He was one of the most famous prisoners of war and even had an audience with President Teddy Roosevelt. The Apache chief and medicine man was also one of the most famous hold-outs against US expansionism and manifest destiny.
His exact date of birth is officially unknown. However, many historians believe Goyaale (one who yawns) was born on June 16, 1829 somewhere in the No-Doyohn Canyon, near the Gila River, in what was then Mexico and is now Arizona. He was the fourth child in a family of four boys and four girls. Legend says that the young Goyaale was an especially talented hunter.
Goyaale belonged to the smallest band of the Chiricahua tribe of Apaches, called the Bedonkohe. The 8,000 strong band was frequently on the defensive against Comanches, Navajo, and Mexican nationals. To survive, Apaches often raided their neighbors. As a result, the Mexican government placed bounties on Apache scalps, but this threat meant little to to the teenaged Goyaale.
By the age of 17, he had already conducted four successful raids. At about the same time period, Goyaale fell in love with and married Alope. The couple soon had three children together.
In 1851, while Goyaale and his warriors were away on a trading trip, Mexican soldiers attacked his camp. After word of the violence reached the Bedonkohe men, Goyaale quietly returned home only to discover that Alope, the three children, and his mother had all been killed. As was the tradition of his tribe, Goyaale burned all of his family’s belongings and isolated himself from his band to bereave the deaths of the family and to conduct a vision quest. It was at this time that a spirit voice promised, “No gun will ever kill you, I will take the bullets from the guns of the Mexicans, and I will guide your arrows.”
With his new found boost in morale and energized by the spirit of revenge, Goyaale organized a force of 200 warriors to hunt down the Mexican soldiers who murdered his family. This was the first of a decade-long string of vengence attacks against the Mexican government.
Following the US defeat of Mexico, after the end of the Mexican-American War, the United States acquired the northern half of Mexico, including tribal lands belonging to the Apache people.
Tensions soon escalated between the Apaches and the Americans. Hostilities were fueled even more after the discovery of gold and silver in that part of the continent. This meant that treasure seekers and settlers flooded into Apache lands. In response, Apache bands escalated their attacks by conducting brutal ambushes on wagon trains and stagecoaches.
After ten years of warfare, Coyaale’s father-in-law, Chiricahua leader, Cochise, disappointed Geronimo by calling a truce with the Americans. Chochise agreed to settle his people on a US Indian reservation. The reservation was located on especially holy Apache territory. In June of 1874, Cochise died. Soon, the federal government reneged on its treaty with the Chiricahua. The native Americans were relocated north, in order that settlers could occupy Apache lands.
The treaty violation incensed Geronimo to the point that he renewed his fight against American forces. His raiding parties conducted attacks for the next three years until he was finally captured and taken to the San Carlos Apache Reservation. Geronimo simmered in anger there, until his escape in September of 1881.
Once they were free, Geronimo and his small band of Chiricahua warriors avoided capture by US and Mexican troops. The fugitive Apaches shot their way across the Southwest. It was at this time that Geronimo had become a media legend.
Newspapers of the day closely reported on the US Army pursuit. One time, almost one-fourth of the US Army was assigned to the capture of Geronimo. For about five years, Geronimo’s band fought in, what turned out to be, the last of the Indian wars in the United States.
After an initial surrender to General George Crook in March of 1886, in Sonora, Mexico. Geronimo feared that he might be murdered once they crossed the border. So, Geronimo and a small group escaped into the Sierra Madra area.
Finally, at a conference on September 3, 1886, General Nelson Miles met at a conference at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona with Geronimo. The promise was made that after an undetermined length of exile in Florida that Geronimo and his followers could again return to Arizona.
In subsequent years, Geronimo’s fame and charisma made him a favorite for appearances at fairs and gatherings. He almost stole the show when he appeared in President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 inaugural parade.
On February 11, 1909, the 79-year-old Geronimo was thrown from his horse while riding home, near Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He managed to survive the night of cold weather. His health was imperiled by the cold air when a friend discovered him the next day. The old warrior breathed his last breath on February 17th. Geronimo died without ever seeing his beloved homelands again.
The Blue Jay of Happiness thinks of the freedom that Geronimo often said he loved. “I was born on the prairies where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures.”