As collected mementoes housed in a museum located in the capital of the nation responsible for these actions, the rifles belonging to Joseph and Geronimo literally and figuratively represent the disarming and downfall of Native leaders and the destruction of entire ways of life.
The Apache Way of Life
The Chiricahua are one of several politically autonomous Apache or Nde people—the others being the Jicarilla, Lipan, Mescalero, Plains Apache, and Western Apache. Over the course of several centuries, the Apache migrated from western Canada to the Plains and Southwest.
Having adopted the horse in the 18th century, they became highly mobile, bison-hunting people and integral to a wide-ranging trade network that included both indigenous and colonial powers. The raiding of both Native and non-Native settlements was crucial to the Apache way of life.
This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Apache: A Threat to Civilization
The Chiricahua occupied what is today southern Arizona and New Mexico. They further subdivided into four bands. And within these bands, were matrilineally defined local groups of approximately 30 extended families. Geronimo, or Goyathlay—the one who yawns—was born into the Bedonkohe band during the 1820s.
Like Kintpuash and Joseph, he came of age in a world that was growing increasingly perilous. Mexican and, after the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, American authorities routinely vilified the Apache—characterizing them as a threat to civilization.
Indeed, Geronimo’s mother, first wife, and three children all were killed by Mexican soldiers during the 1850s, and he carried a deep scar on his face from a bullet that nearly took his life.
Learn more about Native Americans and religious violence.
The Apache say that Geronimo received a gift of power from Ussen, the Creator, shortly after his family’s murder. His relative, Daklugie, described it as supernatural protection and attributed some, if not all, of his bravery to it. “He was by nature already a brave person,” Daklugie observed. “But if one knows that he will never be killed, why be afraid?”
Drawing on this power, Geronimo exacted revenge on the Mexican soldiers who killed his family. And from the 1860s to the end of the 1880s, he came to symbolize the Chiricahua struggle to maintain their independence—their very way of life.
Forced to Accept Reservation
The challenges were great. Mexican and local American governments offered bounties for Apache scalps. And, like Kintpuash, Geronimo’s people had been double-crossed and attacked when they tried to make peace.
During the early 1870s, the U.S. government took extraordinary measures to realize its imperial ambitions by attempting to force all of the Apache— some 8,000 in number, to accept reservations. Beginning in the fall of 1872, the Chiricahua Reservation was established in southeastern Arizona.
Warm Springs in southwestern New Mexico and San Carlos in eastern Arizona, among others, followed. Subsequent raids into Mexico by the Chiricahua led federal officials to consolidate virtually all of the Western Apaches at the San Carlos Reservation in 1874.
San Carlos: A Good Place to Die
San Carlos was already overcrowded and, to make matters worse, it was an arid wasteland. “San Carlos was considered a good place for the Apaches,” Daklugie recalled, “a good place for them to die.” Geronimo was forced to move there in 1877.
The conditions at San Carlos, however, were unbearable. The pressure to assimilate was intolerable. Nonviolent resistance was met with violent suppression. Unwilling to accept the indignities of reservation life, Geronimo led small bands of Apaches into the Sierra Madre Mountains, in Mexico, on three different occasions.
The Last Flight to Freedom
Their place of refuge was a vast expanse of land high in the Sierra Madre Mountains that non-Indians referred to—as with the Modoc Lava Beds—as the Stronghold.
Their last flight to freedom began in May 1885. Geronimo and more than 100 men, women, and children were hounded by American troops. After peace negotiations fell apart at the last minute in March 1886, the United States replaced George Crook with General Nelson Miles—who was now famous for his campaign against Chief Joseph and the Nimi’ipuu—among others.
General Miles, in turn, assembled a force of 5,000 soldiers and 500 scouts to subdue the fewer than 40 Apache who remained. Even then, it took several more months to force Geronimo to surrender at a place called Skeleton Canyon in southeastern Arizona on September 6, 1886.
Rather than returning to San Carlos, the Chiricahua were put on a train and—like the Modoc and Nimi’ipuu—sent into exile.
Geronimo and the Chiricahua were imprisoned in Fort Marion near St. Augustine, Florida. There they joined other Apache who, despite remaining at San Carlos, had been deemed hostiles and incarcerated, too. Even Apache scouts who guided the U.S. military expedition were imprisoned.
Separated and Imprisoned
Driven by irrational fear, the government proceeded to separate family members. The men were sent to Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Florida. The women and children stayed at Fort Marion. Geronimo lost another wife and another daughter there. And more than 100 Apaches perished in all.
After almost two years, the adults and small children were removed once more—this time to a prison camp in Mount Vernon, Alabama. In 1894, the Apache were moved yet again, but—as with the Modoc and Nimi’ipuu—not back to their ancestral home. Instead, the Apache were relocated to Fort Sill in present-day southwestern Oklahoma, where Geronimo lived out his remaining years.
Learn more about Native resistance in the West, 1850s-1870s.
Squashing the Resistance
As the 19th century drew to a close, Native military resistance across the Trans-Mississippi West had been brutally suppressed. What is more, the United States took the extraordinary measure of assuming that resistance could not be squashed without removing Native people to places far away from their homelands and keeping them captive, sometimes for decades.
All of this certainly makes the idea of the last Indian wars seductive. However, the warfare directed toward Native people didn’t end. Native people continued to negotiate dramatic changes in their lives. They continued to fight—though on different ground and with different weapons —a war that was not of their own making.
Common Questions about Geronimo and the Chiricahua Apache
The Chiricahua are one of the several politically autonomous Apache or Nde people—the others being the Jicarilla, Lipan, Mescalero, Plains Apache, and Western Apache.
The Apache believed that Geronimo received a gift of power from Ussen, the Creator, shortly after his family’s murder.
Rather than returning to San Carlos, the Chiricahua were put on a train and sent into exile.