The Star Attraction

Geronimo

by Robert M. Utley
Yale University Press, 348 pp., $30.00

As a war cry, “Geronimo!” has certainly stood the test of time. Paratroopers in World War II yelled it as they hurled themselves into the void, and, more recently, our lethal team of killers were said to have uttered it when they surprised the bin Ladens in their compound in Pakistan. And yet the man who bore it, a Bedonkohe Apache whose tribal name was Goyahkla, was never a chief. When he finally surrendered, to General Nelson A. Miles on September 3, 1886, he had only fifteen men with him, and a few women and children. In his years of constant raiding he rarely led more than thirty men, many of them members of his extended family. At least two of his Apache contemporaries, Mangas Coloradas and Cochise, were far better leaders than Geronimo, and yet his name endures and the others are largely forgotten except by close students of Apache life.

mcmurtry_1-011013.jpg
C.S. Fly/Arizona Historical Society
Geronimo at Canyon de los Embudos (Funnel Canyon), twenty-five miles south of the US–Mexico border, in 1886, the year he surrendered to US authorities

The author of this new biography of Geronimo, Robert M. Utley, evidently enjoys writing about difficult men. His excellent book The Lance and the Shield (1993) is mostly a study of the testy Hunkpapa Sitting Bull, whom Buffalo Bill Cody—who once employed him briefly in his circus—called “peevish,” a major understatement. The same could be said of Geronimo. I don’t recall a photograph of Geronimo smiling, though once in captivity, when he performed at fairs and expositions, he was photographed hundreds of times, and there might be one of him smiling somewhere. At least one of his sons went to the Carlisle Indian School.

Robert Utley is an accomplished and meticulous historian, with a solid grasp of the history of the American West. For long the standard biography of Geronimo was that of the Oklahoma historian Angie Debo, whom I wrote about in these pages a long time ago.* Geronimo was in Oklahoma, at Fort Sill, during the last several years of his life; he died there of pneumonia in 1909. I own, myself, some thirty-five glass negative photographs of Geronimo, taken by a woman dentist while he was in captivity at Fort Sill. In one photograph he is allowed to hold a revolver. He does not look happy.

It is hardly surprising that Geronimo would rarely have been photographed smiling. Few native Americans had much to smile about: less and less as the whites got serious about taking their land. In 1851 Mexican troops hit Geronimo’s camp while he was away. He returned to find his mother, wife, and three children dead in pools of blood. He hated Mexicans for the rest of his life, though over and over again, when pressed by his enemies, he retreated into the fastness of the Mexican Sierra Madre, using the border defensively whenever he needed to.

Geronimo was born in 1823, in the mountains of …

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  1. *

    Broken Promises,” The New York Review, October 23, 1997.