How Grief and Revenge Made Geronimo Into a Legendary War Chief
Before Geronimo Became the Apaches’ Fabled War Commander, He Lost Everything
Before Geronimo met any white Americans or came to think of them as enemies of the Apaches, he spent years fighting Mexicans. In Geronimo’s youth, the north reaches of Mexico formally encompassed the Arizona homeland of the Apaches. Yet even after Mexico in the 1840s relinquished what became the American Southwest—the region stretching from the Sabine River on the eastern border of Texas to the Pacific coast of California—the Apaches for years encountered Mexicans more often than Americans.
The encounters were typically hostile. The Apaches considered Mexican settlements fair game for raiding—for horses and guns, among other things—and the Mexicans fought back, building forts from which soldiers sallied forth to track and kill Apaches. The struggle was long and brutal, with the Mexican government paying bounties for Apache scalps, and Apaches killing Mexicans on sight lest they themselves be killed.
Occasionally truces were called. Geronimo remembered one from the early 1850s. “Being at peace with the Mexican towns as well as with all the neighboring Indian tribes, we went south into Old Mexico to trade,” he said. “Our whole tribe”—the Bedonkohe Apaches—”went through Sonora toward Casas Grandes, our destination, but just before reaching that place we stopped at another Mexican town called by the Indians ‘Kas-ki-yeh.’”
The Mexicans called it Janos, and it was in northern Chihuahua state. “Here we stayed for several days, camping just outside the city. Every day we would go into town to trade, leaving our camp under the protection of a small guard so that our arms, supplies, and women and children would not be disturbed during our absence.”
Previous truces hadn’t held for long, and this one didn’t either. “Late one afternoon, when returning from town, we were met by a few women and children who told us that Mexican troops from some other town had attacked our camp, killed all the warriors of the guard, captured all our ponies, secured our arms, destroyed our supplies, and killed many of our women and children,” Geronimo said.
“Quickly we separated, concealing ourselves as best we could until nightfall, when we assembled at our appointed place of rendezvous—a thicket by the river. Silently we stole in one by one: sentinels were placed, and, when all were counted, I found that my aged mother, my young wife, and my three small children were among the slain.”
The slaughter of his family hit Geronimo like nothing before—or after, as things turned out. He was stunned. “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.”
Eventually the survivors had to decide what to do. “When I saw the warriors arranging for a council I took my place,” Geronimo said. “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, Mangas Coloradas, gave the order to start at once in perfect silence for our homes in Arizona, leaving the dead upon the field.
“In battle, if the fight was hard, we did not wish much clothing. Each warrior carried three days’ rations.”
“I stood until all had passed, hardly knowing what I would do,” Geronimo said. “1 had no weapon, nor did I hardly wish to fight, neither did I contemplate recovering the bodies of my loved ones, for that was forbidden. I did not pray, nor did I resolve to do anything in particular, for I had no purpose left. I finally followed the tribe silently, keeping just within hearing distance of the soft noise of the feet of the retreating Apaches.
The next morning some of the Indians killed a small amount of game and we halted long enough for the tribe to cook and eat, when the march was resumed. I had killed no game, and did not eat. During the first march as well as while we were camped at this place I spoke to no one and no one spoke to me—there was nothing to say.”
For two days and three nights they marched, stopping only to eat. Finally, near the border with the United States, they allowed themselves to rest. Geronimo broke his fast and his silence. “I took some food and talked with the other Indians who had lost in the massacre,” he said. But they couldn’t fathom his grief. “None had lost as I had, for I had lost all.”
A few days later they reached their homes. Geronimo’s grief flared again. “There were the decorations that Alope had made, and there were the playthings of our little ones. I burned them all, even our tepee. I also burned my mother’s tepee and destroyed all her property.”
In his loss, he found a new purpose. “I was never again contented in our quiet home. True, I could visit my father’s grave, but I had vowed vengeance upon the Mexican troopers who had wronged me, and whenever I came near his grave or saw anything to remind me of former happy days, my heart would ache for revenge upon Mexico.”
Geronimo’s revenge required the cooperation of other Apaches. Mangas Coloradas, recognizing the intensity of Geronimo’s hatred of the Mexicans, appointed him envoy to other Apache bands. He went first to the Chokonen, or Chiricahua, band. “Cochise, their chief, called a council at early dawn,” Geronimo remembered. “Silently the warriors assembled at an open place in a mountain dell and took their seats on the ground, arranged in rows according to their ranks. Silently they sat smoking. At a signal from the chief I arose and presented my cause.”
“Our arrows were all gone, our spears broken off in the bodies of dead enemies. We had only our hands and knives with which to fight.”
“Kinsmen,” said Geronimo to the Chiricahua warriors, “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?”
The warriors indicated their assent.
“Remember the rule in war,” Geronimo continued. “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.”
Geronimo returned to the Bedonkohe village. He reported his success to Mangas Coloradas, who next sent him to speak to the Nedni Apaches. They responded similarly.
“It was in the summer of 1859, almost a year from the date of the massacre of Kaskiyeh, that these three tribes were assembled on the Mexican border to go upon the warpath,” Geronimo recalled. He relived the moment in his memory. “Their faces were painted, the war bands fastened upon their brows, their long scalp-locks ready for the hand and knife of the warrior who could overcome them.”
The scalplocks were a taunt at the Mexican policy of bounties for scalps; the scalps would be easy to take, if the Mexicans could get close enough. The war party had made provision for their dependents. “Their families had been hidden away in a mountain rendezvous near the Mexican border. With these families a guard was posted, and a number of places of rendezvous designated in case the camp should be disturbed.”
They were lightly laden, allowing stealthy, swift travel. “None of us were mounted, and each warrior wore moccasins and also a cloth wrapped about his loins. This cloth could be spread over him when he slept, and when on the march would be ample protection as clothing. In battle, if the fight was hard, we did not wish much clothing. Each warrior carried three days’ rations.” They would supplement the rations with game killed along the march. “We traveled in three divisions: the Bedonkohe Apaches led by Mangas Coloradas, the Chokonen Apaches by Cochise, and the Nedni Apaches.” They walked from before dawn until after dark and covered forty or forty-five miles per day.
As the raid was Geronimo’s idea, he took the lead. Concealment was paramount. “We followed the river courses and mountain ranges because we could better thereby keep our movements concealed,” he said. In Sonora they bypassed settlements, again to avoid attention, until they approached Arispe, which Geronimo had chosen as a target. “When we were almost at Arispe we camped, and eight men rode out from the city to parley with us. These we captured, killed and scalped.” The goal was to lure the rest of the troops out of the town.
“The next day they came.” The Mexican soldiers eschewed a general engagement, preferring to skirmish and test the strength of the invaders. Yet in the afternoon, Geronimo and the Apaches scored a success. “We captured their supply train, so we had plenty of provisions and some more guns.”
The Apaches rested overnight. “Early the next morning the warriors were assembled to pray—not for help, but that they might have health and avoid ambush or deceptions by the enemy,” Geronimo said. The Mexicans marched out in force at around ten o’clock. “There were two companies of cavalry and two of infantry,” Geronimo recalled. “I recognized the cavalry as the soldiers who had killed my people at Kaskiyeh. This I told to the chieftains, and they said that I might direct the battle.” Geronimo appreciated the gesture. “I was no chief and never had been, but because I had been more deeply wronged than others, this honor was conferred upon me, and I resolved to prove worthy of the trust.”
He had never led warriors in battle, but he had paid attention in past engagements, and he possessed a keen tactical sense. “I arranged the Indians in a hollow circle near the river, and the Mexicans drew their infantry up in two lines, with the cavalry in reserve. We were in the timber, and they advanced until. within about four hundred yards, when they halted and opened fire.”
Geronimo let the initial salvos pass, with the Apaches still concealed by the trees. Then, while the Mexicans were reloading, he mounted the attack. “I led a charge against them, at the same time sending some braves to attack their rear.” His stored hatred drove him forward. “In all the battle I thought of my murdered mother, wife, and babies—of my father’s grave and my vow of vengeance, and I fought with fury. Many fell by my hand, and constantly I led the advance. Many braves were killed.”
The battle raged for two hours. Finally the guns fell silent and the shouting died away. “Four Indians were alone in the center of the field—myself and three other warriors,’” Geronimo said. “Our arrows were all gone, our spears broken off in the bodies of dead enemies. We had only our hands and knives with which to fight, but all who had stood against us were dead.”
Unexpectedly two Mexican soldiers appeared from another part of the battlefield. “They shot down two of our men and we, the remaining two, fled toward our own warriors. My companion was struck down by a saber, but I reached our warriors, seized a spear, and turned. The one who pursued me missed his aim and fell by my spear. With his saber I met the trooper who had killed my companion and we grappled and fell. I killed him with my knife and quickly rose over his body, brandishing his saber, seeking for other troopers to kill. There were none.”
His comrades recognized in Geronimo a war leader of courage and prowess. “Over the bloody field, covered with the bodies of Mexicans, rang the fierce Apache war-whoop,” he recalled. “Still covered with the blood of my enemies, still holding my conquering weapon, still hot with the joy of battle, victory, and vengeance, I was surrounded by the Apache braves and made war chief of all the Apaches.”
He savored the moment, then let his fellows take their prizes. “I gave orders for scalping the slain.”
From The Last Campaign: Sherman, Geronimo and the War for America by H.W. Brands, published by Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
Copyright © 2022 by H. W. Brands