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  • James Houser

March 27, 1886 - The Surrender of Geronimo & End of the Apache Wars

Updated: Jun 7, 2021

March 27, 1886. A small band of warriors surrenders to American troops in the Sierra Madre south of the Mexican-American border. Among them is their leader – not a chief or a medicine man, simply the most respected fighter amongst all the Apache and the most feared Indian leader of the southwest. The Apache know him as Goyaale, “the one who yawns.” The Americans know him as Geronimo.

I haven’t really done a post about the American-Indian Wars yet. I consider it one of the greatest crimes ever committed by the American state, nearly on par with slavery. The U.S. Army, while the primary executors of the conflict, were not its primary instigators. In almost all circumstances, the Army was the only ally the Indians had in their struggle; it was civilian authorities, the federal government, and American pioneers that pushed the Army to root out the Native American resistance. Regular Army officers on average had far more respect for the Natives and their traditions than did Indian Affairs commissioners or state governors, but that did not stop them from carrying out government orders when the time came.

The Apache were a breed apart. A fiercely aggressive tribe, closely related to the Navajo, they lived (and live to this day) on the borderlands of Mexico and the United States within northwest Mexico, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The Apaches fought the invading Spanish and Mexicans for centuries, instigated by Spanish slave raids in New Mexico. Under pressure from the even more aggressive Comanche to the north, the Apache were pushed south into the American southwest. By the 1700s, the Apache were a serious threat to anyone in the region, and when Mexico gained its independence from Spain the war continued. Mexico was nearly helpless against Apache depredations in its early years of independence.

The situation changed after the Mexican-American War, when the new border drawn by the peace treaty split the Apache territories in half. Now the Apache faced a war on two fronts. It was in this context that the young man known as Goyaale reached adulthood, with his people at war against the Americans to the north and the Mexicans to the south. Straddling the border, the Apache soon adopted raiding and skirmishing as a way of life. The Apache had been forced into war to survive; by the 1850s, survival meant war. The legendary Apache war-fighting ability was not nature but nurture, nurtured by their constant struggle to defend themselves against the encroaching boundaries of civilization.

By 1851, Goyaale, now in his 20s, had a wife and three children. In this time, he was called by Apache Chief Mangas Coloradas (Spanish for “red sleeves”) to fight the Mexicans with the war chief Cochise. During this campaign, Goyaale earned his legendary name. In a pitched battle with Mexican soldiers, Goyaale charged the Mexicans, dodging their bullets, and attacked them with a knife. The Mexican soldiers screamed to Saint Jerome – “Jeronimo! Jeronimo!” – and the other Apache took that as his new name. To be named after the cries of his enemies was a special gift; thereafter, he was Geronimo.

Later that year, the Mexican soldiers retaliated against Apache raids. They surprised an Apache camp outside of Janos in the state of Chihuahua and slaughtered every Apache they found, including the women and children. When Geronimo returned to the camp, he found that his wife and three children were among the dead. Geronimo was stricken, and for the rest of his life would bear a very personal grudge against the Mexicans in particular, far outweighing any hostility he felt towards the Americans.

Throughout the 1850s and 1860s Geronimo and his fellow Apache resisted the Americans. The war chiefs in this period were Cochise and Mangas Coloradas, and while their main enemies were the Mexicans the Americans were probably more dangerous. American militia killed Coloradas under flag of truce in 1863, after which they boiled the flesh of his skull and sent it to the Smithsonian. Cochise fought long and hard against the Americans, but finally agreed to peace in 1872 and died peacefully of cancer in 1874. During his peace negotiations, Geronimo was his interpreter.

Geronimo became a legend during the long Apache-U.S. Wars. Daring escapes and brilliant ambushes made him a near legend in the hills and mountains of New Mexico and Chihuahua, and brought him great credit among his fellow Apache. Geronimo was always a simple warrior, never a chief or a priest; he never held a real title of authority, but he attracted many followers. By the 1880s, however, the wars were coming to an end. The American reach had lengthened, and the Apache were being steadily forced onto their reservations. Geronimo finally surrendered in 1885 and was put in the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona.

Reservation life was wretched thanks to government neglect and the commanding officers’ corruption. The Apache had lived nomadically for years, and disliked the restrictive boundaries of the reservation; the commander Britton Davis typically shortchanged them on food and medicine. Malaria was a constant problem and disabilities left many Apache unable to fend for themselves. Unable to stand the restrictions anymore, Geronimo and a small band of warriors and civilians broke out of the reservation on May 17, 1885, looking for a place to find refuge.

They never found a safe place. For the next year, from May 1885 to March 1886, Geronimo and his tiny band crisscrossed the Mexican-American border, using the boundary line strategically to keep American and Mexican forces from cooperating. The Apache knew the rough Sierra Madre like the back of their hand, and constantly foiled the vastly superior Americans and Mexicans. They crisscrossed the land, killing and plundering civilian villages and wagon trains as they went. Geronimo may have been vastly outnumbered, outgunned, and stricken by poverty and illness, but he and his men were deadly and dangerous.

General George Crook, the American commander, only ran Geronimo down by employing his own Apache scouts, who successfully pinned down the Indian leader and destroyed his camp. Geronimo, finally realizing that the game was up, decided to negotiate for a surrender. He would only work with Lieutenant Charles B. Gatewood, an officer who had been friendly to the Apache and who was known to them as Bay-chen-daysen, “Long Nose.”

On March 27, 1886, the terms of surrender were finally agreed. When Geronimo surrendered his 30 to 50 followers and went back onto the reservation, he handed over his Winchester 1876 lever-action rifle, now on display at West Point’s museum. His words of surrender were, "Once I moved about like the wind. Now I surrender to you, and that is all." Geronimo’s war was over, but his peace and afterlife were longer than he may ever have expected.

For the next two decades, Geronimo was something like a celebrity. Held in prison camps in Florida and Fort Sill, Oklahoma for the next several years, Geronimo saw many of his fellow Apaches die from the cold weather and unexpected diseases. Visitors would pass by to catch a glimpse of the famous Indian outlaw, and businessmen charged great sums for tourists to see the “bloodthirsty Indian” in his cell. In 1898 Geronimo came to the Omaha Exposition as a star figure, and for much of his life afterwards he became a part of the fair and circus circuit. One wonders how he felt about this, but it brought in money that he could give to the remnants of his tribe.

Geronimo posed in his traditional clothing and sold crafts at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. He appeared in Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show under Army guard, where the Indians were mocked as “murderous monsters” and Geronimo was displayed a sort of caged tiger. Visitors paid enormous sums to take a button from the coat of the vicious “Apache Chief” though Geronimo had never been a chief. He sat stoically as they plucked at his coat, understanding that every dollar he earned went to his starving, diseased, imprisoned people.

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration featured Geronimo and several other Indian chiefs riding in the parade as a signal that they had “buried the hatchet forever.” After the parade, Geronimo met with Roosevelt and made an impassioned plea that his Apache, still imprisoned at Fort Sill, could be allowed to return home to Arizona. Roosevelt denied him, stating that the American citizens now living there would never allow it. The Apache would never go home while Geronimo lived; he was too hated and feared for that to ever happen.

That same year, Geronimo compiled his memoirs, which are still in print and readily available on Amazon. They are gripping and an excellent example of oral history, but are shot through with despair at his defeat and the fate of his people. The Apache died, died like all Native American peoples have slowly died since the end of the West. In 1909, Geronimo himself died, the last great Native American leader to have resisted the United States. Feared for good reason, his cause was futile, but he endured what he must – before and after his surrender – for his people.

111,000 Apache live across the Southwest to this day, and their numbers dwindle. Their ways of life cannot stand the slowly rising tide of modern culture. They were savage, but savagery was done to them; they fought savages. They were cruel, but cruelties were inflicted upon them. They were both victims and makers of victims. But they were a nation, and now they are the vestige of one. No people has known an eradication so complete as the Native American, and none resisted as fiercely to such a bitter end as the Apache.

Book Recommendation: The great American West historian Robert M. Utley recently published a new biography of this great leader: Geronimo (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012).

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