On September 4, 1886, Apache warrior Geronimo (1829-1909) surrendered for the last time to United States military personnel. The famous warrior had eluded capture for years as the American Indian Wars took place across North America. In the years following his death, Geronimo has become a pop-culture icon whose name holds a permanent place in the American lexicon. The irony is that this famous warrior was never a chief in his time and was not driven by fame. In fact, his personal story is darker and more tragic than any Hollywood production. Voltaire (1694-1778) once said that “to the living we owe respect but to the dead we owe only the truth”. Author Robert M. Utley is a former chief historian for the National Park Service and researched Geronimo’s life to dispel rumors and bring to life unknown facts. The result is this biography that is crucial to understanding the creation of the United States of America and the Native American experience.
The story revolves around the Chiricahua tribe of the Apache Indians. I previously reviewed S.C. Gwynne’s “Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History”, a book I strongly recommend. It is book is not easy to read at times due to the graphic descriptions of Comanche raids and the battles with American troops and frankly, it is not for the faint at heart. Utley’s book is far tamer but does explore the battles but focuses heavily on Geronimo’s story and his ability to elude capture before finally surrendering in 1886. But make no mistake, this story is full of surprising information, battle descriptions and policy decisions in Washington as administrations struggled to resolve the “Indian” issue.
Surprisingly, Geronimo does not come across as a hero nor a villain. The author explains that he was simply an Apache warrior who was admired, feared, loathed and not without his own faults. To prove this point, Utley conducted an extensive amount of research that is woven beautifully together as Geronimo’s life comes into focus. And the key to understanding his position as an Apache enforcer is the section in the book that focuses on the Mexican raids against Apache settlements. The tragedy that befell Geronimo sets the stage for the warrior who emerges as a significant threat to American expansion and eternal enemy of the Mexican nation.
Expectedly, Geronimo is not the only famous figure in the book. In fact, the author provides a thorough discussion on another Apache warrior who holds a claim to fame: Cochise (1805-1874). He is joined in the book by Mangas Coloradas (1793-1863) and Juh (1825-1883). Both chiefs and Geronimo’s cousin Juh had an enormous impact on Geronimo and their roles in the story cannot be understated. Cochise is significant in another way which may surprise readers. Throughout his early life, Geronimo remained obscure but as the American Indian War heated up, he could no longer hide in the shadows. However, the battles had devastating consequences for the Apache. As Utley explains:
“During Geronimo’s heyday, the entire Chiricahua tribe numbered about three thousand people, so in the relatively small local groups most people tended to know one another. By 1886, when Geronimo surrendered, the tribe had declined by about 80 percent, mainly the result of warfare.”
Additionally, the introduction of alcohol had unforeseen circumstances in store for the Apache and other Native American tribes. The battle with substance abuse sadly continues to this day on reservations. The episodes explained by the author leave no doubt that addiction of any kind can result in severe personal and societal damage. In this case, the community structure itself was under attack and it is one part of Geronimo’s life that will capture readers’ attention. Despite warfare and substance abuse, the warriors in the book did believe in the family structure, Geronimo included. He followed this creed wholeheartedly and I honestly lost track of the number of his wives. Today such practices would be viewed with disdain in America but for Native American tribes during those times, it was commonplace.
After Geronimo surrenders, the book takes another turn due to the inhumane conditions in Indigenous camps. The removal of Native tribes is well-documented, and the “Trail of Tears” stands out as a commonly referenced example. There is forced removal in this story and the reality of American camps becomes horrifically clear in the book. Conditions became so decrepit that officials in the government began to sound the alarm. And this is the other tragedy in the story. Far removed from the land they knew, without the foods they ate, the community structure that kept them safe and the looming threat of execution, Indian tribes soon found themselves in danger of extinction. As for Geronimo, the last twenty years of his life paled in comparison to his youth on the open plains of North America. And though he never saw himself as an iconic figure, his life and name are permanently fixed in the annals of American history.
If you are interested in Apache history and the story of Geronimo, this book is must-read. I cannot predict how you will view him, but it is safe to say that his story and that of the Apache are lessons that should never be forgotten. This is American history and truths about what really happened as our nation evolved.
“For Geronimo, my book rejects both extremes—thug and hero—and reveals that, within the constraints of Apache culture, he was a human being with many strengths and many flaws.”