Geronimo, Updated: New Biography Sheds Light on the Hero and the Forces That Shaped Him

Michelle Tirado

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.

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pat walker cosme's picture
pat walker cosme
Submitted by pat walker cosme on
I had read most of this... but it is so good when someone finds information that is true that has never been taught in the schools..thank you so much

screaming eagle's picture
screaming eagle
Submitted by screaming eagle on
funny thing that is not what i remember from history you all are doing revisionist history here as well first place you left he and his tribe had moved there to trade with the mexicans and they went out and came back later to find the women and children massacred by the mexicans version of the militias and he hated mexican after that day and made war on them for the murder of his mother wife and children you dummies another thing his second wife she gave birth to some children one of interest was dohnsey aka lulu who married a spaniard named jose ramirez while he was in florida and later she came to visit him at fort sil oklahoma for where he died from pneumonia after he fell in a stream and the night before somebody found him in the stream but remember this who went and dug up his skeletal remains why it was prescott bush the adopted father of george bush sr the question is this who do you think you are buy this crap from whity huh who aint nobody but a learned idiot been there and seen that happen to my people so erase this trype of revisionist lies huh since you have been spewing the govt bull crap since i saw your first post so get real and do your history not some token from the govt

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
You forgot to mention that his head was removed, as was Mangas'. Mangas' was all for study.

Esther Rollins's picture
Esther Rollins
Submitted by Esther Rollins on
Thank You Writing this story of Geronimo. My heart is heavy with sorrow in how we the people treat the Navtive Americans today. They are very smart and loving people with a purpose in life. thank you