A Life of Transition

Once called “the wickedest Indian that ever lived,” today the famed Apache warrior is often viewed as “Geronimo the Good.”


"The Apaches are out!"

These words struck fear into even the stoutest of hearts of the settlers living in the southwest in the late 1800s. Perhaps no one person has been both hated for the destruction and death he caused and loved for his fierce defense of his peoples’ homeland than the one most often associated with those words, the Apache war leader, Geronimo. Historian C. L. Sonnichsen said of this "love him or hate him" attitude:

...the two Geronimos have existed side by side almost from the beginning, and they still so exist, but Geronimo the Wicked is barely alive...and Geronimo the Good is having things pretty much his own way.

Today, we instantly recognize Geronimo’s name and likeness. Books, movies, and television pore over the details of his life, sometimes creating or continuing exaggeration or error about his life. The effect, however, is that his name and image conjure up feelings of ferocity and bravery. World War II paratroopers started a still-practiced tradition by yelling "Geronimo" as they leapt from airplanes. Even today, a paratroop unit calls itself the Geronimo Battalion.

Transition marked Geronimo's lifetime. Having never seen a white man during his childhood, Geronimo fiercely fought a losing battle for his people's survival and their right to their homeland in the midst of white settlement. He died, not only having adopted the ways of his white adversaries, but also as their prisoner-of-war.

Once called "the wickedest Indian that ever lived,” the true Geronimo falls somewhere between saint and sinner. Tales of his brutality have followed him since he roamed the wilds of the Southwest and Mexico, holding the territory in a clutch of terror. Even his nephew and closest ally in his later years, Asa Daklugie, told writer Eve Ball in Indeh: An Apache Odyssey, "Towards the end [before the 1886 surrenders, the U.S.] troops just outnumbered his 500 to 1. So they made Geronimo a monster." He then added, "At times he was."

While Geronimo and his fellow Apaches frequently were cruel, atrocities attributed to them just as frequently were exaggerated, often from the anti-Apache hysteria that swept the Southwest during this time. The difficulty arises in trying to separate fact from legend.

Take the story of Al (Arthur Leslie) and Petra Peck, their baby daughter, and Mrs. Peck’s 10-year-old niece, Trini Verdin. When Geronimo and his warriors attacked the Peck ranch, some official accounts contend the Indians repeatedly raped Mrs. Peck and cut off her breasts, then swung her baby by the heels, smashing her head against every wall in the little ranch house. Yet Trini, who saw the attack and was kidnaped by the Apaches, did not report this. The little girl said that an Apache shot her aunt and the baby as Mrs. Peck stepped outside with the baby in her arms.

One erroneous report said Apache beatings left Trini a hunchback for the rest of her life, and some said the Apaches passed Trini from man to man in the band. Yet J. A. Rivera, a Mexican military officer who interviewed her after her rescue, said "From her own indications and obvious innocence in the face of questions put to her by her relatives, we deduced that she was not violated at any time, probably out of respect for her tender age." The Mexicans considered Geronimo one of their worst enemies and they would in no way whitewash such brutalities.

The Apaches themselves often told different versions of a story. In the story of Francesca, Geronimo's "maybe" 10th wife, he says she was about 17 when Mexicans captured her in 1861. Eugene Chihuahua, who claimed her as his grandmother, told writer Eve Ball that Francesca was "in late middle age" when Mexicans captured her, but in another of his versions to Ball, he said she was captured as a child. Events point to her maybe being captured in 1861, but a tombstone said to be hers at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, dates her life from 1861 to 1901. However, Fort Sill records place her death in 1892. The possibility arises, of course, that the grave said to be hers is merely someone else’s.

At President Theodore Roosevelt's inaugural parade, in which Geronimo rode, Daklugie says “we wore only the breechclouts, belts, moccasins, and our medicine hats." It was January, bitterly cold, and pictures of Geronimo at the parade show him warmly wrapped in a blanket.

The spelling and hyphenation of Apache names also pose a problem, probably because many people had to spell them phonetically. One such name is that of Cochise's younger son and the last chief of the free Chiricahua Apaches. The common spelling today is "Naiche," but it is spelled in many records as "Natchez(s)," "Nachez," "Nachite," "Nai-chi-ti," "Nachee," or "Na-chise." In this book you’ll notice that some Apache names are hyphenated, while similar ones are not. The Apache language was not a written one in the time of Geronimo, and on the points of spelling and hyphenation, I’ve trusted particular sources.

Deciphering aging handwritten documents presents another difficulty in spelling. In the case of the principal figure in the Cibecue affair, an Apache also called The Prophet, his name is most often written “Noch-ay-del-klinne.” However, Chuck Collins, author of Apache Nightmare, states that official records spell the third syllable “det” instead of “del.” Because the cross of the "t" appears very faint, he feels that some historian, possibly Charles Lummis or Dan Thrapp, spelled it with an "l" and others followed his lead.

You see the problem?

Stories exist of Geronimo's love of children, and conversely, his brutality to the children of his enemies. (The Apaches loved their children, but on occasion sacrificed their infants if it was believed their deaths would help ensure the survival of the band.) That he killed babies and children is hard to accept, even knowing that later in life he said “I wake up groaning when I remember the helpless little children.”

Although often portrayed as a chief, Geronimo was not; he was a medicine man and war leader. Britton Davis, an Army officer and Geronimo’s adversary, said in his book The Truth About Geronimo, "He had risen to the leadership of a faction of the warriors by sheer courage, determination, and skill as a leader." Juh stuttered and Naiche was shy and retiring, so Geronimo acted as their spokesperson.

Daklugie said, "When Naiche was chief of the Chiricahua, Geronimo continued to direct the fighting but scrupulously required the warriors to render to Naiche the respect due a chief. He acted as leader of war parties, but acted rather in the relationship of general to commander-in-chief."

In this book we bring you 19 tales of this larger than life person. This is not a biography - we have not covered every major event in Geronimo’s life - but rather a series of vignettes divided into three segments: The Family Man, The Warrior, and The Prisoner-of-war.