Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Geronimo, the last Indian hero

Five hours before the D Day amphibious assault began, members of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment jumped from airplanes into enemy held territory with a mission to destroy the German military infrastructure. As they leaped, they yelled, "Geronimo!"

This was a tribute to the last and perhaps best Indian hero. It took a quarter of the American Army and most of the Mexican one as well to hunt down and capture Geronimo for the fifth and final time in 1886. Within two decades he would go from Public Enemy No. 1 to a hero who marched in President Theodore Roosevelt's inauguration parade.
Readers may have noticed this series includes no gangsters. There is nothing exceptional about theft, extortion and murder. The criminal mind is generally below average, not above. And those who have high intelligence should no better.

But far from being a criminal, Geronimo was a man wronged who was trying to protect his family. If we are to take the Second Amendment's right to self-defense seriously, we must be sympathetic to this man.

Born on June 16, 1829, in the middle of a nearly barren place in what is now Arizona, Geronimo was like the rest of his tribe a nomadic subsistence farmer and hunter. The tribes occasionally raided one another, both out of hunger and vengeance. His brother-in-law, Juh, was the tribal leader but because of a speech impediment, Geronimo was his spokesman,as well as his medicine man. Sometime in the summer of 1858, they went to trade horses for rifles in a Mexican town the Indians called Kas-Ki-Yeh. This was despite a Mexican government bounty on Indian scalps.

When Geronimo and the rest returned home, they found that Mexican miners had massacred their tribe, killing most of the women and children, including his mother, his wife and his three small children. He was 29.

"There were no lights in camp, so without being noticed I silently turned away and stood by the river. How long I stood there I do not know, but when I saw the warriors arranging for a council I took my place. That night I did not give my vote for or against any measure; but it was decided that as there were only eighty warriors left, and as we were without arms or supplies, and were furthermore surrounded by the Mexicans far inside their own territory, we could not hope to fight successfully. So our chief, Mangus-Colorado, gave the order to start at once in perfect silence for our homes in Arizona, leaving the dead upon the field," Geronimo recalled in his 1907 autobiography.

But vengeance would be his. Once the initial shock subsided, anger rose. His tribe of Apaches met with others. At a council led by Cochise, Geronimo rose and spoke. "Kinsman, you have heard what the Mexicans have recently done without cause. You are my relatives- - uncles, cousins, brothers. We are men the same as the Mexicans are--we can do to them what they have done to us. Let us go forward and trail them- - I will lead you to their city -- we will attack them in their homes. I will fight in the front of the battle -- I only ask you to follow me to avenge this wrong done by these Mexicans -- will you come? It is well -- you will all come.

"Remember the rule in war -- men may return or they may be killed. If any of these young men are killed I want no blame from their kinsmen, for they themselves have chosen to go. If I am killed no one need mourn for me. My people have all been killed in that country, and I, too, will die if need be."

He spoke with other Apache tribes. The peaceful farmer and hunter was about to become a military leader. What would follow was 15 years of war with both sides raiding peaceful settlements. The atrocities committed by and against the Apache were many. The Mexican and American militaries had the advantage of traveling without women and children. The Apache had no safe place for their wives and children, but the Indians could raid and retreat into the mountains and forage to remain alive. Finally, the Apache reached an agreement with the Mexican government in 1873 called the Treaty of Casa Grande. It was quickly followed by the Casa Grande Massacre, as Mexican soldiers gave mescal to the Indians, and then butchered them while they were intoxicated.

In 1885, at age 56, with his tribe's numbers dwindling, Geronimo surrendered several times only to escape as the Americans reneged on their deal, or in one case, after Americans in Silver City, Nevada, raided an Indian encampment and hung a girl by a meat hook.

In 1886, orders from President Cleveland led to a full out hunt for Geronimo and his band of warriors, women and children. It took 5,000 American soldiers, 3,000 Mexican soldiers and 500 scouts to apprehend him. He and his followers were eventually captured and sent along with other Apaches to Florida. Then they were dispatched to an Army post in Alabama before their final settlement at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

The military kept him under constant guard, even as he neared his 80th birthday. The government considered him a prisoner of war for the rest of his life.

But America's attitude toward Indians transformed dramatically. His capture marked the end of Indian raids, although white massacres would continue. After the Massacre at Wounded Knee, American opinions of Indians went from enemy to idol. Sitting Bull performed in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Shows. President Roosevelt allowed Geronimo to visit the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, which honored the centennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He rode a ferris wheel and sold souvenirs. A year later, he was a guest of the president at his inauguration.

"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. I wish all my people could have attended the Fair," he wrote in his autobiography.

Geronimo died on February 17, 1909, at 79. Fifteen years later, president Coolidge would sign into law the recognition of Indians as American citizens. Sports teams would be named in their honor, including the Washington Redskins. In both World War I and II, Indians would serve their nation by giving messages in their native languages in code.

In 1939, Paramount released a biographical film, "Geronimo." A 6-foot-3, 190-pound 23-year-old soldier from Georgia watched the film. Private Aubrey Eberhardt with with 501st PIR became a paratrooper and began yelling "Geronimo" when he jumped. It caught on. Geronimo was a brave man who, forced to fight, acquitted himself well. Our Airborne soldiers do well by trying to emulate this exceptional American.

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here.


  1. Geronimo shows up in "Flashman And The Redskins".

  2. Geronimo was wronged, but it must be remembered that he too committed atrocities, such as impaling babies on his knife. In his old age he was remorseful for his viciousness, as we should be for the viciousness done against his people. By the way, his captivity at Fort Sill became quite lax. He'd go down to the train station and sell tourists souvenir buttons cut off his jacket. Then in the evening he'd sew on replacement buttons for the next day's suckers.