Terror of the Southwest

by Mitakuye Oyasin

Many books have been written about Native Americans and their right to survive the invasion of the white man and his civilization. It is a rare treat, however, to be able to read a book written in the words of a Native American, especially one whose name is known to every household in the country. Norm Winick was kind enough to send me such a book recently, entitled Geronimo's Story of His Life, taken down and edited by S. M. Barrett, and published by Alexander Books, Alexander, North Carolina.

Geronimo was born in 1829 in a place later called Arizona. He relates, "In that country which lies around the headwaters of the Gila River I was reared. This range was our fatherland; among these mountains our wigwams were hidden; the scattered valleys contained our fields; the boundless prairies, stretching away on every side, were our pastures; the rocky caverns were our burying place." With this world view, you can understand why the artificial state and national boundaries of Mexico and the United States hardly seemed relevant to the Apaches.

When Geronmo was growing up, and for generations before him, the Apaches were seldom at peace with the Mexicans. They were, after all, the invaders. There were periods of peace, however, during which the Apaches raised their crops, hunted for game, and the young men courted the young women of the tribe and tended to tribal matters. In 1846, when Geronimo was 17, he was admitted to the council of warriors. It was his ticket to the adult world. He could go on the warpath, fight great battles and win many honors.

Most important to him, he could marry the girl he loved. The wedding ceremony consisted of arriving in front of her father's wigwam with the required number of ponies and taking Alope with him. In the traditions of their fathers, they lived a simple life. He furnished her with a new tepee supplied with bear robes, lion hides, trophies, and his spears, bows and arrows. She added little decorations with beads, obtained in trade with the Mexicans and painted pictures on the walls of their home. This was a happy time for them, made more so by their three children.

To understand anything about the man, you need to pause for a moment and reflect upon his state of mind at this point in his life. He had all that he could hope for in this life, and it was more than enough. He and his wIfe loved one another deeply Their children were growing up in much the same way as he had, playing, loitering, working and learning. Life was good.

It was in 1858 that the whole tribe of Bedonkohe Apaches traveled into Old Mexico to trade with the people of Casa Crande. At that time, there was no war with the Mexican towns in the area and the Apaches were enjoying a time of peace with all the neighboring Indian tribes as well. They stopped at a town just outside of Casa Grande and set up camp, so that each day they could go into town and trade. A small guard was left with the camp to watch over the women and children and to guard their supplies while they were away.

On the way back to camp, they were met by a few women and children who told them that some Mexican troops from another town had attacked their camp, killed the guards, took their ponies, destroyed their supplies, and massacred many of the women and children. At word of this, they scattered until nightfall and then stole silently back into camp. Even now I can feel Geronimo's pain as he relates, "I found my aged mother, my young wIfe, and my three small children were among the slain. There were no lights in camp so without being noticed I silently turned away and stood by the river. How long I stood there I do not know, but when I saw the warriors arranging for a council I took my place."

Nothing was decided immediately except to go home. The chief, Mangus­Colorado, and 80 warriors without weapons or supplies retreated to Arizona in silence "For two days and three nights we were on forced marches, stopping only for meals, then we made a camp near the Mexican border, where we rested two days. Here I took some food and talked with the other Indians who had lost in the massacre, but none had lost as I had, for I had lost all."

There is nothing quite so dangerous as a man who has nothing to lose.

His family was wiped out. Geronimo had lost everything. The Mexicans responsible for this pointless massacre probably thought they had taught the Apaches a lesson. Meanwhile, the Apache warriors, about 80 in number, and the surviving family members made their way quietly back to their homes in Arizona, unarmed, without supplies, and grieving for their losses.

Once they got home and gathered some new supplies and weapons, Mangus¯Colorado, their chief, called a council meeting. This meeting resulted in two decisions being made. First, all of the warriors wanted to take the warpath against Mexico. Second, Geronimo was assigned to go to Cochise, chief of the Chiricahua Apaches, and Whoa, chief of the Nedni Apaches, and ask for volunteers to help in the fight.

In the summer of 1859, almost a year after the massacre at Kaskiyeh, these three bands of Apaches, each under its respective chief, marched into Mexico looking for revenge against those who had murdered their friends and relatives. ³Marched² is probably a poor choice of words, since they needed to keep their movements concealed. The Mexican government was paying $100 for a warrior’s scalp, $50 for a squaw’s and $25 for a child’s. At that price, they had no friends in Mexico.

After several days of travel, they arrived near Arispe, their destination, and set up camp. Eight men rode out from the city to parlay with them, and these were captured, killed, and scalped. This maneuver, reasoned the Apaches, would bring out the soldiers. ³As we had anticlpated,² noted Geronimo, ³about ten o’clock in the morning the whole Mexican force came out. There were two companies of cavalry and two of infantry. I recognized the cavalry as the soldiers who had killed my people at Kaskiyeh. This I told to the chieftains, and they said that I might direct the battle.² He was not, and had never been, a chief, but the honor was conferred on him because he had been the one to suffer the greatest losses at the massacre.

He resolved not to let them down, and he didn’t. He led his warriors to total victory, all the while showing no regard for his own life or safety. In fact, it was on this day that the Mexicans began calling him Geronimo (Mexican for Jerome), a name that stayed with him for the rest of his life. When he had killed the last trooper, he jumped to his feet to look for another, and there were none. ³But the Apaches had seen. Over the bloody field, covered with the bodies of Mexicans, rang the fierce Apache war-whoop.

³Still covered with the blood of my enemies, still holding my conquering weapon, still hot with the joy of battle, victory, and vengeance, I was surrounded by the Apache braves and made war chief of all the Apaches.² The massacre of Kaskiyeh had been avenged.

Everyone else was satisfied. Geronimo wanted more revenge. Over the next few years, he would lead many raids into Mexico Some were successful. Others were such dismal failures that there was no rejoicing when they returned. With the passage of time, his desire for revenge underwent a transformation. While it would be safe to say he never stopped hating the Mexicans, and certainIy never trusted them, his forays into Mexico were not so much to kill as to steal supplies, cattle, and horses.

It is important to note that the Apache’s lack of respect for law and order was not unique to them. Mexicans and white men alike set no good examples in those days. Raids were commonplace. Life was cheap. Theft was part of life. The rule was survival.

In the meantime, Geronimo, his tribe, and the other Apache tribes, were beginning to experience another difficulty in the fight to survive. Following the Mexican War of 1848, Mexico ceded to the United States most of what is now Arizona. The Gadsden Purchase of 1853 transferred the rest, including the territory south of the Gila River, an area that Geronimo called home. While Kit Carson and his renegade army defeated the Navajos in 1854, the Apaches, under such notable chiefs as Victorio, Cochise, and Geronirno, continued to raid settlers, disrupt traffic, and even attack towns and forts for several years.

But it might have been different. You won’t find the truth in newspaper reports or government memos of the 1860s. The truth is that when the American warriors (troops) first began to settle into forts throughout Arizona and New Mexico, the Apaches sought peace with them. What the Apaches got in return set the stage for years of distrust and conflict, and needless bloodshed.

The first white men seen by Geronimo were land surveyors. They were a curiosity to the Apaches, who rode out to visit with them. Through sign language, they made peace, traded goods, and when the Apaches brought game to them, they received money in return. Later, they learned from the Navajo Indians that the money was very valuable. Geronimo described these white men as good men, and the Apaches hated to see them go when they moved further west.

The first large group of white men to arrive in Arizona, according to Geronimo, consisted of warriors. ³They made their camp on the Gila River south of Hot Springs. At first they were friendly and we did not dislike them, but they were not as good as those who came first.² It is important to grasp the mind-set of Geronimo during these initial days of contact with the white men, because the years or warfare that followed cannot be placed on the shoulders of Geronimo or Victorio, or Cochise, or Mangus¯Colorado.

According to Geronimo, ³The Indians always tried to live peaceably with the white soldiers and settlers. One day during the time that the soldiers were stationed at Apache Pass I made a treaty with the post. This was done by shaking hands and promising to be brothers. Cochise and Mangus¯Colorado did likewise.² About a year later Geronimo and other leaders were invited to a conference at Apache Pass, now called Fort Bowie, by the officers of the United States troops. They were invited into a tent where they were promised food, and they were attacked by the soldiers. Several made their escape by cutting through the tent, but many good Apache warriors were killed or captured.

A few days after this attack, the Apaches organized in the mountains and returned to fight. Cochise was in charge, and after a few days of skirmishing, the Apaches attacked a freight train that was bringing supplies to the fort. Some of the crew were killed, others were captured, and these were offered by the Apaches in exchange for the prisoners held by the soldiers. When the officers refused, the prisoners were killed and the Apaches went into the mountains to hide.

In the mind of Geronimo, the greatest wrong ever done to his people by the United States troops was during 1863. The chief of the tribe, Mangus¯Colorado, went to the white settlement at Apache Tejo, New Mexico, to make a treaty of peace. The Indians had heard reports that they would receive better treatment from the white men there than they would in Arizona, that the white men there would keep their word and not betray the Indians. The reception given to the chief was promising. He was told if he would bring his people there, they would be cared for with food and supplies, and after promising to return within two weeks, he went back to the tribe with the offer. Geronimo did not trust the promises of the white men at Apache Tejo, so it was agreed that part of the tribe would go with Mangus¯Colorado, and the rest wouId stay with Geronimo, joining the others only after the white men had demonstrated that they could keep their word.

It took a while, but word finally got back to Geronimo that Mangus¯Colorado had been murdered by the guards at a guardhouse where he was being kept a prisoner. What followed were years of skirmishes interrupted by occasional years of living at peace with the warriors of the white man.

The times of peace were always interrupted by some misunderstanding. Distrust was always present between the Apaches and the white soldiers, and this was compounded by the fact that, in the eyes of the white man, all Apaches are the same, regardless of their tribes. Well, not all Apaches could live at peace with one another crowded into the same reservation. In fact. Victorio was killed for opposing the forced removal of his people to a reservation to be shared with Apaches from a band not friendly to his. It had not worked before and he could not see that it would work now. His protestations cost him his life.

It was after several quarrels and feuds among the different bands of Apaches at Apache Pass that each leader decided to take his own band and go elsewhere. Geronimo, not knowing that he and his band were not supposed to leave Apache Pass, took his people to Hot Springs, New Mexico, in 1881. He was promptly arrested and kept a prisoner for four months. After what he thinks was a trial, he was released to live above San CarIos at a place called Geronimo. For two years, all went well, until they heard a rumor in the summer of 1883.

With years of distrust based on years of experience, a rumor is all that is necessary to start another war.

Tamed by Lies

If you count back 25 years in your life, you will be shocked by the changes in American society. But with all the changes you have faced, they are as nothing compared to what Geronimo went through from 1858 to 1883. Those dates mark his first encounters with the white man until, from 1881 to 1883, he and his people were residing peacefully on an Arizona reservation called Geronimo, just north of San Carlos.

Then came the rumors. The Apache leaders were to be imprisoned again. (According to General Crook, these rumors were spread by the soldiers at Ft. Apache and were not true. According to Geronimo, General Crook was a liar.) Why did the Indians believe the rumors? Geronimo said, ³This rumor served to revive the memory of all our past wrongs ¯¯ the massacre in the tent at Apache Pass, the fate of Mangus¯Colorado, and my own unjust imprisonment, which might easily have been death to me. Just at this time we were told that the officers wanted us to come up the river above Geronimo to a fort to hold a council with them. We did not believe that any good could come of this conference, or that there was any need of it, so we held a conference ourselves and, fearing treachery, decided to leave the reservation. We thought it more manly to die on the warpath than to be killed in prison.²

So about 250 Apaches, mostly Bedonkohe and Nedni, led by Whoa and Geronimo, left the reservation and headed for Old Mexico. While there, they defeated the only sizeable Mexican army they met, raided at will and gathered up a large herd of cattle and horses. After about a year they decided to return to San Carlos, bringing the cattle and horses with them. General Crook refused to listen to the protests of Geronirno that these cattle were taken in wars with the Mexicans and that the Apaches intended to use them to raise stock. He took the livestock from them and ordered the arrest of Geronimo.

Once again, Geronimo fled to Old Mexico, this time taking about 400 Apaches with him. During this sojourn, the Apaches found that the heat had really been turned up by the Mexicans. Army troops were everywhere, and they were all looking for him. Then, by agreement with the Mexican government, General Crook came in from the north with a large contingent of United States cavalry and a sizeable crew of Apache scouts. When these scouts approached Geronimo wIth the message that General Crook wanted to see him, he went to his camp.

Geronimo agreed to return with Crook to San Carlos, but he so distrusted the general that, on the way, he and a handful of people turned back. Because of this, General Crook was replaced by General Miles, and the hunt for Geronimo took on a new intensity. With 5,000 United States troops, led by good Apache scouts, the push was constant. As Geronimo remembers it, ³The Mexican soldiers also became more active and more numerous. We had skirmishes almost every day, and so we finally decided to break up into small bands.² They reunited later but were surprised to find that the United States troops had not gone home. In several surprise raids, the Apaches lost most of their supplies and horses.

It was only a matter of time. The year was 1886. When two Apache scouts finally approached Geronimo to tell him that General Miles wanted to meet with him, he was ready. ³When I arrived at their camp I went directly to General Miles and told him how I had been wronged, and that I wanted to return to the United States with my people, as we wished to see our families, who had been captured and taken away from us.²

In the treaty with General Miles that followed, Geronimo and hIs people were promIsed many things: they would be united with their people, they would be given land and houses to live in, with cattle, horses, mules, and farm implements, and clothing and blankets for warmth in the winter. What they were given was a train ride to a fort in Florida where they were kept for two years at hard labor, unable to see their families. Without explanation, the Apache scouts who had helped in the capture of Geronimo were also treated as prisoners of war and sent with the rest of the Apaches. ³After this,² said Geronimo, ³we were sent with our families to Vermont, Alabama, where we stayed five years and worked for the Government. We had no property, and I looked in vain for General Miles to send me to that land of which he had spoken; I longed in vain for the implements, house, and stock that General Miles had promised me.²

Finally, in 1894, the Apaches were shipped to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. They got their houses, then land to cultivate, their animals to raise, but they could not thrive in a land not their own. Geronimo made a plea for his people to be returned to their homeland in Arizona, a land that ³the Almighty created for the Apaches. It is my land, my home, my fathers’ land, to which I now ask to be allowed to return. I want to spend my last days there, and be buried among those mountaIns. If thIs could be, I might die In peace, feeling that my people, placed in their native homes, would increase in numbers, rather than diminish as at present, and that our name would not become extinct.²

In February of 1909, three years after he spoke these words, Geronimo died and was buried at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. The Territory of Arizona, which would not become a state until 1912, refused to allow him to be buried within Is borders.

Posted to Zephyr Online February 25, 1999
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