After an attack by a company of Mexican soldiers killed his mother, wife and three children in 1858, Geronimo joined revenge attacks on the Mexicans. During his career as a war chief, he was notorious for consistently urging raids upon Mexican Provinces and their towns, and later against American locations across Arizona, New Mexico and western Texas.
In 1886 Geronimo surrendered to U.S. authorities after a lengthy pursuit. As a prisoner of war in old age he became a celebrity and appeared in fairs but was never allowed to return to the land of his birth. He later regretted his surrender and claimed the conditions he made had been ignored. Geronimo died in 1909 from complications of pneumonia at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
Apache is the collective term for several culturally related groups of Native Americans originally from the Southwest United States. The current division of Apachean groups includes the Navajo, Western Apache, Chiricahua, Mescalero, Jicarilla, Lipan, and Plains Apache (formerly Kiowa-Apache). Goyahkla was born to the Bedonkohe band of the Apache, near Turkey Creek, a tributary of the Gila River in the modern-day state of New Mexico, then claimed by Mexico. His grandfather (Mako) had been chief of the Bedonkohe Apache. He had three brothers and four sisters.
Goyahkla's parents raised him according to Apache traditions; after the death of his father, his mother took him to live with the Chihenne and he grew up with them. He married a woman named Alope from the Nedni-Chiricahua band of Apache when he was 17; they had three children. On March 6th, 1858, a company of 400 Mexican soldiers from Sonora led by Colonel José María Carrasco attacked Goyahkla's camp outside Janos while the men were in town trading. Among those killed were his wife, children and mother.
Geronimo's chief, Mangas Coloradas, sent him to Cochise’s band for help in revenge against the Mexicans. It was during this incident that the name Geronimo came about. This appellation stemmed from a battle in which, ignoring a deadly hail of bullets, he repeatedly attacked Mexican soldiers with a knife. The origin of the name is a source of controversy with historians, some writing that it was appeals by the soldiers to Saint Jerome (“Jeronimo”) for help. Others source it as the mispronunciation of his name by the Mexican soldiers. Geronimo married Chee-hash-kish and had two children, Chappo and Dohn-say. Then he took another wife, Nana-tha-thtith, with whom he had one child. He later had a wife named Zi-yeh at the same time as another wife, She-gha, one named Shtsha-she and later a wife named Ih-tedda. Geronimo's ninth and last wife was Azul.
Geronimo was raised with the traditional religious views of the Bedonkohe. When questioned about his views on life after death, he wrote in his 1905 autobiography, “As to the future state, the teachings of our tribe were not specific, that is, we had no definite idea of our relations and surroundings in after life. We believed that there is a life after this one, but no one ever told me as to what part of man lived after death ... We held that the discharge of one's duty would make his future life more pleasant, but whether that future life was worse than this life or better, we did not know, and no one was able to tell us. We hoped that in the future life, family and tribal relations would be resumed. In a way we believed this, but we did not know it.”
In his later years Geronimo embraced Christianity, and stated “Since my life as a prisoner has begun, I have heard the teachings of the white man's religion, and in many respects believe it to be better than the religion of my fathers ... Believing that in a wise way it is good to go to church, and that associating with Christians would improve my character, I have adopted the Christian religion. I believe that the church has helped me much during the short time I have been a member. I am not ashamed to be a Christian, and I am glad to know that the President of the United States is a Christian, for without the help of the Almighty I do not think he could rightly judge in ruling so many people. I have advised all of my people who are not Christians, to study that religion, because it seems to me the best religion in enabling one to live right.” He joined the Dutch Reformed Church in 1903 but four years later was expelled for gambling. To the end of his life, he seemed to harbor ambivalent religious feelings, telling the Christian missionaries at a summer camp meeting in 1908 that he wanted to start over, while at the same time telling his tribesmen that he held to the old Apache religion.
The first Apache raids on Sonora and Chihuahua took place during the late 17th century. To counter the early Apache raids on Spanish settlements, presidios were established at Janos (1685) in Chihuahua and at Fronteras (1690) in northern Opata country. In 1835, Mexico had placed a bounty on Apache scalps. Two years later Mangas Coloradas became principal chief and war leader and began a series of retaliatory raids against the Mexicans. Apache raids on Mexican villages were so numerous and brutal that no area was safe. Between 1820 and 1835 alone, some 5000 Mexicans died in Apache raids, and 100 settlements were destroyed. As war chief, Geronimo was notorious for urging raids and war upon Mexican Provinces and later against American locations in the southwest. Attacks and counter-attacks were common. In December 1860, thirty miners launched a surprise attack on an encampment of Bedonkohes Apaches on the west bank of the Mimbres River. According to historian Edwin R. Sweeney, the miners killed four Indians, wounded others, and captured thirteen women and children. Retaliation by the Apache again followed, with raids against U.S. citizens and property.
In 1873 the Mexicans once again attacked the Apache. After months of fighting in the mountains, the Apaches and Mexicans decided upon a peace treaty at Casa Grande. After terms were agreed upon, the Mexicans gave mescal to the Apache and while they were intoxicated, the Mexican troops attacked and killed twenty Apaches and captured many more. The Apache were forced to retreat into the mountains once again. Though outnumbered, Geronimo fought against both Mexican and United States troops and became famous for his daring exploits and numerous escapes from capture from 1858 to 1886. One such escape, as legend has it, took place in the Robledo Mountains of southwest New Mexico. The legend states that Geronimo and his followers entered a cave, and the U.S. soldiers waited outside the cave entrance for him, but he never came out. Later it was heard that Geronimo was spotted outside, nearby. The second entrance through which he escaped has yet to be found and the cave is still called Geronimo's Cave, even though no reference to this event or this cave has been found in the historic or oral record. Moreover, there are many stories of this type with other caves referenced that state that Geronimo or other Apaches entered to escape troops but were not seen exiting. These stories are in all likelihood apocryphal. At the end of his military career, he led a small band of 36 men, women, and children. They evaded thousands of Mexican and American troops for over a year, making him the most famous Native American of the time and earning him the title of the “worst Indian who ever lived” among white settlers. According to James L. Haley, About two weeks after the escape there was a report of a family massacred near Silver City; one girl was taken alive and hanged from a meat hook jammed under the base of her skull. His band was one of the last major forces of independent Native American warriors who refused to accept the United States occupation of the American West.
In 1886, General Nelson A. Miles selected Captain Henry Lawton, in command of B Troop, 4th Cavalry, at Fort Huachuca, and First Lieutenant Charles B. Gatewood, to lead the expedition that brought Geronimo and his followers back to the reservation system for a final time. Lawton was given orders to head up actions south of the U.S.–Mexico boundary where it was thought Geronimo and a small band of his followers would take refuge from U.S. authorities. Lawton was to pursue, subdue, and return Geronimo to the U.S., dead or alive. Lawton's official report dated September 9, 1886 sums up the actions of his unit and gives credit to a number of his troopers for their efforts. Geronimo gave Gatewood credit for his decision to surrender as Gatewood was well known to Geronimo, spoke some Apache, and was familiar with and honored their traditions and values. He acknowledged Lawton's tenacity for wearing the Apaches down with constant pursuit. Geronimo and his followers had little or no time to rest or stay in one place. Completely worn out, the little band of Apaches returned to the U.S. with Lawton and officially surrendered to General Miles on September 4th, 1886 at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona. The debate remains whether Geronimo surrendered unconditionally. He pleaded in his memoirs that his people who surrendered had been misled, and that his surrender as a war prisoner was conditioned in front of uncontested witnesses (especially General Stanley). General Howard, chief of Pacific US army division, said on his part that his surrender was accepted as a dangerous outlaw without condition, which has been contested in front of the Senate.
Geronimo and other Apaches, including the Apache scouts who had helped the army track him down, were sent as prisoners to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio Texas. The Army held them there for about six weeks before they were sent to Fort Pickens, in Pensacola, Florida, and his family was sent to Fort Marion. They were reunited in May 1887, when they were transferred to Mount Vernon Barracks near Mobile, Alabama for seven years. In 1894, they were moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. In his old age, Geronimo became a celebrity. He appeared at fairs, including the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, where he reportedly rode a ferris wheel and sold souvenirs and photographs of himself. However, he was not allowed to return to the land of his birth. He rode in President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 inaugural parade.
In 1905, Geronimo agreed to tell his story to S. M. Barrett, Superintendent of Education in Lawton, Oklahoma. Barrett had to appeal to President Roosevelt to gain permission to publish the book. Geronimo came to each interview knowing exactly what he wanted to say. He refused to answer questions or alter his narrative. Barrett did not seem to take many liberties with Geronimo's story as translated by Asa Daklugie. Frederick Turner re-edited this autobiography by removing some of Barrett's footnotes and writing an introduction for the non-Apache readers. Turner notes the book is in the style of an Apache reciting part of his oral history.
In February 1909, Geronimo was thrown from his horse while riding home, and had to lie in the cold all night before a friend found him extremely ill. He died of pneumonia on February 17th, 1909, as a prisoner of the United States at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. On his deathbed, he confessed to his nephew that he regretted his decision to surrender. His last words were reported to be said to his nephew, “I should have never surrendered. I should have fought until I was the last man alive.” He was buried at Fort Sill, Oklahoma in the Apache Indian Prisoner of War Cemetery.