hours and hours playing with our combined cowboy and Indian sets, often arguing over who got to control the Indians and who was left manning the fort.
I also vaguely remember reading a biography of Geronimo in a series of orange-bound books that described famous, heroic Americans. Even then, I knew enough about the injustices Indians suffered at the hands of the white men to admire the last Indian chief to surrender.
Not surprisingly, the real life story as told by Dee Brown is considerably more complex than the one I constructed in my head, but even now it leaves me with ambiguous feelings. In a chapter entitled “The Last of the Apache Chiefs,” Brown introduces Geronimo by stating that the Apaches living on the reservation:
… heard that Geronimo and his band were raiding their old enemies, the Mexicans, and were accumulating large herds of cattle and horses. In the spring Geronimo brought these stolen livestock up to New Mexico, sold them to white ranchers, and bought new guns, hats, boots, and much whiskey. These Chiricahuas settled down in a hideout near their Mimbres cousins at the Ojo Caliente agency, where Victorio was chief.
Hardly the image of a hero, unless one is an admirer of outlaws like Billy the Kid or Jesse James, and I’m not. Unfortunately, it’s a pattern that Geronimo seemed to repeat.
Even whites who sympathized with the Indians and tried to protect them from themselves and from hostile settlers who wanted their land, viewed many of the Apache leaders as “outlaws:”
Although simpático, Clum had never learned to think as an Apache, to make himself into an Apache, as Tom Jeffords had done. He could not understand the chiefs who resisted to the bitter end. He could not see them as heroic figures who preferred death to the loss of their heritage. In John Clum’s eyes, Geronimo, Victorio, Nana, Loco. Naiche, and the other fighters were outlaws, thieves, murderers, and drunkards too reactionary to take the white man’s road. And so John Clum left the Apaches at San Carlos. He went to Tombstone. Arizona, and founded a crusading newspaper, the Epitaph.
Clum was not the only agent to be sympathetic to the Apache’s plight. Amazingly enough even some hardened Indian fighters could change their viewpoint:
To bring order out of chaos, the Army again called on General George Crook, quite a different man from the one who had left Arizona ten years earlier to go north to fight the Sioux and Cheyennes. He had learned from them and from the Poncas during the trial of Standing Bear that Indians were human beings, a viewpoint that most of his fellow officers had not yet accepted.
On September 4, 1882, Crook assumed command of the Department of Arizona at Whipple Barracks, and then hurried on to the White Mountain reservation. He held councils with the Apaches at San Carlos and Fort Apache; he searched out individual Indians and talked privately with them. “I discovered immediately that a general feeling of distrust of our people ex isted among all the bands of the Apaches,” he reported. “It was with much difficulty that I got them to talk, but after breaking down their suspicions they conversed freely with me. They told me . . . that they had lost confidence in everybody, and did not know whom or what to believe; that they were constantly told, by irresponsible parties, that they were to be disarmed, that they were to be attacked by troops on the reservation, and removed from their country; and that they were fast arriving at the conclusion that it would be more manly to die fighting than to be thus destroyed.” Crook was convinced that the reservation Apaches “had not only the best reasons for complaining, but had displayed remarkable forbearance in remaining at peace.”
Early in his investigations he discovered that the Indians had been plundered “of their rations and of the goods purchased by the government for their subsistence and support, by rascally agents and other unscrupulous white men.” He found plenty of ev idence that white men were trying to arouse the Apaches to violent action so that they could be driven from the reservation, leaving it open for landgrabbing.
Despite his success, or perhaps because it, Crook was criticized for being too soft on the Apaches:
For more than a year General Crook could boast that “not an outrage or depredation of any kind” was committed by the Indians of Arizona and New Mexico. Geronimo and Chato vied with each other in the development of their ranchos, and Crook kept a watchful eye on their agent to see that he issued adequate supplies. Outside the reservation and the Army posts, however, there was much criticism of Crook for being too easy on the Apaches; the newspapers that he had condemned for dissemi nating “all sorts of exaggerations and falsehoods about the In dians” now turned on him. Some of the rumor mongers went so far as to claim that Crook had surrendered to Geronimo in Mexico and had made a deal with the Chiricahua leader in order to escape alive. As for Geronimo, they made a special demon of him, inventing atrocity stories by the dozens and calling on vigilantes to hang him if the government would not. Mickey Free, the Chiricahuas’ official interpreter, told Geronimo about these newspaper stories. “When a man tried to do right,” Geronimo commented, “such stories ought not to be put in the newspapers.”
Little surprise that in such an atmosphere peace was not to last. Unfortunately, there seems to be little heroic about Geronimo’s last stand:
After the Corn Planting Time (spring of 1885), the Chiricahuas grew discontented. There was little for the men to do except draw rations, gamble, quarrel, loaf, and drink tiswin beer. Tiswin was forbidden on the reservation, but the Chiricahuas had plenty of corn for brewing it, and drinking was one of the few pleasures of the old days that was left to them.
On the night of May 17, Geronimo, Mangas, Chihuahua, and old Nana got fairly well drunk on tiswin and decided to go to Mexico. They went to see Chato to invite him to go along, but Chato was sober and refused to join the party. He and Geronimo had a bitter quarrel, which very nearly ended in violence before Geronimo and the others departed. In the group were ninety two women and children, eight boys, and thirtyfour men. As they left San Carlos, Geronimo cut the telegraph wire.
Many reasons were given by both white men and Apaches for this sudden exodus from a reservation where everything apparently had been running smoothly. Some said it was because of the tiswin spree; others said that the bad stories going around about the Chiricahuas made them fearful of being arrested. “Having been placed in irons once before when the band was shipped to San Carlos,” Jason Betzinez said, “some of the lead ers determined not to undergo such treatment again.”
Geronimo later explained it this way: “Sometime before I left, an Indian named Wadiskay had a talk with me. He said, ‘They are going to arrest you,’ but I paid no attention to him, knowing that I had done no wrong; and the wife of Mangas, Huera, told me that they were going to seize me and put me and Mangas in the guardhouse, and I learned from the American and Apache soldiers, from Chato, and Mickey Free, that the Americans were going to arrest me and hang me. and so I left.”
Geronimo’s flight had disastrous effects for everyone around him:
As a result of Geronimo’s flight, the War Department severely reprimanded Crook for his negligence, for granting unauthorized surrender terms, and for his tolerant attitude toward Indians. He immediately resigned and was replaced by Nelson Miles (Bear Coat), a brigadier general eager for promotion.
Little wonder that Geronimo is considered such a hero when you consider the forces that were raised to capture him and his warriors:
Bear Coat took command on April 12, 1886. With full support from the War Department, he quickly put five thousand soldiers into the field (about one third of the combat strength of the Army). He also had five hundred Apache scouts, and thousands of irregular civilian militia. He organized a flying column of cavalrymen and an expensive system of heliographs to flash messages back and forth across Arizona and New Mexico. The enemy to be subdued by this powerful military force was Geronimo and his “army” of twenty four warriors, who throughout the summer of 1886 were also under constant pursuit by thousands of soldiers of the Mexican Army.
In the end it was the Big Nose Captain (Lieutenant Charles Gatewood) and two Apache scouts, Martine and Kayitah, who found Geronimo and Naiche hiding out in a canyon of the Sierra Madres. Geronimo laid his rifle down and shook hands with the Big Nose Captain, inquiring calmly about his health. He then asked about matters back in the United States. How were the Chiricahuas faring? Gatewood told him that the Chiracahuas who surrendered had already been shipped to Florida. If Geronimo would surrender to General Miles, he also would probably be sent to Florida to join them.
Geronimo and his people’s punishment for their crimes certainly seemed to outweigh the crimes themselves:
And so Geronimo surrendered for the last time. The Great Father in Washington (Grover Cleveland), who believed all the lurid newspaper tales of Geronimo’s evil deeds, recommended that he be hanged. The counsel of men who knew better pre vailed, and Geronimo and his surviving warriors were shipped to Fort Marion, Florida. He found most of his friends dying there in that warm and humid land so unlike the high, dry country of their birth. More than a hundred died of a disease diagnosed as consumption. The government took all their children away from them and sent them to the Indian school at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and more than fifty of their children died there.
Despite scholarly arguments to the contrary, such punishment certainly sounds like genocide to me. It’s hard to imagine a worst punishment than having children torn away and sent thousands of miles away to be stripped of their heritage. Of course, that’s the viewpoint of someone who required students to compare and contrast Lord of the Flies with When the Legends Die.
As if that wasn’t sad enough, even those Apaches who had opposed Geronimo and who stayed on the reservation were equally punished:
Not only were the “hostiles” moved to Florida, but so were many of the “friendlies,” including the scouts who had worked for Crook. Martine and Kayitah, who led Lieutenant Gatewood to Geronimo’s hiding place, did not receive the ten ponies promised them for their mission; instead they were shipped to imprisonment in Florida. Chato, who had tried to dissuade Geronimo from leaving the reservation and then had helped Crook find him, was suddenly removed from his rancho and sent to Florida. He lost his land allotment and all his livestock; two of his children were taken to Carlisle, and both died there. The Chiricahuas were marked for extinction; they had fought too hard to keep their freedom