After almost 30 years of war, Apache leader Geronimo surrendered today in 1886 to General Nelson Miles in Arizona. Now WE know em

Geronimo. Photographed by Frank A. Rinehart, 1898.

Geronimo. Photographed by Frank A. Rinehart, 1898.

Goyathlay or Goyahkla “one who yawns” was born June 16, 1829 into the Bedonkohe band of the Apache Native American Indian tribe near Turkey Creek (a tributary of the Gila River in the modern-day state of New Mexico). Apache is the collective term for several culturally related groups of Native Americans originally from the Southwest United States.

His grandfather (Mahko) had been chief of the Bedonkohe Apache.

His parents raised him and his three brothers and four sisters 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.

In 1835, Mexico had placed a bounty on Apache scalps in response to Apache raids.

Attacks and counter-attacks between Mexican soldiers and Apache warriors became common.

In 1845 at the age of 17, Goyathlay was admitted to the warrior council and married a woman named Alope from the Nedni-Chiricahua band of Apache; they had three children.

Life after massacre

Then on March 6, 1858, a company of 400 Mexican soldiers from Sonora led by Colonel José María Carrasco launched a surprise attack on Goyathlay’s encampment on the west bank of the Mimbres River outside Janos while the men were in town trading.

“Late one afternoon when returning from town we were met by a few women and children who told us that Mexican troops from some other town had attacked our camp, killed all the warriors of the guard, captured all our ponies, secured our arms, destroyed our supplies, and killed many of our women and children. Quickly we separated, concealing ourselves as best we could until nightfall, when we assembled at our appointed place of rendezvous—a thicket by the river. Silently we stole in one by one: sentinels were placed, and, when all were counted, I found that 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.” Geronimo, Geronimo’s story of his life, Kas-Ki-Yeh, 1909

Among those killed were his wife, children and mother. The loss of his family led him to hate all Mexicans for the rest of his life.

After his family was murdered, he participated in revenge attacks, killing any Mexican they encountered.

Goyathlay’s chief, Mangas Coloradas, then 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 of his name 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 Goyathlay 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 also had a wife named Zi-yeh at the same time as yet another wife, She-gha, another one named Shtsha-she and later yet another wife named Ih-tedda.

Geronimo’s ninth and last wife was named Azul.

Though outnumbered, Geronimo continued to fight against both Mexican and United States troops over the following years and became famous for his daring exploits and numerous escapes from capture.

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.

Massacre at Casa Grande

Then in 1873, after years 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, now with Geronimo as war chief, were forced to retreat into the mountains once again.

Soon, Geronimo became notorious for consistently urging raids upon Mexican provinces and their towns, and later against American locations across Arizona, New Mexico and western Texas.

He led a small band of 38 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.

Geronimo and his warrior band became one of the last major forces of independent Native American warriors who refused to accept the United States occupation of the American West.

Geronimo (right) and his warriors in northern Mexico in 1886

Geronimo (right) and his warriors in northern Mexico in 1886

Then 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 was to bring Geronimo and his followers back to the reservation system.

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.

According to National Geographic, “… the governor of Sonora claimed in 1886 that in the last five months of Geronimo’s wild career, his band of 16 warriors slaughtered some 500 to 600 Mexicans.”


On September 4, 1886 Geronimo surrendered to U.S. authorities at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona.

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.

Geronimo; kneeling with rifle, 1887

Geronimo; kneeling with rifle, 1887

When Geronimo surrendered he had in his possession a Winchester Model 1876 lever-action rifle with a silver-washed barrel and receiver, bearing Serial Number 109450. It is on display at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York. Additionally he had a Colt Single Action Army revolver with a nickel finish and ivory stocks bearing the serial number 89524, and a Sheffield Bowie knife with a dagger type of blade and stag handle made by George Wostenholm in an elaborate silver-studded holster and cartridge belt. The revolver, rig, and knife are on display at the Fort Sill museum.

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 Oliver O. Howard, chief of US Army Division of the Pacific, said on his part that Geronimo’s surrender was accepted as that of a dangerous outlaw without condition. Howard’s account was contested in front of the US Senate.

Prisoner of war

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.

Geronimo as a U.S. prisoner in 1905

Geronimo as a U.S. prisoner in 1905

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 17, 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.

Now WE know em




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