In the summer of 1886, the legendary Apache medicine man and guerrilla warrior Geronimo was being pursued across hostile desert terrain by nearly a quarter of the standing United States Army. Geronimo had reneged on yet another surrender—one of his favorite ploys—and was on the run with a small band of holdouts in northern Mexico while an estimated 5,000 American troops and 3,000 Mexican soldiers sought his capture.
Geronimo was believed by the Chiricahua to possess not only the traditional powers of healing, but also to be supernaturally protected against enemy attack. And he lived up to his larger-than-life persona: For 25 years Geronimo eluded capture even as his infamy made him the primary target of American and Mexican troops and the subject of countless colorful newspaper reports.
The Army’s all-out surge for Geronimo in 1886 was an attempt to finally end the drawn-out, 25-year war with the Chiricahua Apache of the American Southwest. For centuries, the Chiricahua had occupied tribal lands stretching across much of modern-day Arizona and New Mexico, plus the northern Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua. But with the end of the Mexican-American War in 1854, the U.S. acquired thousands of square miles of Chiricahua tribal land, and with it came soldiers and white settlers.
Violent clashes between Apache and white interlopers were common in the mid-19th century, but the tipping point was the Bascom Affair, when Apache raiders kidnapped a young boy and the bungled negotiations for his release escalated into atrocities committed on both sides. The Apache Wars officially began in 1862 when Cochise, in retaliation for the Bascom Affair, ambushed a Union garrison at the Battle of Apache Pass.
Supernatural Powers Attributed to Geronimo
Geronimo was at that battle, but he wasn’t a chief like Cochise—he was a medicine man who seemed impervious to enemy arrows and bullets. This supernatural gift was allegedly bestowed upon Geronimo by the god Ussen after Geronimo’s wife and young children were murdered by Mexican soldiers. Praying in mourning atop Bowie Peak, Geronimo heard Ussen’s voice on the wind, saying, “You will never die in battle, nor will you die by gun. I will guide your arrows.”
When an artist came to paint Geronimo’s portrait near the end of his life, the painter claimed that the Apache warrior’s body was riddled with as many as 50 bullet scars, although Geronimo’s autobiography says he was wounded in battle only eight times.
Among the powers Geronimo was rumored to possess was the ability to intuit the future, to see faraway events as they happened, to slow arrows and even to stop time itself.
Stories passed down from Chiricahua warriors tell of Geronimo sitting up suddenly at camp one night in the Sierra Madre mountains and proclaiming that their compatriots 120 miles away were being attacked by U.S. soldiers. Another time, when Geronimo and a band of 60 men were sneaking across the border for a dawn raid on the San Carlos reservation, Geronimo began to sing.
“He wanted morning to break after we had climbed over a mountain, so that the enemy couldn’t see us,” reported a Chiricahua warrior. “So Geronimo sang, and the night remained for two or three hours longer.”
The Chiricahua: Expert at Raids—and Survival
There are, of course, more earthly explanations for how Geronimo eluded capture for 25 years even as his infamy made him the primary target of American and Mexican troops and the subject of countless colorful newspaper reports.
“The Chiricahua were fighting in their homeland,” says Amy Cassidy, a National Park Service guide at the Fort Bowie National Historic Site in Arizona. “They were intimately familiar with this landscape and were able to evade the army in a lot of ways.”
Throughout their long history in the Southwest, the Chiricahua were nomadic hunter-gatherers who were well-accustomed to the forbidding terrain and life on the move. They lived in small matriarchal bands, hunting jackrabbit, deer and coyote, and sleeping in temporary dome-shaped shelters called wickiups.
Raiding was integral to Chiricahua survival and an accepted part of Apache culture. When soldiers and settlers moved into Chiricahua territory, the Apache would raid for supplies, cattle, horses and occasional prisoners. To the white men intent on westward expansion, the Apache were a scourge. Mexican ranchers thought Geronimo was the Devil himself, sent to punish them for their sins.
While many U.S. army commanders wanted to wipe out the Apache for good, others began to respect their enemy. General George Crook, a famed “Indian hunter” who convinced Geronimo to surrender in March of 1886 only to let the Apache warrior escape under the cover of darkness, knew that the Chiricahua could easily outwit and outlast his men.
“Acuteness of sense, perfect physical condition, absolute knowledge of locality, almost absolute ability to persevere from danger,” said Crook of the Chiricachua. “We have before us the tiger of the human species.”
That’s why Crook hired Apache scouts, including Chiricahua, to track down Geronimo for him. But Geronimo still managed to slip out of the grasp of the U.S. and Mexican armies again and again.
For one thing, Geronimo and the Chiricahua had a different relationship with horses than their white pursuers or even other Native American tribes like the Plains Indians.
“The Apache used horses,” says Cassidy, “but horses were a mode of transportation as well as a food source.”
When Geronimo was being pursued by Crook’s men into Mexico, he would literally run his horses to death covering as many as 70 miles of rough terrain in a single day. The dead horses would then be butchered for their meat and new mounts would be stolen from Mexican ranchers and cavalry posts.
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Geronimo and the Chiricahua were accomplished horse thieves. According to an 1883 article in the Daily Democrat, headlined “The Wily Apaches,” Geronimo and his chief Juh made off with 2,000 horses in a series of raids, including 60 Mexican cavalry horses. “The Apaches have out-generalled the officers in command at Casar Grandes,” reads the report, “Their maneuvers have been most skillfully executed.”
Geronimo's Many Escapes From Capture
A second advantage for Geronimo was his liberal interpretation of the term surrender. When Crook finally tracked Geronimo in 1883, the aging Apache warrior claimed to have grown tired of the chase and agreed to terms of surrender. Crook gave Geronimo “two moons” to gather his men and families and report to the San Carlos Reservation. Geronimo kept his word (almost a year later) and deigned to live at San Carlos and later Turkey Creek.
But Geronimo and other Apache leaders like Nana and Naiche soon chafed under reservation captivity in which their traditional raiding was replaced with farming, and their favorite beverage, a corn-based alcoholic brew called tiswin, was outlawed. So they left.
When Geronimo wasn’t escaping captivity or doubling back on a surrender, he was just plain lucky. During that fateful summer of 1886, a Captain Emmett Crawford used Apache scouts to track down Geronimo in Mexico and actually capture the elusive warrior’s horses and equipment. Thinking the jig was up, Geronimo sent word that he and his men would come down the next day to negotiate surrender.
But before Geronimo could give himself up, a band of local Mexican soldiers attacked the U.S. soldiers by mistake and killed Crawford in the process. According to one account, Geronimo watched the conflagration from a nearby hill, laughing.
Geronimo's Life in Captivity
In September 1886, Geronimo did finally surrender, this time for good. The rest of the Chiricahua Apache had been captured and shipped off to Florida, including some of his wives and children. General Nelson Miles promised Geronimo that he would be reunited with his family in Florida, but that promise was ultimately postponed for two years.
Geronimo spent the rest of his life in captivity far from his native lands. He appeared in Wild West shows, snapped photos with tourists for money, and rode in Teddy Roosevelt’s inauguration parade, but never again tasted true freedom. He died in a reservation at Fort Sill, Oklahoma in 1909 at 79 years old.
There is a legend, however, that Geronimo may have managed one final escape. When an army reporter visited the monument to Geronimo at Fort Sill in 1943, he found an elderly Apache man who claimed that not long after Geronimo died, some Chiricahua compatriots removed his body from Fort Sill and spirited it back to the Apache homeland in the rugged desert of the Southwest. Even in death, Geronimo had eluded his captors.