- Historic Sites
It took five thousand American troopers a year and a half to run down the great Apache raider and his lethal band. They did it by tough persistence and skill—or was it guile?
June 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 4
No part of the Geronimo saga has been more romanticized for commercial consumption than the background of the outbreak of 1885, after the Chiricahuas had been on the reservation for over a year. A recent movie, for instance, supplied the Apache leader with a set of motives worthy of Sitting Bull: there were brutal army officers, scenes of public humiliation, and outrageous land grabs. The fact is that in officers like Crook, Bourke, Crawford, and Davis, the Apaches were extraordinarily lucky. Moreover, the Chiricahuas, at least, got good land: they were taken up above San Carlos to Turkey Creek, where there was plenty of water, a pleasant pine forest, and abundant game. True it was that the life of the farmer, to which Britton Davis reluctantly introduced them—for he was himself a sportsman by nature—was contrary to their long-established habits, and few of them took to it with any grace. Davis tells how, in the spring of 1885 shortly before Geronimo’s last escape from the reservation, he was invited to view the chief’s “farm.” “When I arrived at the section of river bottom that had been allotted to him and his band he was sitting on a rail in the shade of a tree with one of his wives fanning him. The other two were hoeing a quarteracre patch of partially cleared ground, in which a few sickly looking sprouts of corn were struggling for life.”
But what moved a minority—about one-fourth—to the final break from the reservation was not so much what they were obliged to do in their new environment as what they were forbidden to do. As related at the start of this account, the prohibition against tiswin and wife-beating was particularly galling; and for some, including Geronimo and Nana, total abstinence from brigandage was more than they could bear. Davis felt that Geronimo never ceased to brood over the fact that “his” herd of cattle had been taken from him when he came in from Mexico. It was confiscation of rightful booty, from the Apache standpoint, and it engendered in Geronimo a wrath almost equal to that of Achilles, who, it will be remembered, retired to sulk in his tent for a similar reason at the beginning of the Trojan War.
Geronimo, together with Nana, Naiche, and something above a hundred of their compatriots, rode off from Turkey Creek on May 17, 1885, with Lieutenant Davis and his Apache scouts in pursuit. Their ultimate surrender took place on September 4, 1886. An odd thing about the long campaign which led to that surrender is that despite the tremendous national interest it aroused, most of its details are less than stirring. The truly exciting days of Apache-American warfare were already in the past: the odds were now much too heavy against the Indians, and their survival depended almost entirely on their skill at evasion. In this, however, Geronimo proved himself to be one of the virtuosos of all time. “It is senseless to fight when you cannot hope to win,” the old warrior observed to an interviewer twenty years later, when he had become a celebrated captive. He knew, in 1885-86, that “winning” was out of the question—but he soon demonstrated that a fugitive freedom could be prolonged over an astonishing length of time.
The meager number of the renegades, while it made pitched battle unprofitable, greatly facilitated fast movement and effective concealment. They rode their horses at a killing pace, and then got fresh mounts by stealing them from the nearest ranch; the exhausted animals, after a quick butchering job, served as food. By ranging over eighty thousand square miles of exceedingly difficult terrain that he knew probably better than any man living, Geronimo continually frustrated pursuit by many separate detachments of American and Mexican troops. Sometimes, by the most dogged and strenuous effort, some of Crook’s scouts would catch up with the hostiles; but the typical result was the capture of a few ponies and camp supplies and possibly a couple of women and children. The rest of the quarry vanished into the mountains, as Lieutenant Davis put it with much exasperation, “like quail when the hawk dives.” Whenever they camped, Geronimo designated a rendezvous point forty or fifty miles away: if an attack came, the Apaches broke up quickly into groups of two or three, or even took individual flight, and by as many different routes converged upon the chosen spot a day or two later.
The military obstacles were very hard for anyone not actually in the field to understand. Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan, now the commanding general of the Army, and a West Point contemporary of General Crook’s, felt both his understanding and his patience dwindling as the months went by and as journalistic agitation for the capture of Geronimo steadily ballooned. Even President Cleveland, responding to political pressure, was irritably anxious to see the Apache gadfly disposed of—preferably, he said, by hanging, which would certainly have been most satisfactory to the enraged citizens of Arizona and New Mexico. If that was impossible, nearly everyone in government circles agreed, the thing to do was send all the Chiricahuas to some safe place in the East the minute they could be rounded up.