Robert M. Utley is an award-winning writer of books of western American history, and this new work is part of the Lamar Series in Western History. Utley has carefully researched the long and checkered career of Geronimo, the foe we loved to hate. The name Geronimo has, for several generations, incited fierce emotion in the minds of Americans. The images associated with the name range from determination to defeat
of our foes, to nostalgia for the bygone time most of us feel an attachment to, when the country was being settled by bold immigrants who were united against a common enemy. For some reason, the man Geronimo symbolized that enemy--and the conquest of that enemy--more than any other Native American. Utley says that after years of savage attacks on small farms, towns, even individual travelers, Geronimo “came to personify all the Apache raiders, both in the minds of the victims and in newspapers throughout the nation.”
The most interesting fact about Geronimo and his band of warriors was that they were not primarily on the attack against Americans. Their deepest hatred was reserved for Mexicans, and Geronimo’s early forays were almost always into Mexico, where he made many savage raids. Geronimo was cruel and bloodthirsty in war but the Mexicans were no less so. Geronimo would later state that he had killed “many Mexicans” and didn’t consider them worthy of being counted. He was a respected if unofficial general to his Apache cohort. One observer, Betzinez, wrote of him,
“Geronimo was pretty much the main leader although he was not the born chief of any band…Geronimo seemed to be the most intelligent and resourceful as well as the most vigorous and farsighted. In times of danger he was a man to be relied on.”
Since the presence of white foreigners in the New World was a constant threat to the Apache nation, Geronimo was not the first Indian to lead raids against them all, but he was, in a sense, the last. His capture in 1886 heralded the end of the long struggle to subdue the Native Americans and securely settle the West. By that time Geronimo was leading a small band, mostly family members, desperately attacking Southwestern settlers, massacring white families and gradually becoming a “most wanted” figure, hated and greatly feared.
In his fifties, when he agreed to surrender, Geronimo lived out the remainder of his life as the tame ward of the United States government. He went to the World’s Fair in St Louis as a performer, wearing tribal regalia and showing off roping skills. He was open to learning from his white captors but sometimes lapsed into bitterness about his fate and expressed a longing to return to Arizona, “my father’s land.” He was a farmer and a “dedicated family man” who is remembered, after the dust has cleared, not so much for his loyalty to his people or any higher principle, but for his skill in warfare and his individualism, his willingness to act autonomously in defense of his family and personal interests. He had a weakness for whiskey, and died of pneumonia after falling off his horse, presumably in a drunken stupor, and lying on the freezing ground all night. He died as he had lived for more than twenty years--as a prisoner of the United States.