Among the storied names of the American Frontier, none invoked such fear as that of the Apache warrior Geronimo. In this fascinating biography, Leben staff writer Kate Uttinger investigates the events leading up to Geronimo’s conversion to Christianity and his rocky relationship with the Dutch Reformed Church.
GeronimoRiflePainting Nearly seventy years ago Pvt. Aubrey Eberhart leapt out of a C-47 and delivered on a bet he’d made the night before: to yell some recognizable word to his fellow paratroopers to prove he wasn’t afraid of the several hundred foot drop. Drawing from the daring dramatics he had seen in an old Western movie the night before, Eberhart shouted, “Geronimo!” Thus began the informal tradition of paratroopers and tom-boys alike shouting the name of history’s most infamous Indian as they leap from treacherous heights.{footnote}Gregory Mast and Hans Halberstadt, To Be A Paratrooper (St. Paul: Zenith Press, 2007), http://books. google.com/books?id= nVpNLs_rXO4C& source=gbs_navlinks_s (accessed 17 August 2009).{/footnote} But long before Eberhart, the remarkable Geronimo had left an indelible mark upon the history of the Old West.

The Making of a Murderer
The Apache Indians were made up of six tribal groups, scattered over Arizona and New Mexico, the southern portions of the Great Plains, and into the mountainous regions of the Sierra Madre in Mexico. Goyahkla (or “One Who Yawns”), later known to history as Geronimo, was born in the mid-1820s to the Bendonkohe Apaches in southwestern Arizona. Geronimo’s early life was the idyllic picture of native simplicity. He played hide-and-seek among the rocks and brush with his siblings, learned how to track rabbits and recognize medicinal herbs, and helped his parents harvest corn, beans, and melons from the tribe’s fields.

At 17, after an arduous apprenticeship, Geronimo was admitted into his tribe’s council of warriors. To become an Apache warrior, a young man had to prove his strength, courage, and ingenuity on at least four war expeditions. The Apache youth had to be able to hide without being found, be content with such insufficient and inferior food as he could manage to pack or scrounge, and anticipate and meet the needs of the elder warriors. Miles and miles of running (some histories report that a typical Apache warrior could travel on foot up to seventy miles a day, mostly running), bathing in icy water, wrestling, and marksmanship made up a significant amount of the training, as well. But more than physical accomplishments were expected from a warrior-apprentice. The aspiring warrior had to be familiar with all of the Apache’s instruments of war, their religious significance, and the special incantations chanted over the warriors. Apache culture expected a sort of religious “Power” to guide an able warrior and make him a leader worth following. It is no surprise that for Geronimo, war was “a solemn religious matter.”{footnote}Geronimo, Geronimo’s Story of His Life, ed. Stephen Melvil Barrett (New York: Duffield and Co., 1907), http://books.google. com/books?id=Q7BGAAAAIAAJ&printsec=titlepage&source=gbs_navlinks_s#v=onepage&q=&f=false (accessed 15 August 2009).{/footnote}

GeronimoShortly after joining the council, Geronimo married Alope, a sweet-natured, delicate girl with whom he had three children. He farmed, occasionally raided nearby Mexican outposts for supplies, and played with his children on the dirt floor of their wickiup. This was not to last long, however. In 1851, Geronimo, with several of his fellow warriors, went to a nearby Mexican town to trade, leaving the women under a small guard. But upon his return, Geronimo found his wife and children and mother, along with many of the other women and children, butchered at the hands of hostile Mexican raiders. The Apaches broke camp and made their way to the Mexican border, but Geronimo refused food or comfort the whole way, for as Geronimo recounts decades later, “none had lost as I had, for I had lost all.”{footnote}Ibid.{/footnote}

Geronimo vowed to avenge his family upon the Mexicans who murdered his loved ones and began to cultivate a violent, personal animosity toward the Mexican people that would rage for decades. And Geronimo—Goyhakla—did exact his vengeance. His unfortunate Mexican victims cried out to St. Jerome (“Santa Jeromino”) as they fell prey to Geronimo’s fury, thus bequeathing the Apache warrior a name that would haunt the Southwest for nearly thirty-five years.{footnote}”Geronimo: An American Legend,” Traditional Fine Arts Organization, 2004, http://www.tfaoi.com /aa/4aa/4aa494b.htm{/footnote}

Geronimo left his band of Bendonkohe Apaches and joined forces with the Chiricahua Apaches and their chief, Mangas Coloradas, father-in-law to the famed war-leader, Cochise. For the next twenty years, he roamed the rugged hills of southern Arizona and northern Mexico{footnote}The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo promised the Mexicans U.S. protection from marauding Indians.{/footnote} as a living terror to the inhabitants of the Southwest and Old Mexico, and where his name became synonymous with pillage and murder.

Renegade Apache
Geronimo and his Native American contemporaries were born in a time where the collision and culmination of countless American political events forever changed their old way of life. With the admission of over a dozen states to the Union, the westward movement of pioneers and wealth seekers, a tragic Civil War, and the country’s relations with Mexico , the Apaches found themselves hemmed in from the east, north, and south by a world much larger than they had ever known. In response to this western expansion and the worry of potentially hostile, displaced Indian peoples, the United States government established reservations for the Apache and their surrounding neighbors in a small, southeast corner of Arizona. For a short time, Geronimo was content to dwell on the reservation, but changes in military leadership and policies forced the now-consolidated bands of Apaches to move to a different reservation some miles away from their home. Geronimo and the other Indians felt this a breach of the trust between the tribes and their American agents. So he, with a significant portion of the tribe, escaped from the reservation and sought refuge in the caves and canyons of the Sierra Madres, continuing their raids on the surrounding country. He was pursued by American troops and returned by the army a year later to the reservation, only to escape again and earn the brand “Renegade Apache” from the United States government. Again, Geronimo sought refuge in the familiar mountains of Old Mexico and stepped up his rampage of theft and murder.

CrookIn 1882, the acclaimed General George Crook (nicknamed “Grey Fox” by the Apaches) was commissioned to the Arizona Territory to manage the Indian uprisings there and put an end to the continued troubles sparked by Geronimo’s band. One of Crook’s prominent soldiers, Captain John Bourke, recounts the difficulties American troops had in fighting the Apache:

It was this peculiarity [their subtlety] of the Apaches that made them such a terror to all who came in contact with them, and compelled the King of Spain to maintain a force of four thousand dragoons to keep in check a tribe of naked savages, who scorned to wear any protection against the bullets of the Castilians, who would not fight when pursued, but scattered like their own crested mountain quail, and then hovered on the flanks of the whites, and were far more formidable when dispersed than when they were moving in compact bodies. This was simply the best military policy for the Apaches to adopt—wear out the enemy by vexatious tactics, and by having the pursuit degenerate into a wil’o’th’wisp chase. The Apaches could find food on every hillside, and water-holes, springs, and flowing streams far up in the mountains were perfectly well-known to them . . .

The Apache was in no sense a coward. He knew his business, and played his cards to suit himself. He never lost a shot, and never lost a warrior in a fight where a brisk run across the nearest ridge would save his life and exhaust the heavily clad soldier who endeavored to catch him. Apaches in groups of two or three, and even individual Apaches, were wont to steal in close to military posts and ranchos, and hide behind some sheltering rock, or upon the summit of some conveniently situated hill, and there remain for days, scanning the movements of the Americans below, and waiting for a chance to stampede a herd, or kill a herder or two, or “jump” a wagon-train.{footnote}John Bourke, On the Border with Crook (New York: J.J. Little and Co., 1891),http://books.google.com/books?id=tmcOAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=geronimo&lr=&as_drrb_is=q&as_minm_is=0&as_miny_is=&as_maxm_is=0&as_maxy_is=&as_brr=3&ei=-6-ESqHEN5iSlQStmtmOCg#v=onepage&q=geronimo&f=false{/footnote}

Prisoner of War
Crook was unsuccessful in rounding up Geronimo and his band. Much to Crook’s chagrin, the government commissioned General Nelson A. Miles to end the 15-year chase. And the chase did end. In 1886, with nearly one-fourth of the U.S. military in pursuit of the elusive Apache, Geronimo and his weary group of 16 warriors and 18 women and children, finally laid down their arms and surrendered as prisoners of war to the U.S. government. General Miles, in his official report of the events leading up to Geronimo’s surrender, declared:

NelsonMilesThe hostiles fought until the bulk of their ammunition was exhausted, pursued for more than 2000 miles over the most rugged and sterile districts to the Rocky and Sierra Madre Mountain regions, beneath the burning heat of midsummer, until worn down and disheartened, they find no place of safety in our country or Mexico, and finally lay down their arms . . . .{footnote}Angie Debo, Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place (University of Oklahoma: Norman, 1976), 298.{/footnote}

Geronimo and his men were shipped in train cars to Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Florida, while the women and children were transported to Fort Marion in Saint Augustine, Florida. Geronimo and his fellow warrior, Naiche, the last blood line tribal chief of the Chiricauhan Apaches, were incensed at the separation of the warriors from their families, claiming that such separation was in violation of Geronimo’s terms for surrender. But such claims fell on deaf ears: for two years Geronimo and his warriors performed hard labor in the humid and overcrowded Fort Pickens military camp, away from their wives and children.

Overcrowding, disease, hunger, and death afflicted the Apache transplants, both in Fort Marion and at Fort Pickens. The Apache constitution was unaccustomed to the moist, humid conditions of Florida’s climate and many Indians found themselves bereaved of loved ones because of malaria, consumption, and various strains of tuberculosis. Geronimo and his compatriots were convinced that if they were allowed to be reunited with their families and returned to the dry heat of a Southwestern reservation, the Apache people would thrive as a healthy and submissive people. But the risk of Geronimo leading another rebellion in the Southwest was one the U.S. government refused to take. Geronimo, recently bereft of his wife and longing to be reunited with his surviving children, won a small victory when he and the other Fort Pickens prisoners were eventually returned to their families and relocated to the Mount Vernon Barracks in Alabama.

GeronimoSurrenderLife at the Mount Vernon Barracks, albeit difficult, was a welcome change for the prisoners. Though the Indians saw little improvement in health (the attending physician was the famed Walter Reed, and he repeatedly expressed concerns over the failing health of many Indians), they were reunited with their wives and children and encouraged to pursue assimilation into the white culture.{footnote}Ibid., 343.{/footnote} With this ultimate goal in mind, the government relocated many of the brightest Indian youth to Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania to learn English and other profitable, “civilized” trades. The remaining Indian children were placed in an anglicized school, while their parents did their best to farm the unfamiliar land and practice skills they hoped they would one day use on land of their own.

It is difficult to imagine that Geronimo, the ruthless Apache warrior, was also a devoted father. His daughter, Eva, born to him during his captivity at the Barracks, was the center of Geronimo’s dotage. One visitor to Mount Vernon recounts his memories of Geronimo:

Geronimo is the leading character among these people. He is no longer a savage in appearance or dress. I have met him often. He gave me a call a Sunday or two ago, with his wife, quite a young squaw, and their child. All had a holiday look, and the Chief, a man of 60 or more years, instead of compelling his squaw to carry the baby, a clean, good looking one, in the usual papoose or cradle or hamper, on her back was hauling it himself, in a child’s little express wagon, and seemed quite proud of his employment.{footnote}Ibid., 352.{/footnote}

Though Geronimo was unhappy to see the youth removed from their families to Carlisle, he was an avid supporter of education and understood the necessity of Indian children gaining a “white man’s” education. In the early 1890s, two young missionary women, Sophie and Sylvia Shepard, ran a little one-room school at Mount Vernon and saw over 80 pupils in their charge. The now aging Geronimo was pleased with this arrangement.

FortSillApparently self-appointed, he brought in the children and spent much time with them, training them with the same strict discipline he had once used in preparing the boys to become warriors, policing the schoolroom with a stick in his hand to intimidate any youngster who might be tempted to misbehave . . . . “We have fine lady teachers,” he said. “All the children go to their school. I make them. I want them to be white children.”{footnote}Ibid., 341.{/footnote}

Geronimo’s opinion would constantly waver between his desire that Indian children become indistinguishable from the white children, and that his people would be permitted to return to their old tribal lands and customs.

In addition to his enthusiasm for education, Geronimo also took pride in his natural leadership abilities, and he was always looking for ways to make money. When the Barracks were in need of a bit of law and order, Geronimo was appointed and hired as a judge over small “crimes” in the Indian community, such as drinking and gambling. A healthy contingent of low-life bootleggers and gamblers often peddled just outside Mount Vernon. On one occasion, Geronimo sentenced one of his fellow Indians to a six-month stay in the jail-house for drunkenness and in another case, Geronimo handed down a penalty of one hundred years’ confinement to a drunk Indian! Eventually, Geronimo was persuaded to award gentler punishments to his fellow prisoners.{footnote}Ibid., 354.{/footnote}

Pleas from concerned officials and Indian advocates prompted the government to move Geronimo, with the other captive Apaches, to Fort Sill near Lawton, Oklahoma, though it was Geronimo’s ardent desire for his people to be returned to Arizona. The Indians would remain at Fort Sill until 1914 when they were granted permission to return to a reservation in Arizona or relocate to other areas of Oklahoma.

Taking the “Jesus Road”
Late in 1902, Geronimo was approached by two Dutch Reformed missionary pastors and invited to attend services held on the Ft. Sill reservation. Geronimo reluctantly agreed and showed up at an evening meeting where the pastor preached on the atonement. After the sermon, Geronimo declared, “The Jesus Road is best and I would like my people to travel it….Now we begin to think the Christian white people love us!”{footnote}LeRoy Koopman, Taking the Jesus Road: The Ministry of the Reformed Church in America Among the Native Americans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), http://books.google. com/books?id=VHkhXZylfKcC&pg=PA114&lpg=PA114&dq=naiche%2Bchristian&source=bl&ots=h3337snHVm&sig=4FdU3xpKCoXgE5AYHELcsfQjAlU&hl=en&ei=cTyHSoHIIoigsgPy59jpAg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6#v=onepage&q=naiche%2Bchristian&f=false (accessed 18 August, 2009).{/footnote} And many of the Fort Sill Apaches did travel the Jesus Road. Naiche—one of Geronimo’s most trusted warriors—was an enthusiastic convert to Christianity, later changing his name to Christian Naiche as a part of his new-found identity.

GeronimoWorldFairHowever, it was nearly a year later before Geronimo officially took the “Jesus Road.” After having spent the year vacillating between the claims of Christianity and his tribal religion, Geronimo found himself once again at the little mission work. Recently injured from a fall from his horse, the old warrior limped into the service and heard the pastor preach a sermon titled, “Jesus Made Just Like Sin For Us.” Right then, Geronimo begged that the pastors would “pray that Jesus would give [him] a new heart.” A week later, Geronimo was satisfactorily examined, displaying “more knowledge than anyone had anticipated” and subsequently baptized into the Dutch Reformed Church. “No consistory of our church,” explained Dr. Walter Roe, the examining pastor, “could refuse to admit this man into membership.”{footnote}Ibid.{/footnote}

An Enterprising Spirit
In 1904, Geronimo stepped most noticeably into the limelight. Geronimo, with a handful of other Apaches, appeared at the World’s Fair in Saint Louis as part of an Indian exhibition. Geronimo earned $1 a day for his “labors” at the Fair, where he made bows and arrows, sang and danced, and sold more of his trinkets. He also became acquainted with all manner of civilized inventions, such as a Ferris wheel (he called the ride’s cars “curious little houses”) and glass blowing. But more importantly, Geronimo recognized two things: the American people were only too quick to part with their money when entertained by an old Indian and that the whites were a “kind and peaceful people.”{footnote}Geronimo, Geronimo’s Story of His Life, ed. Stephen Melvil Barrett (New York: Duffield and Co., 1907), http://books.google.com/ books?id=Q7BGAAAAIAAJ&printsec=titlepage&source=gbs_navlinks_s#v=onepage&q=&f=false (accessed 15 August 2009).{/footnote} This latter realization gave Geronimo hope that his greatest wish would be honored: that his people could return in peace to the land of their fathers.

Geronimo’s fame quickly spread as Wild West shows became a popular form of entertainment. For a time, Geronimo traveled with Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show, pretending to shoot buffalo and pawning his personal effects to the crowd. He was no longer a vicious Indian warrior, but an amusing curiosity. Geronimo sold autographed pictures of himself for twenty-five cents apiece and countless bows and arrows with his name whittled on the shafts. Reportedly, Geronimo would sell the buttons off his shirt, and even his hat, to adoring crowds as he moved from city to city with the show—furiously sewing new buttons on his shirt during the train rides between stops. At the time of his death, Geronimo was said to have nearly $10,000 in his bank account.{footnote}”Geronimo,” Ron Jackson, http://ndepth.newsok.com/geronimo?custom_click=lead_story_title (accessed 14 August, 2009).{/footnote}

GeronimoRooseveltArguably, the height of Geronimo’s career as an entrepreneur came in March 1905 when he rode in Teddy Roosevelt’s inaugural parade. The president even had Geronimo’s favorite horse transported up for the event. When asked why he invited the “greatest single-handed murderer” to be a part of his train, Roosevelt replied, “I wanted to give the people a good show.”{footnote}Jesse Rhodes, “Indians on the Inaugural March,” Smithsonian Magazine, 14 January 2009, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/specialsections/heritage/Indians-on-the-Inaugural-March.html (accessed 16 August, 2009).{/footnote} Geronimo, however, had another purpose in mind: he wanted to gain an audience with the President himself. Geronimo was granted permission to speak with Roosevelt, a fellow member of the Reformed Church, and pleaded with the President to allow the Apaches to return to their homeland. Roosevelt sympathetically listened, but ultimately denied his request. However, a short time later, the President permitted Geronimo to dictate his life’s story to the Oklahoma Superintendent of Education, Stephen Barrett, with the hopes that the President and “those in authority under him will read my story and judge whether my people have been rightly treated.”{footnote}Geronimo, Geronimo’s Story of His Life, ed. Stephen Melvil Barrett (New York: Duffield and Co., 1907), http://books.google.com/ books?id=Q7BGAAAAIAAJ&printsec=titlepage&source=gbs_navlinks_s#v=onepage&q=&f=false (accessed 15 August 2009).{/footnote} Geronimo dedicated his autobiography to President Roosevelt “because he has given me permission to tell my story; because he read that story and knows that I try to speak the truth; because I believe that he is fair-minded and will cause my people to receive justice in the future; and because he is chief of a great people . . . .”{footnote}Ibid.{/footnote}

“Pray for me.”
Accounts of the newly converted Apache’s Christian walk are sketchy and, at some points, contradictory. Enthusiastic New York Times reporters recount that Geronimo “had embraced Christianity, had thrown down the scalping knife, and was actively engaged in Sunday School work among his fellow-red men”—nearly fourteen years before his public profession of faith.{footnote}”The Converted Geronimo,” New York Times, November 1889, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9502E0DE173BE033A25751C1A9679D94689FD7CF{/footnote} Still more curious are the conflicting accounts about Geronimo’s church attendance. Barrett, Geronimo’s amanuensis (with whom the old Indian spent many months), recalled that after his admission to the rolls of the church, Geronimo faithfully attended services at the Fort Sill Mission. But some years later, historian Frank Cummins Lockwood writes that Geronimo’s “attendance at services was irregular.” Lockwood continues, “Surely, whatever may have been his profession, he was a poor practitioner.”{footnote}Frank Cummins Lockwood, The Apache Indians, (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska, 1987), 327.{/footnote} Geronimo, though, pleaded with the Fort Sill missionaries: “You must help me…Pray for me. You may hear of my doing wrong, but my heart is right.”{footnote}Koopman, 117.{/footnote}

Geronimo discusses his faith in his autobiography:

Since my life as a prisoner has begun I have heard the teachings of the white man’s religion, and in many respects believe it to be better than the religion of my fathers. However, I have always prayed, and I believe that the Almighty has protected me.

GeronimoChiefBelieving that in a wise way it is good to go to church, and that associating with Christians would improve my character, I have adopted the Christian religion. I believe that the church has helped me during the short time that I have been a member. I am not ashamed to be a Christian . . . I have advised all of my people who are not Christians, to study that religion, because it seems to be the best religion in enabling one to live right.{footnote}Ibid.{/footnote}

There is no doubt that Geronimo had a tremendous amount of spiritual baggage with him as he walked the “Jesus Road.” Geronimo admits to having always been a religious person, and his own persona as a medicine man and near super-human warrior surely clashed with the humility of spirit that should mark a mature Christian. Many Indians still sought out Geronimo as a healer and the converted Indian condoned tribal coming-of-age rites as rituals not to be done away with. Geronimo marveled at an old “prophecy” someone spoke over him as a youth: that no bullet could ever kill the mighty warrior. Barrett recalled that the 80 year-old Indian raised his shirt to show off multiple scars from bullet wounds all over his torso, wounds that would normally have been deadly to any man.

Debate also surrounds Geronimo’s eventual standing with the church. A few historians claim that the elderly Geronimo was ex-communicated for drinking and gambling, but, there is no mention of Geronimo ever having been excommunicated in the typically meticulous records of the Dutch Reformed Church.{footnote}Ibid.{/footnote} It is more likely, then, for Geronimo to have been censured or suspended for a time by the Church without being formally expelled by the body. Perhaps these historians’ misunderstanding of church government fueled the rumor of Geronimo’s break with the church. In any case, the lifelong habits of drinking and gambling were difficult for Geronimo to forsake. He was not, as one missionary would later admit, “a paragon of Christian behavior.” Elizabeth Page, a missionary with the Dutch Reformed Church and a contemporary of Geronimo writes that the Fort Sill “missionaries began to question the wisdom of ever taking him in.” Yet Page invites her readers to sympathize with the old warrior: “He tried, he honestly tried, and who are we to judge him, we who often make failures of roads far less hard to travel?”{footnote}Koopman,119.{/footnote} Sadly, in 1909, after a night of heavy drinking, Geronimo fell from his horse into a puddle of standing water. He contracted pneumonia and died a short time later.

More than just a paratrooper’s exclamation, Geronimo was one of the most colorful characters in the history of the American West. He was an outlaw, an entrepreneur, an entertainer, and an advocate. He spent over 40 years of his life terrorizing Arizona and Old Mexico, surrendering to the U.S. government more from exhaustion than necessity. He encouraged the Apache youth to find their new place in the white world, and yet held out hope for returning to his native land. Who could have ever imagined that this fierce warrior would one day end up preaching to a hundred or so contrite and crying Indians, “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want”?{footnote}”Geronimo Preaches Sermon: Sioux [sic] Chief Prays for Roosevelt and Liberty,” New York Times, May 13, 1906. http://query. nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9905E4D7113EE733A25750C1A9639C946797D6CF{/footnote} Was Geronimo a bright, shining star in the history of the Church? Only God can see the heart. However, he was an outward member of Christ’s body and a study in the great expanse of God’s grace to needy sinners.