Death of Geronimo

Richard Cavendish remembers the first American-Indian hero, who died on February 17th, 1909.

In his final days, the last of the great Apache war chiefs was a celebrity. He went to the World’s Fair in St Louis and other public events, where he was an exhibit himself, attended President Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1905 and dictated his autobiography.

Geronimo was born in the 1820s among the Chiricahua Apache in what was then Mexico and named One Who Yawns. In 1851, his mother, wife and children were killed in a sudden Mexican attack. He hated Mexicans ever afterwards, killed a good many and would become revered as a war shaman with apparently supernatural powers. However, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had transferred New Mexico and California to the United States, which put even more pressure on the Apache from white settlers.

Geronimo spent years fighting to stay out of the reservations established by the United States. In the 1870s the Chiricahua were sent to the San Carlos reservation in Arizona. Geronimo and other warriors frequently escaped and went marauding, but were always caught and sent back. The details are sketchy, but in 1882 Geronimo and a band of some 60 men raided the San Carlos reservation and took hundreds of Chiricahua away to the Sierra Madre mountains in what has been described as the greatest feat of Apache arms on record. Finally, in 1886, after long negotiations, he and his band surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles of the US Army, who said: ‘He was one of the brightest, most resolute, determined-looking men that I have ever encountered [with] the clearest, sharpest, dark eye I think I have ever seen.’

The Chiricahua were sent to Florida as prisoners of war, and then to Alabama, but in the 1890s they were settled at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, where Geronimo died of pneumonia in his 80s. He had become a legendary, almost mythical figure, and his name still stirs echoes in the American consciousness.