Geronimo is unarguably one of the most famous Native American leaders ever, and while he lived, he was among the most feared.
Yet few books have really delved into the man—where he came from, who influenced him, and what drove him. One of these is his autobiography, edited by S.M. Barrett, superintendent of education in Lawton, Oklahoma, and published in 1906 by Duffield & Co. The next-most significant volume, Angie Debo’s Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place (Oklahoma University Press, 1982), came 70 years later. To say we were due for an updated version is an understatement.
Now, renowned Western historian and National Park Service veteran Robert M. Utley offers Geronimo (Yale University Press, 2012), a comprehensive biography that makes clear just what made this ferocious Chiricahua Apache warrior tick.
Born in 1823 in the upper Gila River Valley, Geronimo was the son of Juana and Taslishim, whose father was a peace-loving chief of the Bedonkohe, a Chiricahua band. The boy was given the name Goyahkla, or One Who Yawns, at birth, and received his Mexican name, Geronimo, in adulthood. His high desert homeland helped shape the man that he became, and Utley often breaks off from the narrative to describe it.
For instance, the steep and jagged Mogollan Mountains, located in what is today New Mexico, served as a base for his countless pillaging raids into Mexico for provisions and horses, attacks against American farmers and miners, and a retreat when chased by soldiers. These mountains rose more than 5,000 feet above sea level, with five peaks higher than 10,000 feet. “Only the hardiest and most knowledgeable, such as the Apaches, could summon these tortuous mountains to their purposes,” Utley writes.
The proximity of Chiricahua country to Mexico was key to Geronimo’s life. At first he and his followers raided Chihuahua and Sonora for food. Then, on March 5, 1851, a force led by Sonoran Colonel Jose Maria Carrasca, attacked several Apache settlements in Chihuahua, killing well over a dozen people, among them Geronimo’s mother, his wife, Alope, and three children.
“As Geronimo testified, the Carrasco massacre planted in him a bitter hatred of all Mexicans that lasted until the end of his life,” Utley writes of the 28-year-old warrior. “This landmark event shaped the man and marked out his life’s pathway”—which was, in short, revenge.
Never a chief but always a leader, Geronimo was also molded by the people in his life. The most influential were Chiricahua leader Mangas Coloradas (1790–1863) and Chokenen leader Cochise (1810–1874). Coloradas exemplified courage, a cherished Apache attribute, and Utley dubs him the “greatest of all Apache chiefs.” If he had a fatal weakness, it was trusting Americans—a trait Geronimo did not emulate. Taking their word, in fact, resulted in Coloradas’s capture, torture and death at Fort McLane, New Mexico. Cochise didn’t have Coloradas’s political savvy, but he was a master of escape and knew how to take on the Americans when wronged. He waged a 10-year war of revenge against them for killing his brother, two nephews, wife and two of his children in 1861 at a soldiers’ encampment at Apache Pass.
Geronimo finally surrendered in 1886 and spent 23 years as a prisoner of war. He died of pneumonia in 1909 and is interred in an Apache graveyard at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Utley writes in the epilogue that many words and phrases can be used to describe him during different points in his life. But he uses just two in summing up the man’s true character: “complex and contradictory.”
Utley brings to life the legend in a way that even Geronimo’s own autobiography could not. The 14-page bibliography contains the old, tried-and-true sources, but it also brings in plenty of recent literature, including biographies of Cochise and Coloradas by Edwin R. Sweeney, as well as often-neglected works. They include Morris Edward Opler’s An Apache Life Way (University of Nebraska Press, 1941), which features interviews with Apaches of Geronimo’s time, and Grenville Goodwin’s Western Apache Raiding & Warfare (University of Arizona Press, 1971), based on Apache narratives.
The pages of this new Geronimo are dense with names and dates—it is, after all, a serious work of historical nonfiction—and there is a lot of bouncing between the Apache perspective and the white point of view. Nonetheless, the book offers fresh insight into its subject, debunking some myths and misconceptions. Don’t be surprised if you come away from Utley’s work with a totally different opinion of the man.