He was born on June 16, 1829 to the Chiricahua Apache, in the Mexican-occupied territory of Bedonkoheland, in modern-day New Mexico. One of eight brothers and sisters, he was called by the singularly forgettable name “Goyahkla”, translating as “one who yawns”.
Much has been written of the conflict between Natives and American settlers, but that story has little to compare with the level of distrust and mutual butchery which took place between Mexico and the Apache.
First contact between the Crown of Castile and the roving bands of Apache they called Querechos, took place in the Texas panhandle, in 1541.
Initial relations were friendly, but 17th century Spanish slave raids were met by Apache attacks on Spanish and Pueblo settlements, in New Mexico
By 1685, several bands of Apache were in open conflict with the polity which, in 1821, would become known as the United States of Mexico. Attacks and counter attacks were commonplace, as Presidios – Spanish fortresses – dotted the landscape of Sonora, Chihuahua and Fronteras. 5,000 Mexicans died in Apache raids between 1820 and 1835 alone.
Over 100 Mexican settlements were destroyed in that time. The Mexican government placed a bounty on Apache scalps in 1835, the year that Goyahkla turned 6.
Goyahkla married Alope of the Nedni-Chiricahua band of Apache when he was 17. Together they had three children. On March 6, 1858, a company of 400 Mexican soldiers led by Colonel Jose Maria Carrasco attacked the native camp as the men were in town, trading. Goyahkla came back to find his wife, children, and his mother, murdered.
He swore that he would hate the Mexicans for the rest of his life.
Chief Mangas Coloradas sent him to Cochise’ band to help exact retribution on the Mexicans. It was here that Goyahkla earned a name that was anything but forgettable.
Ignoring a hail of bullets, he repeatedly attacked the soldiers with a knife, killing so many that they began to call out to Saint Jerome for protection. The Spanish name for the 4th century Saint was often the last word to leave their lips: “Geronimo”.
In 1873, the Mexican government and the Apache came to peace terms at one point, near Casa Grande. Terms had already been agreed upon when Mexican soldiers plied the Apaches with Mezcal. Soon, soldiers began murdering intoxicated Indians, killing 20 and capturing many more before the survivors fled into the mountains.
Geronimo would marry eight more times, but most of his life was spent at war with Mexico, and later with the United States. According to National Geographic, he and his band of 16 warriors slaughtered 500 to 600 Mexicans in their last five months alone.
By the end of his military career, Geronimo was “the worst Indian who ever lived”, according to the white settlers. He and his band of 38 men, women and children evaded thousands of Mexican and US soldiers. Geronimo was captured on this day in 1886, by Civil War veteran and Westminster, Massachusetts native, General Nelson Miles. With the capture of Geronimo, the last of the major US-Indian wars had come to an end.
Geronimo became a celebrity in his old age, marching in Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade in 1905. He converted to Christianity and appeared in county fairs and Wild West shows around the country.
In his 1909 memoirs, Geronimo wrote of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair: “I am glad I went to the Fair. I saw many interesting things and learned much of the white people. 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”.
Geronimo was thrown from a horse in February 1909, and contracted pneumonia after a long, cold night on the ground. He confessed on his deathbed that he regretted his decision to surrender. His last words were to his nephew, when he said “I should have never surrendered. I should have fought until I was the last man alive”.