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The Bin Laden of His Day? A New Biography of Geronimo

Hero or murderer? Freedom fighter or terrorist? These questions have haunted the posthumous reputation of Apache warrior Geronimo. Marc Wortman on a new biography about the truth behind the legend, who he says was more like today’s Taliban.

Fast forward to May 2, 2111. On this centennial anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, the United States House of Representatives passed a resolution apologizing for America’s mistreatment of a man who “led his people in a war of self-defense as their homeland was invaded by the citizens and armies … of the United States.” Preposterous! Impossible? Perhaps not so farfetched in light of Congress’s Feb. 17, 2009, resolution honoring the memory, the military prowess, and bravery of Geronimo, the Apache warrior.

That marked an astounding reversal in popular estimation of the man—one on the order of any imagined future apology to bin Laden. At the time of Geronimo’s death The New York Times raged, with the racist language typical of the period’s attitudes toward the native population, “Crafty, bloodthirsty, incredibly cruel and ferocious, he was all his life the worst type of aboriginal American savage.” During his lifetime few white Americans considered Geronimo better than what one army officer called “the worst Indian who ever lived.” Even his fellow Apache tribesmen generally disdained him, one saying, “I have known Geronimo all my life up to his death and have never known anything good about him.” He was “the greatest single mass-murderer in American history,” remarked one U.S. official at the time. That likely remained the case until the attacks of Sept. 11.

Perhaps such bitter memories lay behind the decision to twin bin Laden and Geronimo in the SEAL team raid on bin Laden’s Pakistan compound which climaxed when word came of the killing of bin Laden, codenamed Geronimo, with the relayed message, “Geronimo KIA.”

The real Geronimo was never killed-in-action. He died far less gloriously. In February 1909, at age 79, he toppled drunk from his saddle at Fort Sill, Okla. That was where he spent the last two decades of his life sequestered in exile living as a rancher, sometime U.S. Army scout, and tourist attraction. He lay passed out on the cold ground overnight and developed pneumonia. Shortly before dying he supposedly summoned his nephew to his bedside and whispered, “I never should have surrendered.” But he did.

It’s the legend of the man who fought on and on that has come down to us. It’s the legend that Robert M. Utley, the longtime former chief historian of the National Park Service, aims to kill off in his new biography, Geronimo. Utley clearly does not like the legend that halos Geronimo’s life.

Utley is widely regarded as dean of Western American historians, having written nearly 20 books on the 19th-century Western frontier, particularly the clash between advancing American settlement and rooted Native populations. He has read virtually everything written about Geronimo and produced a highly factual, easy-to-read biography designed to separate the man Geronimo from the legendary figure who, he writes, “has come down in recent history as the valiant Apache fighting for his homeland.” Utley is out to disabuse readers of the notion that, as the House of Representatives proudly proclaimed, Geronimo battled for “the defense of his homeland, his people, and Apache ways of life.” Utley writes, “The image persists though demonstrably untrue.”

His biography sometimes lacks the raw drama of Geronimo’s life, which was lived until his final surrender in 1886 at almost constant war within the vast and harsh mountain and desert landscapes of the borderlands between the U.S. territories of Arizona and New Mexico and the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua. That warred-over political geography lie at the heart of man and legend—and the nomadic Apache world. But Utley puts to rest any latter-day romantic notions about a native rebel engaged in a heroic but inevitably losing struggle against the expansionist forces of the modern world encroaching on his fixed ancestral homeland. He was no Sitting Bull, but instead more like the Taliban warriors of today. (The study of few prior wars would have served the American military better than the history of this region’s wars before invading Afghanistan.)

That is not to say that Geronimo did not fight for a cause that was very real to him. His people were ruthlessly persecuted, often murdered, and women and children thrown into slavery. They were lied to, deceived, and frequently swindled. Eventually the U.S. Army forced all the Apache people onto reservations that showed American ignorance of their culture and utter indifference to their health and well-being.

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‘Geronimo’ by Robert M. Utley. 348 pp. Yale University Press. $30. ()

The real Geronimo—Goyahkla, his given name—was born in 1829 (by some accounts 1823) near the Gila River’s headwaters. Often mistakenly called a chief, Geronimo’s grandfather was Mahko, a chief of the Bedonkohe Apache band. He grew up listening to tales of Mahko’s wars against the Mexicans—then under Spanish rule. Not long after the Spanish conquistadores explored the region for gold, they began snatching Apaches and other natives as slaves. War became a way of life in the colonial and then Mexican frontier region, as Mexicans massacred Apaches and stole away women and children, Apaches raided Spanish and then Mexican settlements and lived off the plunder. The Mexican military counterattacked, and Apaches wreaked bloody vengeance. The cycle of violence went on for three centuries.

The U.S. stepped into the borderland fight when it acquired the last bit of American Southwestern frontier via the Gadsden Purchase in 1854. With the discovery of silver and copper reserves in the region, an American flood spilled over Apacheria. Centuries of violence between Mexican and Apache inevitably splashed Americans with blood.

Short, stout, strong, an exceptional marksman, gifted with a keen sense of guerilla military tactics, Geronimo became a warrior by age 17 and joined the frequent raids on settlements in Sonora and Chihuahua. “Raid,” finds Utley, “seems an inadequate word to describe what happened when a town, ranch, freight train, or traveler became victims of a raid. Besides plunder, raiders butchered people, often in the most brutal fashion. Thirty years of such barbaric slaughter, often involving torture and mutilation, form a major characteristic of Geronimo’s persona.”

Geronimo was the last renegade, the last man to defy the continent-straddling power of the American nation.

He adds two points: “Barbarous as raiding was, however, Apaches almost never scalped or raped,” which the Mexican army and militias—whose troops received government bounties for Indian scalps—did with particular glee.

Geronimo became an Apache warrior leader who won his followers through a combination of his success as a raider—marked by an uncanny ability the Apaches termed “Power” to predict ambush and avoid death and capture and to heal wounds—and also his willingness to coerce his fellow Apaches to go on the warpath—sometimes at the muzzle of his rifle. “Geronimo’s motives are rarely understandable,” writes Utley, who insists that “contradiction and complexity” are at the heart of the man.

In fact, I think his motives and actions—if sometimes cowardly and sometimes lionhearted, sometimes barbarous and sometimes deeply compassionate—are entirely clear. He grew to manhood in a warrior and raiding society immersed in centuries of conflict with Spanish settlers. He lived in an Apache tribal culture in which blood family and its extension as clan, or band, held supreme importance. Mexicans gave him all the motivation he needed. While Geronimo and the Apaches could in fact claim virtually no territory of Mexico as homeland, Mexico became the spiritual homeland for his hatred.

The “special vehemence” that Geronimo brought to raids there could be dated almost precisely to a night in 1851. While off drinking with other tribesmen outside Janos, in Sonora, Geronimo and the other men returned to their encampment to discover scores of elderly, women, and children murdered or stolen away into slavery by Mexican irregulars. Among the mutilated dead lay Geronimo’s beloved first wife, their three small children, and his mother. Those were just the first of his many wives and children killed in such massacres and battles. Later he recounted that for the rest of his life “my heart would ache for revenge against Mexico.”

So he took his revenge. In Geronimo’s highly readable and generally reliable autobiography, he readily admitted he killed “many” people. “I did not count them,” he said. “Some of them were not worth counting.” Judging from Utley’s chronicle, surely they numbered in the hundreds.

With post–Civil War U.S. leaders promising Mexico a halt to Apache cross-border raids and responding to American settler demands for protection, the federal government determined to transfer the Apaches onto reservation lands. After centuries of moving about at will, taking what they wanted, and fighting those who resisted, reservation life nonetheless proved palatable for some Apaches. Not for the restless Geronimo.

Three times he went off the reservation. Finally in May of 1885, he led 42 warriors and about 90 women and children, weighted down by infants and babies and lacking any dependable source of food, clothing, or shelter, into Mexico. Some 5,000 well-supplied U.S. Army cavalry troops and their 500 enlisted Apache Scouts hunted them, along with 3,000 Mexican troops and some 1,000 scalp bounty hunters. With a quarter of the entire U.S. Army in hot pursuit, Geronimo drove, hid, and fed his people for a year and a half through thousands of miles of desert where summer temperatures reached a killing 120 degrees and over craggy, snow-covered peaks. The Army chased; the Apaches scattered and vanished, only to reassemble as if by magic for more raids. For much of that time, many of the region’s Mexican and American settlers lived in terror or fled for safety. That outbreak stands as an unmatched record of resistance in modern military history.

After Geronimo’s surrender, which he mistakenly believed would result in his eventual return with his family to his former hunting land along the Arizona–New Mexico border, he was sent into exile in Florida and Alabama. Eventually he and his people were remanded to Fort Sill where he would remain free to move about but not leave without permission.

Even in Geronimo’s lifetime, Americans had already begun the process of turning him into a celebrity. People came from far and wide to photograph the defanged tiger in his Fort Sill home. The Army permitted him to tour as an attraction with Wild West shows and sent him off to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair for gawkers at the exposition’s “human zoo.” The following year, President Theodore Roosevelt the trophy hunter paraded Geronimo in full chieftain’s regalia down Pennsylvania Avenue at his inauguration.

Geronimo was the last renegade, the last man to defy the continent-straddling power of the American nation. He became a human landmark, a trophy, and a symbol. Geronimo’s importance to American culture has only grown in the century since his death. Worldwide he is one of the most recognized American historic figures, up there with George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln.

A few years ago, I reported on a story related to Geronimo’s afterlife, the purported theft of his skull from his Fort Sill tomb by a group of soldiers stationed there during World War I. They included future U.S. Sen. Prescott Bush, the father of President George H. W. Bush and grandfather of President George W. Bush. While Prescott Bush and the other grave robbers in fact very likely took the wrong skull, that marked a macabre turn in the clash of civilizations, one that speaks worlds about America’s supposedly civilizing force.

Remarkably, few Apaches, except the ones intent on exploiting his legend, care about the fate of Geronimo’s bones or even his legend. My reporting took me to meet with two of Geronimo’s great-grandsons. Both live on New Mexico’s Mescalero Apache reservation where today visitors can ski on a sacred mountain and gamble, golf and dine in a beautiful resort festooned with Apache art. Both men take deep pride in their famous forebear’s strength and power. Yet neither expressed any interest in the legend that so many people want to ascribe to the man.

Utley’s deeply researched and carefully written book lacks the heart-pounding excitement that some authors bring to the colorful, violent history of the West. For those who think that historic reality matters, though, Geronimo shines a harsh, clear light that cuts through the legend to reveal who this fighting man really was and how American might ended his warrior ways.