November is Native American Heritage Month. Visit National Archives News for more information on related events and resources. Today’s post comes from Callie Belback from the National Archives History Office.
Entering a library or a bookstore, one might see the autobiography Geronimo: His Own Story sitting on the shelves. At the end of his days, unable to write and edit a manuscript but still able to tell a story, Geronimo commissioned writer S. S. Barrett to help share his life story with the public.
Geronimo was part of the Chiricahua Apache community, one of several divisions within the Apache tribe of North America. Located in the Southwest, the Apache people resisted colonization of their lands by both Spanish and North American peoples. After being admitted to the warriors’ council in 1846, Geronimo participated in Apache raids that took place in modern day Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico.
In 1874, the U.S. authorities forcibly removed approximately 4,000 Apaches to a reservation in San Carlos, Arizona. Located in the east-central part of the state, the reservation was located on barren land. With scarce resources, Apaches were not able to fulfill traditional tribal rights and were short on rations.
Geronimo led the Apache people on breakouts from the reservations so that they could return to their traditional nomadic lifestyle. Caught by the U.S. Army over and over again, the breakouts became recurring campaigns. While on the run, Geronimo and his band caused violence and even killed civilians as they raided both Mexican and American settlements.
The largest of these breakouts occurred in May 1885. Geronimo led a group of 35 men, 8 boys, and 101 women for 10 months around the Arizona-Mexico border. In March 1886, Geronimo surrendered in Sonora, Mexico, but then promptly led a small group back on the run from U.S. authorities. Five thousand soldiers and 500 Native American auxiliaries were called upon to catch Geronimo and his small band. In September 1886, Brig. Gen. Nelson A. Miles caught Geronimo and his group and promised them that they would be able to return to Arizona after an ambiguous time of exile in Florida.
He became the last Native American leader to formally surrender to the U.S. Army. However, Geronimo never returned to Arizona again. The U.S. government assigned Geronimo and his fellow Apaches to hard labor at Fort Pickens, Florida, then Alabama, then Fort Sill in Oklahoma Territory and labeled them prisoners of war.
Geronimo spent the last 14 years of his life at Fort Sill. He left Fort Sill only occasionally (with government permission) to attend world’s fairs and Wild West shows, where he was seen as a person of curiosity.
Geronimo died at Fort Sill on February 17, 1909, of pneumonia. He is buried in Beef Creek Apache Cemetery at Fort Sill, unable to return to his beloved homelands in Arizona, even in death.
Public history remembers Geronimo as a fearless leader who was able to guide his members of his tribe while evading capture by the U.S. Army. He resisted anyone who attempted to take him and his people away from their tribal lands.
For more perspective about the 1886 surrender, read the Pieces of History post about veteran Kayitah, an Indian Scout of Lt. Charles B. Gatewood’s 6th Cavalry.