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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
What Miles’ troopers did succeed in doing—not surprisingly, since there were approximately five thousand of them—was to induce heavy fatigue in Geronimo’s little group. The chief himself was in his late fifties and perhaps decided that it was time to retire from the more athletic activities of his career. Nonetheless, when he finally gave up once and for all, on September 4, 1886, it was a negotiated surrender, and not a capture. Borrowing from the tactical book of General Crook, possibly with some embarrassment, Miles sent a pair of formerly hostile Apaches to seek out Geronimo’s camp and suggest a parley. This was achieved late in August, but only because Lieutenant Charles Gatewood, one of Crook’s best officers and one who knew Geronimo well, agreed to be the intermediary. Miles supplied him with an escort of troopers, but Gatewood knew what he was doing, and made his way to the meeting place, near Fronteras, Mexico, all alone. His offer to Geronimo’s band was simple: “Surrender, and you will be sent with your families to Florida, there to await the decision of the President as to your final disposition. Accept these terms or fight it out to the bitter end.”
Gatewood added something else: that many of their relatives had already been sent East—to Fort Marion, Florida, which the War Department judged to be sufficiently removed from Arizona to prevent further trouble. That news visibly affected the hostiles. They talked it over, and agreed to surrender to General Miles. After an eleven-day march, not as captives but still under arms and merely accompanied by American troops, they arrived at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona, where Miles joined them in a state of nervous excitement. His triumphal hour was near, but he was acutely aware that things could go wrong just at the last moment, as they had for Crook. He had never laid eyes on Geronimo before, and it may be supposed that he faced the famous renegade with intense—and tense—interest.
Geronimo, for his part, seemed to be relaxed, and even managed a humorous thrust at the moment of introduction. “General Miles is your friend,” said the interpreter. The Indian gave Miles a defoliating look. “I never saw him,” he said. “I have been in need of friends. Why has he not been with me?”
Miles had some of his men demonstrate the heliograph to Geronimo, sending a message to Fort Bowie and receiving a reply within minutes. If anything had been lacking to clinch the surrender, that did it, and on September 7, 1886, Miles was able to write to his wife, without undue modesty: “If you had been here you would have seen me riding in over the mountains with Geronimo and Natchez as you saw me ride over the hills and down to the Yellowstone with Chief Joseph. It is a brilliant ending of a difficult problem.”
There were many who thought the ending was not so brilliant, and George Crook was one of them. At Omaha, where he was now in command of the Department of the Platte, he heard that Geronimo and his braves had been sent by train to Fort Pickens, Florida, while their families went to Fort Marion, two hundred miles away. This was an outright violation of the terms of the surrender; and on top of that, 400 Chiricahuas at Fort Apache, who had remained loyal all through Geronimo’s last rampage, were summarily rounded up and sent off to Fort Marion also. Not exempted were many Apache scouts who had served Crook with absolute fidelity, and to the end of his days the General never lost his smouldering indignation at this treatment.
Crook did more than just smoulder. He spent much of his time between 1886 and 1890 endeavoring to win better justice for his former enemies and allies, who were not exactly thriving in the steaming climate of Florida. Malaria and other “white men’s diseases” took a lugubrious toll: even at the well-run Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, where many of the children were sent to be civilized, thirty of them had died by 1890. Early that year, Crook made a visit to Mount Vernon Barracks, near Mobile, Alabama, where the surviving Chiricahuas had been transferred for reasons apparently having more to do with the convenience of the government than their welfare. The news swiftly got around that “Chief Gray Wolf” had come to see them, and soon they were crowding about him—Chato, Chihuahua, Naiche, and the rest—eagerly shaking his hand and laughing with pleasure. Geronimo hung about the edge of the crowd, but Crook had never forgiven him for failing to keep his pledge in the spring of 1886, and would not speak to him. At the schoolhouse, where some of the children recited for the General’s benefit, the old chief made one last ploy, threatening unruly pupils with a stick, and looking to Crook for approval; but he got not a word.