MANY YEARS after the Apache Wars were over, Chatto, who was a rising Chokonen leader in the early 1880s, would declare, “I have known Geronimo all my life up to his death and have never known anything good about him.” The daughter of the Chokonen chief Naiche agreed. “Geronimo was not a great man at all. I never heard any good of him. People never say he [did] good.” A reliable interpreter and licensed trader who lived on good terms with the Chiricahuas for two decades said they distrusted and feared Geronimo, especially when he was inebriated. Once while hopelessly drunk, he berated a nephew, “for no reason at all,” so severely that the young man committed suicide. After sobering up, a shamed Geronimo packed up his family and bolted from the reservation for several months.
Army officers otherwise sympathetic to the Apaches detested Geronimo. Lieutenant Bourke found him “a depraved rascal whose neck I should like to stretch.” He was a “thoroughly vicious, intractable, and treacherous man,” agreed Lieutenant Britton Davis, who would come to know him all too well. “His only redeeming traits were courage and determination.”
And “power,” Davis might have added, had he understood the concept. What the whites dismissed as superstition was quite real to the Chiricahuas. That Geronimo possessed mystic attributes uniquely valuable in raids and war, few Apaches doubted. Rifles were said to jam or misfire when aimed at him. Some warriors thought the mere act of riding with Geronimo would render them impervious to bullets, a belief this consummate troublemaker heartily encouraged. Many Chiricahuas also attributed to him the gift of divination. Others thought him able to make it rain or to prevent the sun from rising. Geronimo also enjoyed a reputation as a master herbalist and surgeon. Despite his supposed powers, he was too strongly disliked to ever become a chief. His baleful countenance, locked in a perpetual scowl, probably didn’t help. All told, Geronimo’s personal following never exceeded thirty warriors.
The minatory shaman of the Bedonkohe band was born Goyahkla, meaning “He Who Yawns,” in 1829. Because he was saddled with such a singularly uninspiring name, it is little wonder he assumed the name Geronimo, which the Mexicans had bestowed on him. The Spanish equivalent of Jerome, it lacked the verve of Victorio but certainly was a better name than Goyahkla. Unlike Victorio, Geronimo felt no compelling ties to the place of his birth. He fought not to defend a homeland but to avenge the murder of his mother, first wife, and children by Mexican soldiers and because he enjoyed taking lives. “I have killed many Mexicans; I do not know how many. Some of them were not worth counting,” he said shortly before his death. If he were young again, Geronimo added, “and followed the warpath, it would lead into Old Mexico.”
Geronimo’s forays into Mexico often led him to the Sierra Madre, home to the Nednhi Chiricahua band of Chief Juh, one of his few real friends. Although a better war leader than Geronimo, Juh lacked the shaman’s gift for oratory. When excited, particularly in battle, Juh stuttered so badly that he had to use hand signals to communicate or rely on Geronimo to make his intentions known. Both men were wary of Americans. Juh had had little contact with them; he was naturally suspicious of everyone. Geronimo’s distrust derived from personal experience—first the murderous betrayal of Mangas Coloradas in 1863, and then his own humiliating arrest at Ojo Caliente and lockup at San Carlos by Agent John Clum in 1877.
23 March 2017
Wild Young Geronimo
From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 7351-7381: