Geronimo!

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The Lieutenant ordered the scouts to ground arms while he went into his tent for extra ammunition to issue before they took up the pursuit. Dusk was coming on, and he would have to light a lamp in the tent —an easy mark for a sniper. He stationed Chato and another Apache sergeant at either side of the tent fly, facing the company.

“Shoot the first man who raises his gun from the ground,” Davis ordered. He went into the tent and lit the lamp. At that moment three Apache scouts slipped from the formation and disappeared quickly into the darkening brush—but that was all. Very shortly the rest of the company was on the march, the best trailers in the outfit tracking the fugitives’ hoofmarks slowly but surely under the Arizona stars. But Geronimo and Nana had mounted their people on good horses, and by now were oft to a long head start.

Thus began what was in some ways the most extraordinary Indian campaign in the history of the West. Lieutenant Davis himself, looking back many years later, summed it up as succinctly as anyone ever has, and with a proper degree of wonder: In this campaign thirty-five men and eight half-grown or older boys, encumbered with the care and sustenance of 101 women and children, with no base of supplies and no means of waging war or of obtaining food or transportation other than what they could take from their enemies, maintained themselves for eighteen months in a country two hundred by four hundred miles in extent, against five thousand troops, regulars and irregulars, five hundred Indian auxiliaries of these troops, and an unknown number of civilians.

That terse statement goes far to explain the fact that, of all American Indian leaders, Geronimo may well be the most famous. It is nevertheless a curious fact, for he was not a man of great stature—a “patriot chief,” like Tecumseh, Crazy Horse, or Chief Joseph, leading whole tribes in a noble but hopeless stand against the rape of their homeland. Nothing in Geronimo’s record suggests that he was capable of deep thought or feeling; nor was he a chief by reason of family precedent. He became the leader of a small band of Apache raiders much the way a gangster takes over a “mob”: by hard force of personality and skill in conducting field operations.

But when it came to making a mark in history, therewas much in Geronimo’s favor. It was his fortune to be the last of a succession of Apache leaders who for well over a hundred years terrorized Mexico and the Southwest with harrowing raids from their mountain hide-outs. His depredations of 1885-86 were committed when Arizona and New Mexico were strenuously working to emerge from the raw frontier and become a reasonably civilized part of America. Miners, ranchers, and farmers clamored for protection; territorial newspapers constantly upbraided the Army for its failure to destroy this last Apache menace, and the territorial governors again and again petitioned Washington to take more drastic steps. By the autumn of 1885 the whole country was aware that large segments of the United States and Mexican armies were unable to catch one fugitive remnant of Apache desperadoes, and the pursuit began to take on the fascination of a particularly dangerous fox hunt.

The fox, moreover, had an intriguing name. It seems doubtful that Geronimo would have become a semilegendary figure if he had been widely known by his Apache name, which was Goyakla—“the Yawner.” No one can imagine World War II paratroopers shouting “Goyakla!” as a war cry when they plunged from airplanes; nor could they have aroused much adrenaline with such a name as Nana. But “Geronimo!” rolls off the tongue with satisfactory resonance and impact; for obscure linguistic reasons it carries intimations of excitement.•

•In Spanish, the name was pronounced Heronimo; but the Americanized form became common in Geronimo’s own lifetime.

There was, of course, a long and sensational historical background for the popular image of the Apache raider. Unlike other southwestern tribes—the Navahos, for instance, or the Pueblos—the Apaches had made only a truculent adjustment to the arrival of Western civilization. They seemed disdainfully uninterested in settling down to weave blankets, raise sheep, or farm. A relatively primitive tribe with nomadic habits, they lived in small, semi-independent bands, in the simplest kind of improvised shelters—brush “wikiups,” covered with whatever was handy—which would have looked uninhabitable to the Plains Indians with their proud buffalo-hide tepees. In summer the Apaches climbed into the high mountain parks of the Rockies and the Sierra Madres: in winter they came down to the warmer lands along the banks of the rivers. They ate almost anything. Venison, beef, or horseflesh was fine when they could get it easily; otherwise jack rabbits or even field rats were meat to them, supplemented by mescal, fruit of the cactus, sunflower seeds, acorns, berries, and nuts.