Geronimo's Last Stand

by Jay W. Sharp


The month of September in 1886 and the surrender of the infamous Chiricahua Apache Geronimo marked the end of centuries of warfare between EuroAmericans and the desert Indians in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. The final events – those last spasms in the long clash between cultures – played out like grand theater with larger-than-life characters. Ultimately, the story ended, not in an epic and bloody battle, but with an operatic struggle between men of uncommon courage, valor, honor and humanism and those of common deceptiveness, cruelty, treachery and self-aggrandizement. The final act lasted for more than 16 months.

March 25, 1886 – Canyon de los Embudos, a stony recess in the oak and desert scrub lands of the northern Sierra Madre, a few miles south of the intersection of the U. S./Mexican border and the Arizona/New Mexico border. Geronimo, famed Chiricahua Apache war chief, wearing a bandanna, a dark jacket, a breechcloth and traditional Chiricahua moccasins, squats on the ground in Indian fashion. General George Crook, famed Indian fighter, heavily bearded, wearing a pith helmet, a rumpled uniform and high-cuffed gloves, sits on an earthen or stone pedestal, in the posture of the white man. Several Chiricahua warriors stand nearby, alert, watchful. A small force of troopers in uniforms and campaign hats flank their general.

Although U. S. and Mexican forces had hounded them relentlessly for 10 months, the Chiricahuas were "…in superb physical condition, armed to the teeth, and with an abundance of ammunition," Crook would say later. They were "…fierce as so many tigers—knowing what pitiless brutes they are themselves, they mistrust everyone else."

Nevertheless, having grown weary and dispirited in constant flight, the embattled Geronimo and other warring chiefs Nachez, Mangus, Chihuahua and Nana have come to Canyon de los Embudos to speak of the possible surrender of their bands to General Crook.

"?It would be better if you would speak to me and look with a pleasant face," an uneasy Geronimo says to Crook. "?I’d be better satisfied if you would talk to me once in a while. Why don’t you look at me and smile at me?"

Crook barely acknowledges Geronimo’s apprehensions or anxious questions.

Geronimo says, "From here on I want to live at peace. Don’t believe any bad talk you hear about me. The agents and the interpreter hear that somebody has done wrong, and they blame it all on me… …I want this peace to be legal and good. Whenever I meet you I talk good to you, and you to me, and peace is soon established…"

Crook, a stern and honorable man, lets Geronimo expend himself, then demands, "…why did you kill innocent people, sneaking all over the country to do it. What did those innocent people do to you that you should kill them, steal their horses, and slip around in the rocks like coyotes?

"…You promised me…that peace would last, but you have lied…" Crook said, his anger rising,. "…I have had a constant fight…with my own people to protect you from them. And the white people say that I am responsible for every one of those people who have been killed. When a man has lied to me once I want some better proof than his own word before I can believe him again…

"…You must make up your own mind whether you will stay out on the warpath or surrender unconditionally. If you stay out, I’ll keep after you and kill the last one, if it takes fifty years…"

"I am a man of my word, " says Geronimo. "I am telling the truth…"

The Next Day – The same location, the same cast.

Chihuahua, speaking for his band, says to Crook, "…we are always in danger out here… …I surrender myself to you because I believe in you and you do not deceive us…"

Nachez, speaking for his band, says, "…I throw myself at your feet… Now that I have surrendered, I am glad. I’ll not have to hide behind rocks and mountains; I’ll go across the open plain. I’ll now sleep well, eat contentedly, and be satisfied, and so will my people…"

Finally, Geronimo, with resignation, says, "What the others say I say also. I give myself up to you. Do with me what you please. I surrender. Once I moved about like the wind. Now I surrender to you and that is all."

Crook, acting under authorization from Washington, agrees that the United States will exile the Chiricahuas to the East for two years then return them to their reservation in Arizona. Otherwise, he believes, the Apaches – in spite of their professed submissiveness – will flee back to the mountains and renew their raids on the whites.

Flashback 10 Months, to May 17, 1885 – Late afternoon at the Arizona reservation, where tension has increased like a gathering thunderstorm for several days. In the ferment, agitated Chiricahua warriors complain that the army officer in charge – Lieutenant Britton Davis – will not allow them to brew and drink their traditional liquor, tiswin. He will not let them discipline their wives. Geronimo claims that the army has orders to arrest him and to kill him if he resists.

As the day wears on with growing distress, Geronimo and Mangus, lying, announce to Chihuahua, Nachez and Nana that warriors have just killed Britton Davis and an Apache scout—news certain to electrify the Apaches. Such murders would mean that Crook’s troopers would respond surely, swiftly and forcefully. Believing Geronimo and Mangus, the bands decide they had no choice but to bolt the reservation. Forty two warriors and 92 women and children quickly gather weapons, stores and horses, and they flee eastward, toward escape routes which run southward into Mexico and the Sierra Madre country. The outbreak signals the beginning of a new Apache nightmare for the Southwest and northern Mexico.

Early the next morning, an alarmed General Crook sends warnings over chattering telegraphs to newspapers, politicians and military posts in the Arizona and New Mexico and in northern Mexico: "?Chiricahua Apaches under Geronimo left reservation near Fort Apache about dark last night and are thought to be making for Mexico. Troops are in pursuit and are sent out from all points to intercept them but I deem it prudent to advise you that you may warn the citizens."

Communities, ranches, farmsteads, mines and freighting operations across the desert ranges of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico and through Mexico’s Sierra Madre ripple with anxiety and fear. Apaches who remained behind on the reservation stir with anger; they know that the hostiles who have bolted the reservation have invited bad trouble for all the Indians.

Almost immediately, the hostiles themselves begin to fracture. Chihuahua discovers that Geronimo and Mangus have duped the bands about the murder of Lieutenant Davis and the scout. Chihuahua contemplates killing Geronimo for the deception. It is too late. Geronimo has already escaped by fleeing southward with his band toward Mexico. Chihuahua contemplates returning to the reservation. It is too late. Troopers and reservation scouts, lusting for blood, are pursuing him and his band like wolves chasing sheep. Chihuahua takes his people north, into the forested mountains of southwestern New Mexico. The other hostiles scatter. They have no choice now but to fight. The raiding begins.

Crook orders 20 troops of cavalry and more than 100 scouts to take the field in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona with orders to protect settlers and hunt down the hostiles. As authorized by an earlier treaty with Mexico, Crook dispatches two columns across the border into Mexico and the Sierra Madre with the same orders. Mexican forces take the field in the Sierra Madre with the same orders. Civilian posses take up the chase. Eventually, several thousand armed men join in the pursuit of less than 150 hostiles. Newspapers of the region scream for immediate success.

Although pursued relentlessly by the U. S. and Mexican forces, the Chiricahuas strike again and again. In hit-and-run raids and clever ambushes, they kill dozens of settlers and troopers in the United States and an unknown number of victims in Mexico. They raid their own reservation, vengefully killing 12 of the Apaches who had refused to join the outbreak. They steal horses, supplies, weapons and ammunition. They fade into the rugged landscape like quail disappearing into the brush.

In November and December of 1885, one band of 10 of the Apache raiders sweeps across southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, traveling some 1200 miles, killing 38 people, stealing some 250 horses and mules, then escaping into Mexico.

"…the condition of affairs is very bad…," General Crook says in a wire to his commanding officer, General Philip Sheridan. "The country is very much alarmed…" Sheridan calls Crook’s strategy, especially the use of Indian scouts, into question. His faith eroding, the commanding general comes to believe that he can run the campaign better from Washington than the master Indian fighter George Crook can run it in the field.

Crook’s troopers manage to win minor skirmishes, even striking Geronimo’s camp in the Sierra Madre range at one point, but the Apaches recover quickly. More often, troops fall back, weary and hungry, their mounts exhausted and footsore.

The Apaches’ trails, says Crook in a report to his headquarters, "…are so scattered that it is almost impossible to follow them, particularly over rocks, which often delays the party following trails for several hours…

"Owing to the rains which reports show to have been of more than usual severity, the troops have been almost continually drenched to the skin for the last month… In daylight they frequently have been obliged to conceal themselves in canyons where not only no rest was to be obtained, but where the extremely heavy mountain rains made their position one of great danger. At these times they have of course been separated from the pack trains for a period of from three to fifteen days…" They have, says Crook, "been compelled to live for several days at a time on a half allowance of bacon, supplemented by acorns and roots."

Finally, in late January, 1886, eight months after the breakout from the reservation, the frustrating and punishing campaign finally begins to pay off. The Apaches, their physical and emotional energies spent by the chase, dispatch emissaries to discuss the possibility of peace with Crook’s troops. Nana plus several warriors and several families surrender within days. Geronimo, Nachez, Mangus and Chihuahua begin moving their bands slowly toward Canyon de los Embudos – the site designated by Geronimo – to enter the negotiations for their surrender to Crook.

When the conference on the floor of Canyon de los Embudos drew to a close on that fateful March 26 of 1886, Alchisay, an Apache intermediary, says to Crook, "…I tell you that these Chiricahua really want to do what is right and live at peace." Two years exile in the East then return to the reservation does not now seem too bad. Geronimo, Nachez and Chihuahua shake hands with Crook.

March 27, 1886, Early Morning – Canyon de los Embudos. Crook has left for Arizona to telegraph the details of the surrender agreement to Washington. Unknown to him, chaos and confusion, oiled by mescal, have rattled the Apache camp. Geronimo and four warriors, stupidly drunk from an night-long binge, all try simultaneously to mount two of four or five saddled mules. Nachez lies on the ground in a stupor. Rumors of deception by Crook fly from lodge to lodge.

It began in the night, when a bootlegger and smuggler named Bob Tribolet had slithered like a serpent under the cover of darkness in among the Apache bands, bringing venomous whispers of impending American treachery and demijohns of mescal. Likely acting as an agent for U. S. war profiteers, he came to sow fear and doubt, to prolong the conflict. During the morning, Crook’s officers try to defuse the situation. They smash leftover demijohns of the liquor. When darkness falls, however, Tribolet reappears like a cockroach crawling out of the woodwork. More rumors. More mescal. Rising confusion. Unexplained gunfire. Panic.

Geronimo induces Nachez and a dozen and a half warriors to forget the handshake with Crook and abrogate the surrender agreement. With 19 women and children, they flee once more to the mountains. Although Chihuahua, Mangus and Nana and their bands continue to honor the surrender, Tribolet has done his job. The war will go on.

Crook, back in Arizona, telegraphs the terms of the surrender agreement – two-year exile in the East, return to Arizona – to Sheridan. The commanding general confers with President Cleveland, and although they have given Crook authority to negotiate terms, they now reject his arrangement. They demand, instead, "unconditional surrender." Cleveland and Sheridan have deliberately undermined Crook’s credibility with the Apaches, especially Chihuahua, Mangus and Nana.

Next, Crook has to telegraph the news of Geronimo’s breakout to Sheridan. "?great disappointment," responds Sheridan. Snidely, he says, "It seems strange that Geronimo and party could have escaped without the knowledge of the scouts."

Stung, Crook defends his men, saying, "There can be no question that the scouts were thoroughly loyal, and would have prevented the hostiles leaving had it been possible."

Sheridan, now fully convinced that he can run the Apache campaign from his Washington office, advises Crook "…to concentrate your troops at the best points and give protection to the people. Geronimo will undoubtedly enter upon other raids of murder and robbery, and as the offensive campaign against him with scouts has failed, would it not be best to take up defensive and give protection to the people and business interests of Arizona and New Mexico?"

Offended, Crook replies, "It has been my aim throughout present operations to afford the greatest amount of protection to life and property interests, and troops have been stationed accordingly." He adds that his offensive campaign with scouts has not failed. It has, in fact, succeeded, and it must be continued to eliminate the "constant menace" of Geronimo’s followers. With his commanding officer now questioning his competence, Crook concludes by saying, "It may be, however, that I am too much wedded to my own views in this matter, and as I have spent nearly eight years of the hardest work of my life in this department, I respectfully request that I may be now relieved from its command."

Sheridan promptly accommodates Crook, the soldier’s general, and replaces him with General Nelson A. Miles, the politician’s general and a vain presidential aspirant who preferred the comforts of his post quarters and disparaged the likes of his Apache enemies.

Spring and Summer, 1886 – During the five months following the flight from Canyon de los Embudos, Geronimo throws his handful of fighters into a hopeless struggle against an overwhelming force. He has trigged the downfall of General Crook, perhaps the preeminent Indian fighter in U. S. history. He provokes the last campaign of the Indian wars. He terrorizes the populations on both sides of the border. He eludes capture in what is the largest manhunt in the history of the region. He transforms himself from a storied Apache warrior and leader to an American legend and icon.

As the weeks pass, Geronimo and his fighters strike settlements and ranches across northern Sonora. They shoot miners and cowboys. They kill two civilians on the border. They raid a ranch, killing a woman and her child and a ranch hand. They shoot up a detachment of U. S. soldiers. They steal horses to replace those they lose. Reports, inflated by panic and rumor, hold that Geronimo has somehow put together a force of 150 Apache warriors – nearly 10 times the actual number – who are savaging the country.

General Miles, a mustached man with an air of uniformed perfection, discharges Crook’s Apache trackers and fields 5000 U. S. troopers in New Mexico, Arizona and Mexico’s Sierra Madre to run down Geronimo. He constructs a system of heliographs – signaling devices – to send messages from mountaintop to mountaintop across the country. Miles’ forces, without the trackers, however, stand little chance of running down Geronimo.

The failure of his troops leaves Miles increasingly frustrated. He has already sent Chihuahua and his band to Florida. He plots to exile even those Chiricahua Apaches who have remained faithful to the U. S., including even those who have served his army loyally as military scouts. He sends Apache leaders to Washington to impress on them the might of the U. S., then he has them imprisoned at Leavenworth, Kansas, en route back to Arizona.

More wisely, Miles dispatches Captain Henry Lawton with an elite force of hand-picked troopers and, in a nod to Crook’s strategy, several Apache scouts to pursue Geronimo in the Sierra Madre. Although Lawton fails to capture Geronimo, he does manage to apply some pressure.

Even more wisely, Miles dispatches the extraordinary 33-year-old Lieutenant Charles B. Gatewood along with two Apache scouts and a small escort in an effort to find Geronimo and initiate peace talks. The thin, sharp-nosed Gatewood, an experienced campaigner and a leader of uncommon courage and integrity, knows Geronimo better than any other officer under Miles’ command. Equally important, Geronimo knows and trusts Gatewood. The two Apache scouts, Ki-e-ta and Martine, having grown tired of the long struggle, agree to serve as Gatewood’s emissaries.

Geronimo eBookAfter grueling weeks on the trail, Gatewood, by now ill, locates Geronimo’s camp near the Sonoran village of Fronteras, a few miles south of the U. S./Mexican border. He approaches under a white flag of truce. Ki-e-ta and Martine, riding in advance, carry the message into Geronimo’s camp – into the den of the tigers – that Gatewood has come to speak of peace.

The next morning, their arms laid aside, Gatewood and Geronimo face each other on the banks of the Bavispe River. "?look at his face," Gatewood said later, "imagine him looking me square in the eyes, and watching my every movement, 24 bucks sitting around fully armed, my small party scattered in their various duties incident to a peace commissioner’s camp; and say if you blame me for feeling chilly twitching movements."

Gatewood, calling on raw courage struggling with his illness, delivers his message to Geronimo, "Surrender, and you will be sent to join the rest of your people in Florida, there to await the decision of the President as to your final disposition. Accept these terms or fight it out to the bitter end." He knows that Geronimo and his warriors can kill him on the spot.

Geronimo, however, says, "We have been on a three-day drunk?I feel a little shaky." He then tries to bargain for better terms.

Gatewood, under strict orders from Miles, refuses to yield.

Finally, Geronimo says, "We want your advice. Consider yourself one of us and not a white man. …what would you advise us to do under the circumstances?"

"I would trust Miles and take him at his word," says Gatewood.

Geronimo, with Gatewood’s words – "…you will be sent to join the rest of your people…" – in his mind, agrees to surrender. He will move his band northward, under the protection of Captain Henry Lawton’s troopers to meet General Miles and formalize the agreement at Skeleton Canyon, located in the Peloncillo Mountains, near the Arizona/New Mexico border and roughly 20 miles north of the border with Mexico.

Years later, thinking back over his final struggle, Geronimo would say that U. S. "…troops trailed us continually. They were led by Captain Lawton, who had good scouts. The Mexican soldiers also became more active and more numerous. We had skirmishes almost every day…"

He said that after he and a small group returned to Mexico after a trip north of the border, "…we attacked every Mexican found, even if for no other reason than to kill. We believed they had asked the United Sates troops to come down to Mexico to fight us." Geronimo especially hated the Mexicans because their forces had slaughtered his mother, his young wife and his three small children in an ambush many years earlier, in northwestern Chihuahua, near Casas Grandes.

Geronimo said, "..whenever Mexican freighters passed," in the area south of Casas Grandes, in northwestern Chihuahua, "we killed them, took what supplies we wanted, and destroyed the remainder. We were reckless of our lives… …so we gave no quarter to anyone and asked no favors."

U. S. soldiers "…were soon trailing us and skirmishing with us almost every day. Four or five times they surprised our camp. One time they surprised us about nine o’clock in the morning, and captured all our horses (nineteen in number) and secured our store of dried meats. We also lost three Indians in this encounter. About the middle of the afternoon of the same day we attacked them from the rear as they were passing through a prairie—killed one soldier, but lost none ourselves. …we recovered all our horses except three that belonged to me."

September 3 and 4, 1886 – Skeleton Canyon. Geronimo faces General Nelson A. Miles, who came to the conference late, at his own convenience, after he had betrayed the loyal Chiricahua as well as faithful Warm Springs Apache bands by sending them from their reservation to exile in Florida.

Miles explains to Geronimo how the army would send all the Apaches to a place in the East. "That is what the President wants to do," Miles says unctuously. "Get all of you together."

That matches Gatewood’s promise: "?you will be sent to join the rest of your people?"

Geronimo turns to the young lieutenant, saying "Good, you told me the truth."

Geronimo visualizes a new home of land, timber and water for the Apaches, who would be treated as reservation Indians, not as prisoners of war. After he counsels with his band, he announces to Miles that, "I will quit the warpath and live at peace hereafter."

With that, the Apache wars had at last drawn to a close.

The Aftermath – On September 5, 1886, Miles assembled Geronimo and his band at Fort Apache and sent them eastward, not to a land of timber and water especially for the Apaches, but to squalid prisons in near tropical Florida, and not as reservation Indians with a new opportunity, but as prisoners of war. Many, including Geronimo, remained separated from family and friends for months. Years passed before the U. S. government finally transferred the Apaches to a reservation near Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Most, including even Gatewood’s courageous scouts Ki-e-ta and Martine, would never see their homeland again. "There is no more disgraceful page in the history of our relations with the American Indians than that which conceals the treachery visited upon the Chiricahuas who remained faithful in their allegiance to our people," said John G. Bourke in his book On the Border With Crook.

Miles basked in the glory of his "victory" over Geronimo and denied credit to Gatewood or his two Apache emissaries in the daring surrender negotiations on the Bavispe River.

Meanwhile, writers, both historians and novelists, lost sight of Geronimo the person and created Geronimo the legend. For three quarters of a century, they demonized him as a savage butcher, a product of the barbaric Apache culture. For the next quarter of a century, they glorified him as a freedom fighter, a product of the noble Apache culture.

Near the end of his life, Geronimo – who once said, "I have killed many Mexicans; I do not know how many, for frequently I did not count them," – peddled handmade bows and arrows, photographs and his crudely scrawled autographs to make a little money. He died near Fort Sill on February 17, 1909, after he laid in the middle of a road all night, drunk, in a freezing rain.

If you want to learn more about Geronimo and the Chiricahua Apaches, you will enjoy reading The Conquest of Apacheria by Dan L. Thrapp; Death in the Desert by Paul I. Wellman; Geronimo By Alexander B. Adams; Geronimo, Geronimo and the End of the Apache Wars, edited by C. L. Sonnichsen; On the Border With Crook by John G. Bourke; Trailing Geronimo by Anton Mazzanovich; and The Truth About Geronimo by Britton Davis. There are many, many more sources, but these include a few of the classics, and they have been my principal sources for this article.

The Book Geronimo: His Own Story

The eBook The story of his life - by Geromimo  

Jay W. Sharp


Desert People and Cultures Index
General George Crook
Fort Bowie National Historic Site
Chiricahua National Monument
Hiking Apache Pass to Fort Bowie



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