Apache Chief Geronimo Dies a Prisoner of War
One day in February 1909, the once-feared Apache Chief Geronimo was riding alone near Fort Sill, Oklahoma, when he was thrown from his horse and lay all night in the cold. When found the next day he was seriously ill, and died on Feb. 17, 1909, from pneumonia. Geronimo died—as he had lived the last 22 years of his life—a prisoner of war to the U.S. government. He was 79 years old.
For 28 years, from 1858 until he finally surrendered in 1886, Geronimo waged a fierce and bitter war against first Mexicans, then Mexicans and Americans alike. His personal war began on March 6, 1858, when Mexican soldiers attacked his camp while he and most of the Apache men were in a nearby Mexican town trading. Geronimo’s mother, wife, and three children were killed, and he began his war of revenge that terrorized settlers and soldiers in Northern Mexico, Arizona and New Mexico for over a quarter century.
At the end of Geronimo’s days as a free man, his band had shrunk down to three dozen men, women and children. This tiny group was relentlessly pursued by U.S. General Nelson Miles with 5,000 soldiers, thousands more civilian militia, and 500 Indian scouts. In addition, thousands of Mexican soldiers hunted Geronimo’s band just south of the U.S.-Mexico border. When Geronimo finally surrendered to General Miles on Sept. 4, 1886, at Skeleton Canyon in Arizona, he and his band were the last Native American “hostile” Indians to formally surrender to the U.S. military.
There was much cruelty and terrible atrocities on both sides during the Apache Wars, but the popular press of the time laid much of the blame at the feet of Geronimo. This animosity toward Geronimo is evident in the following three newspaper articles announcing his death in 1909. Even though Geronimo had been a prisoner of war for more than 22 years by that time, and never allowed to return to the land of his birth, the press clearly still perceived him as a villain.
This newspaper article about Geronimo’s death was published by the Tucson Citizen (Tucson, Arizona) on Feb. 17, 1909:
The Red Devil Geronimo Is Good at Last
Bloodthirsty Old Savage Dies of Pneumonia at Fort Sill
Left Bloody Trail in This Territory
Died as He Lived, Hating Bitterly to the End the Palefaces
Lawton, Okla., Feb. 17.—Geronimo, the noted Apache Indian chief, died today at Fort Sill, where he was confined as a prisoner of war. He has been a prisoner for twenty-two years. Pneumonia killed him. He died with a grin on his shrunken old face. He resisted the white man’s doctor and insisted on an Indian medicine man. He died hating palefaces, as he hated them all his life.
Geronimo was war chief of the Apaches and surrendered to General Miles at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona, in 1887 [correction: 1886—ed.].
Knowing every foot of the southwestern country and acquainted with all of the numerous trails and passes through the rugged mountains, it was with the greatest difficulty that Geronimo and his band of heartless and bloodthirsty savages, who for years pillaged and murdered through Arizona and New Mexico, were captured.
They were finally run down by General Miles, who pursued them relentlessly with his troops, having as guides frontiersmen and Papago Indians.
General Miles by an odd arrangement managed to keep trail of Geronimo and his band. The officer divided his troops into several squads surrounding Geronimo. The men carried a looking glass arrangement with which they reflected the sun’s rays from mountain peaks and thus exchanged signals, letting the different companies of troops know continually where the Indian band was and serving to cut off their escape whenever they tried to get out of the recess where they had taken refuge.
With all of their avenues of escape cut off, Geronimo and his band were compelled to surrender as their provisions gave out.
Geronimo and fourteen of his warriors were sent to Fort Pickens, Florida, but later were transferred to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he had been held a prisoner. Others of his savage band were also sent to the fort reservation and compelled to remain there.
Geronimo a number of times at Fort Sill expressed a longing for Arizona, stating that he would like to return to this country before he died. Had he come to Arizona it would probably have required soldiers to protect him from some of the old pioneers who had not forgotten the horrible cruelties which the Apache chief and his warriors practiced on men, women and children.
Geronimo’s warriors frequently passed within a short distance of Tucson during the pioneer days and there are still a number of the old timers in Tucson who took part in battles with the Indians.
Geronimo’s band was especially notorious for the horrible cruelties which they practiced on captives. Tying a prisoner to a jagged cactus and allowing him to remain there in the burning sun until thirst made him a raving maniac was a favorite form of cruelty practiced by the Indians.
Geronimo was first captured in March, 1886, but he escaped. He had surrendered to General Crook under an agreement that he was to suffer a two years’ exile and then return to Arizona. He started for Fort Bowie in [the] charge of General Crook, but with his warriors managed to steal away to the mountains and in a short time again began killing and pillaging.
General Crook, following the escape of Geronimo, was replaced by General Miles, who two years [correction: five months] later captured the Apache chief and his warriors at Skeleton Canyon.
This article was published by the Hobart Daily Republican (Hobart, Oklahoma) on Feb. 17, 1909:
Gone to Happy Hunting Ground
Geronimo, Chief of Apaches, and for 20 Years War Prisoner at Fort Sill, Died This Morning
Geronimo, chief of the Apaches, and a prisoner of war at Fort Sill for twenty years, died this morning.
The aged Indian succumbed to pneumonia, after an illness [of] two days in the hospital at the fort.
He will be buried in the Indian cemetery tomorrow, under Christian rites. Three years ago he was converted, and it is believed by members of his tribe that he is being carried in comfort to the happy hunting grounds.
Old Geronimo was the last of the redskins to be captured. He was taken in Arizona by Gen. Miles in 1883 [correction: 1886—ed.].
Following is a part of his career:
General Crook fought every band of every tribe over every state in the west in the quarter century between 1850 and 1875, and he subdued them all, except Geronimo. In 1883 this reckless chief of the Chiricahua Apaches started trouble, and after a raid, fled with his band to the mountains of northern Mexico. From these fastnesses he made occasional incursions into Arizona and New Mexico, killing and plundering as he went. General Sheridan ordered General Crook to capture Geronimo, and in the chase that followed, Crook and his men suffered every privation, but never got any farther than the pursuing part of the proposition. General Crook finally gave it up as a bad job, and asked to be relieved.
General Nelson A. Miles was next put on the trail, and in the longest, hardest, most relentless manhunt in the annals of Indian warfare, finally succeeded in capturing the chief. For several years after his capture Geronimo was kept a prisoner in Fort Pickens and Fort Marion, in Florida. Later he was taken to Fort Leavenworth, in Kansas, and still later to Fort Sill, at Lawton, Okla.
This notice was published by the Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Washington) on Feb. 17, 1909:
Geronimo, the last of the great Apache war chiefs, is dead, after having been held a prisoner of war at various United States forts for twenty-two years. Save for the Sioux outbreak at Rosebud, S.D., in 1892, Geronimo led in the last great Indian war. For two generations mothers in the Southwest put their children to sleep by invoking the name of the wily opponent of General Miles.
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