Article abstract: For two decades the most feared and vilified individual in the Southwest, Geronimo, in his old age, became a freak attraction at fairs and expositions. His maligned and misunderstood career epitomized the troubles of a withering Apache culture struggling to survive in a hostile modern world.
While the precise date and location of his birth are not known, Geronimo most likely was born around 1827 near the head of the Gila River in a part of the Southwest then controlled by Mexico. Named Goyathlay (One Who Yawns) by his Behonkohe parents, the legendary Apache warrior later came to be called Geronimo—a name taken from the sound which terrified Mexican soldiers allegedly cried when calling on Saint Jerome to protect them from his relentless charge.
Geronimo’s early life, like that of other Apache youth, was filled with complex religious ritual and ceremony. From the placing of amulets on his cradle to guard him against early death to the ceremonial putting on of the first moccasins, Geronimo’s relatives prepared their infant for Apache life, teaching him the origin myths of his people and the legends of supernatural beings and benevolent mountain spirits that hid in the caverns of their homeland. Through ritual observances and instruction, Geronimo learned about Usen, a remote and nebulous god who, though unconcerned with petty quarrels among men, was the Life Giver and provider for his people. “When Usen created the Apaches,” Geronimo later asserted, “he also created their homes in the West. He gave to them such grain, fruits, and game as they needed to eat. . . . He gave to them a climate and all they needed for clothing and shelter was at hand.” Geronimo’s religious heritage taught him to be self-sufficient, to love and revere his mountain homeland, and never to betray a promise made with oath and ceremony.
Geronimo grew into adulthood during a brief period of peace, a rare interlude that interrupted the chronic wars between the Apache and Mexican peoples. Even in times of peace, however, Apache culture placed a priority on the skills of warfare. Through parental instruction and childhood games, Geronimo learned how to hunt, hide, track, and shoot—necessary survival skills in an economy based upon game, wild fruits, and booty taken from neighboring peoples.
Geronimo also heard the often repeated stories of conquests of his heroic grandfather Mahko, an Apache chief renowned for his great size, strength, and valor in battle. Like his grandfather, Geronimo had unusual physical prowess and courage. Tall and slender, strong and quick, Geronimo proved at an early age to be a good provider for his mother, whom he supported following his father’s premature death, and later for his bride, Alope, whom he acquired from her father for “a herd of ponies” stolen most likely from unsuspecting Mexican victims. By his early twenties, Geronimo (still called Goyathlay) was a member of the council of warriors, a proven booty taker, a husband, and a father of three.
In 1850, a band of Mexican scalp hunters raided an Apache camp while the warriors were away. During the ensuing massacre, Geronimo’s mother, wife, and three children were slain. Shortly after this tragedy, Geronimo had a religious experience that figured prominently in his subsequent life. As he later reported the incident, while in a trancelike state, a voice called his name four times (the magic number among the Apache) and then informed him, “No gun can ever kill you. I will take the bullets from the guns of the Mexicans, so they will have nothing but powder. And I will guide your arrows.” After receiving this gift of power, Geronimo’s vengeance against Mexicans was equaled by his confidence that harm would not come his way.
While still unknown to most Americans, during the 1850’s, Geronimo rose among the ranks of the Apache warriors. A participant in numerous raids into Mexico, Geronimo fought bravely under the Apache chief Cochise. Although wounded on several occasions, Geronimo remained convinced that no bullet could kill him. It was during this period that he changed his name from Goyathlay to Geronimo.
War between the United States government and the Apache first erupted in 1861 following a kidnaping-charge incident involving Cochise. The war lingered for nearly a dozen years until Cochise and General O. O. Howard signed a truce. According to the terms of the agreement, the mountain homeland of the Chiricahua (one of the tribes which made up the Apache and Geronimo’s tribe) was set aside as a reservation, on which the Chiricahua promised to remain.
Following Cochise’s death in 1874, the United States attempted to relocate the Chiricahua to the San Carlos Agency in the parched bottomlands of the Gila River. Although some Apache accepted relocation, Geronimo led a small band off the...
(The entire section is 2028 words.)