10 Astonishing Facts About Geronimo
Geronimo is often remembered for his strength in the face of adversity, fighting for his band of Chiricahua Apaches’ way of life against impossible odds. He experienced remarkable success. At any one time, the population of his band never exceeded the low hundreds and yet they lived free for many years. In that time, they lived a lifestyle of habitual raiding in both U.S. and Mexican territory.
In 1886, after faux surrendering and escaping multiple times, Geronimo finally, truly, laid down his arms and spent the rest of his life as a prisoner of war. It was a jarring shift in lifestyle for Geronimo – a man used to a free-roaming naturalistic existence. It created some bizarre, astonishing events – but then Geronimo’s entire life, pre and post-capture was astonishing. Here, we list ten such astonishing facts about the Chiricahua Apache warrior Geronimo.
#10. It Took Nearly a Quarter of the U.S. Army to Catch Geronimo
At the time of Geronimo’s final surrender to U.S. forces, his group consisted of just under 40 people. They were pursued by 5,000 U.S. soldiers – almost a quarter of the entire Army at the time. On top of this, Mexico deployed 3,000 soldiers.
Geronimo and his followers had been running from authorities for three months. General Miles, who was eventually placed in command of the pursuit, had refused to use Apache scouts to find Geronimo, believing, “They were naturally more friendly to their own blood relatives than they could be to our service.” Yet, indeed, Miles’ forces only made contact with Geronimo when he swallowed his pride and reintroduced the scouts.
They informed Geronimo that Miles had removed Chiricahua Apaches from their reservations. Geronimo and his men, concerned for the safety of their families, surrendered on the promise that they would be reunited with them and their lives would be spared.
#9. Geronimo Was a Shaman
Geronimo trained from an early age as a shaman. He purportedly could tame wild horses with songs and on at least one occasion, delayed the sunrise, in order to hide his band while moving across open ground. It was also claimed that he could see things that were presently happening in different locations. This often influenced crucial tactical movements of his band.
On one occasion, according to his cousin Jason Bentzinez, while completely out of contact with his base camp and 120 miles away, Geronimo, àpropos of nothing, declared, “Men, our people we left … are in the hands of U.S. soldiers. What shall we do?” Never doubting the abilities of Geronimo, they rushed back to base camp, travelling through the night. When they arrived they found that Geronimo’s vision was correct. Bentzinez states, “This was a startling example of Geronimo’s mysterious ability to tell what was happening at a distance … I cannot explain it to this day. But I was there and I saw it. No, he didn’t get the word by some messenger. And no smoke signals had been made.”
#8. The Skull and Bones Secret Society Have Been Sued Over Potentially Stealing Geronimo’s Skull
It’s a longstanding rumour that the Order of Skull and Bones, made up of Yale alumni, stole the skull of Geronimo, along with personal items buried with him and display them in their clubhouse – referred to as “The Tomb”.
The club has strong ties with the Bush family. Both George H.W. Bush. and George W. Bush are members of the Order. In fact, the most prevalent story involves Prescott Bush (H.W.’s father) actually taking part in the theft. What seems like a tall tale gained a bit of credibility in 2005, when correspondence between two members was found, dated 1918, that read, “The skull of the worthy Geronimo the Terrible, exhumed from its tomb at Fort Sill by your club … is now safe inside The Tomb, together with his well-worn femurs, bit and saddle horn.”
In 2009, descendants of Geronimo filed a lawsuit against Yale University, Skull and Bones, and several prominent members of the US government, including Barack Obama, with the stated desire of reclaiming the remains of their ancestor. Geronimo’s skull has allegedly been displayed in a glass case in Skull and Bones’ clubhouse ever since its theft. It’s believed that new recruits must kiss it in their initiation ceremony.
After a year of legal rigmarole, the case was dismissed. The judge stated that the plaintiff’s argument rested on a law that only applied to Native American exhumations after 1990.
#7. Geronimo Was a Living Exhibit at the 1904 World’s Fair
The US government allowed Geronimo to make public appearances at quite a few events. He was briefly featured in Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show, where he was marketed as “The Worst Indian That Ever Lived”. By this time, rather than running for their lives, the American public flocked to see the tamed warrior and to get a sense of his increasingly archaic way of life.
At the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Geronimo was a permanent living exhibit in an area called the “Apache Village”. The entire World’s Fair had a focus on empire, formally titled the Louisiana Purchase Exposition – organised in large part to celebrate what was referred to as the “greatest peaceable acquisition of territory the world has known”. Geronimo spent most of his time there selling various wares and attempting to feign enthusiasm for those who visited. Kind of like a modern convention but with Geronimo in the place of William Shatner.
When he wasn’t working, Geronimo was allowed to wander the floor and later remarked how much he enjoyed the other exhibits, such as a polar bear “that was as intelligent as a man”. He also rode a Ferris Wheel, commenting, “The guards took me into a little house that had four windows. When we were seated the little house started to move along the ground … they told me to look out, and when I did so I was scared, for our little house had gone high up in the air, and the people down in the Fair Grounds looked no larger than ants.”
#6. Geronimo’s Family Was Murdered by Mexicans
As a young man, Geronimo returned home to find his mother, wife, and three children slain by Mexican troops. The Mexican government were offering a financial reward any Apache scalps; $25 for children, $50 for women, and $100 for the men.
The incident instilled in Geronimo a burning hatred of Mexicans that manifested in bloody revenge-fuelled raids. And although he raided in both Mexico and the U.S., at times he expressed his approval of some facets of the white Americans’ way of life, stating after his experience at the 1904 World’s Fair that they are, “A very kind and peaceful people. During all the time I was at the Fair no one tried to harm me in any way. Had this been among the Mexicans I am sure I should have been compelled to defend myself often.”
The amount of Mexicans he killed was so high that Geronimo himself had a hard time estimating, stating for his autobiography, “I have killed many Mexicans; I do not know how many, for frequently I did not count them. Some of them were not worth counting … I still have no love for Mexicans. With me they were always treacherous and malicious.”
#5. Geronimo Believed Bullets Couldn’t Kill Him
Although the success of Geronimo’s guerrilla warfare largely lies in his supreme tactical intelligence, luck also played a significant role. So lucky was Geronimo in the field of battle that he believed that no bullet could kill him – and indeed, it never did.
He believed this power was bestowed to him while still in immediate grievance of his murdered family at the hands of Mexican soldiers. Geronimo said that he had gone out alone and while weeping for his loss, heard a spirit voice that called to him and said, “No gun can ever kill you. I will take the bullets from the guns of the Mexicans, so they will have nothing but powder.”
Seemingly contrary to this vision, Geronimo was injured at least five times by very real, not-so-powdery bullets. The volume of these incidents, however, rather than cheapening his vision, strengthened a collective belief that gunfire could not fatally harm him.
It was pneumonia that finally claimed Geronimo’s life. He had fallen from his horse on a drunken evening and endured the entire wet and windy night, before he was found the next morning. He died soon after at Fort Sill hospital.
#4. Geronimo Was Hated By A Lot of Chiricahua Apaches, As Well As Other Native Americans
Although often remembered as a folkloric hero, among a lot of the Chiricahua Apaches Geronimo was a source of great frustration. Many had acted in accordance with the wishes of the American government, yet they were removed from their homes and imprisoned as well. Thus, it was pretty hard not to resent Geronimo and his followers’ resistance. Sam Kenoi, himself a Chiricahua Apache, said of Geronimo, “I know that he and a few others like him were the cause of the death of my mother and many of my relatives who have been pushed around the country as prisoners of war … I know that we would not be in our present trouble if it was not for men like him.”
The dislike of Geronimo stretched further than just the Chricahuas to members of the larger Apache community, such as Bylas, chief of the Eastern White Mountain Apache band, who despised Geronimo’s often bloodthirsty behaviour.
One particularly deplorable incident became known as the Stevens Ranch massacre. Geronimo’s band had ridden on to the land of a family of sheep herders and had promised not to kill anyone, so long as they could feast on their livestock.
Although some of his own men pleaded with Geronimo, he reneged on the promise and oversaw the murder of several of the Mexican workers at the ranch, including Mestas Stevens, his wife, and two of his children. Geronimo felt such actions were necessary to protect information pertaining to his band’s location leaking back to U.S. and/or Mexican forces. His actions, however, influenced the general perception of all Apache people and eventually even those who had actively pursued Geronimo as scouts for the U.S. Army were punished as if accomplices.
#3. Geronimo Converted to Christianity
Many Apaches held Geronimo in great reverence for his shamanic abilities, but in his later years he would sometimes claim a greater strength of belief in Christianity. Speaking about his conversion, Geronimo said, “I have heard the teachings of the white man’s religion, and in many respects believe it to be better than the religion of my fathers … I am not ashamed to be a Christian … I have advised all of my people who are not Christians, to study that religion, because it seems to me the best religion in enabling one to live right.”
How sincere Geronimo’s conversion was is often disputed. He never dismissed his original beliefs and was kicked out of his church, allegedly for habitual gambling. It’s quite possible that Geronimo, being held captive in a Christian society, felt that superficial cultural capitulation was a necessary compromise. If his captors believed him to have adopted their way of life, he would no longer be a threat to them and perhaps then could be allowed to return to his homeland.
#2. Geronimo Made the Most Money of His Life Selling His Autograph
By the time of Geronimo’s capture in 1886, he was famous throughout the United States. This was largely due to a multitude of violent acts attributed to him. However, the American Indian Wars were winding down and where Geronimo’s presence had once terrified the public, now he was welcomed nostalgically as a crumbling artefact of American history. People were excited at the chance to be in his presence.
During his captivity, Geronimo learnt how to write his name – regularly selling his autograph for 25¢. Speaking of his time at the World’s Fair, Geronimo said, “I often made as much as $2 a day, and when I returned I had plenty of money – more than I had ever owned before.”
The Geronimo brand was strong. Many Native Americans outsourced their products, such as beads, bows and arrows, and walking sticks to Geronimo, knowing that his name attached to any product meant it could be sold for a higher price. Geronimo would also sell the buttons off his coat, plucking them off for punters and then sewing new ones on to repeat the process.
#1. Geronimo Took Part in Teddy Roosevelt’s Presidential Inauguration Parade
In 1905, a year after his World’s Fair appearance, a captive Geronimo made another high-visibility public appearance, participating in the procession ceremony for Teddy Roosevelt’s second term in office. Geronimo rode on horseback, along with five other prominent captive Native American leaders.
Their inclusion in the parade was a conscious effort by the Roosevelt administration to show their ability to tame and civilise even the wildest of men. The brutal American Indian Wars were drawing to a close and the American public no longer had to fear. The enemy was beaten into the dust. These six were the proof.
Roosevelt applauded the leaders as they rode past. Not everyone was keen on the display. Inaugural committee member Woodworth Chum directly questioned Roosevelt, asking, “Why did you select Geronimo to march in your parade, Mr. President? He is the greatest single-handed murderer in American history.” Roosevelt simply replied, “I wanted to give the people a good show.”
After the parade, Geronimo and the other five leaders were allowed to visit Roosevelt in his office. Geronimo used the time to plead for his release and the release of his fellow Chiricahua Apache prisoners of war at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. They had surrendered to U.S. forces in 1886, on the condition that they would eventually be allowed to return to their homes in and around Arizona. The agreement was swiftly revised.
Roosevelt responded sternly to Geronimo’s plea, saying, “When you lived in Arizona, you had a bad heart and killed many of my people … I cannot grant the request you make for yet awhile. We will have to wait and see how you act.”
As he was ushered out, an exasperated Geronimo was told to send whatever else he had to say in writing. Geronimo and the Fort Sill prisoners of war never returned home.