H. W. Brands
A fast-paced biography of the most famous North American Indian of all time, with new material to reveal the man behind the legend
H. W. Brands
Read an Excerpt
By Robert M. Utley
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2012 Robert M. Utley
All right reserved.
Chapter OneApache Youth
GERONIMO'S LAWLESS BAND EL PASO, Texas, May 15.W. J. Glenn, who has just arrived here from the State of Sonora, Mexico, gives a truthful account of the terrible atrocities of Geronimo and his band of Apaches in Sonora and Southern Arizona. He asserts that the Indians seem encouraged, and are more bloodthirsty than for several months, and Mexicans and their families, as well as Americans, are indiscriminately butchered when found. Three surveyors who recently went into the mountains have disappeared, and no trace of them can be found. There is no doubt they were butchered. Mr. Glenn said that Northern Sonora is terribly excited over the report that a body of Mexicans numbering 50 men have been surrounded in the mountains, and are in danger of being massacred. New York Times, May 15, 1886
HISTORY WOULD AWARD THE youth born sixty-three years earlier with hundreds of such articles in newspapers all over the United States. Some were mere rumors or fabrications, but the stories were bad enough to brand this man a bloody butcher who shot, lanced, or knifed dozens of victims throughout his adult life. His name induced fear and horror in settlers in Arizona and New Mexico as well as the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora. And the public at large knew the name to stand for terrible atrocities. His youth featured nothing that portended such a record.
He first glimpsed daylight in a broad river valley, yellow grass waving in the breeze, bordered by towering mountains capped in green. This was the homeland of his people, the Bedonkohe (Bee-don-ko-hee) band of the Chiricahua (Cheer-i-ca-wah) Apache tribe. His father, Taslishim, The Gray One, and his mother, remembered only by her Mexican name, Juana, named their son Goyahkla, The One Who Yawns. Like his mother, in manhood he would also be known by his Mexican name and emerge as the most famous North American Indian of all timeGeronimo.
The year was 1823, the place the upper Gila (Hee-la) River Valley where it flows south from the Mogollon (Mug-ee-yone) Mountains in the modern state of New Mexico. The river then describes a southward bend and runs west across the line that would mark the border of the future state of Arizona. Eighty years later, Geronimo would recall his birth year as 1829 and his birthplace as the Gila River in Arizona just west of the boundary with New Mexico. His memoryor his interpreterplayed him false. The year 1823 fits with other known events, and the New Mexico site his own description of the country.
The Mogollon Mountains played a prominent role in the life of Geronimo, both as refuge from pursing soldiers and as base for murderous raids on white farmers and miners below. The highest and most rugged range in New Mexico, the Mogollons rise above eight thousand feet, with more than five peaks soaring above ten thousand. Deep, precipitous canyons snake around the peaks, and steep, rocky ridges climb one on the other toward the summit. Douglas fir and aspen, golden in autumn, cover the high areas, with juniper, oak, and cactus crawling down the lower slopes. Storms of rain and snow sweep the jagged heights. Only the hardiest and most knowledgeable, such as the Apaches, could summon these tortuous mountains to their purposes.
Taslishim was the son of a great chief, Mahco. Goyahkla never saw his grandfather, but his father described him as a man of great size, strength, and sagacity, as well as a man of peace. Mahco's chieftainship coincided with a long period of relative peace between the wars that periodically occurred with the Spanish people far to the south. This period began about 1790 and continued into Goyahkla's youth, by which time Spanish rule had been overthrown, and the people to the south called themselves Mexicans. Even so, Mahco was also remembered as a great fighter, and his grandson heard war stores from his father that related to the few episodes of war that occurred during Mahco's tenure. Well into adulthood, when other loyalties developed, Goyahkla venerated the memory of his grandfather.
Geronimo said he had three brothers and four sisters. Actually, he had only one sibling, a sister named Nah-dos-te, four years his senior. The rest were grandchildren of Mahco and his second wife, whose name is not known to have been written down. The Apache language made no distinction between cousins and siblings. Except for one true sister, the others Geronimo referred to were all cousins. His favorite "sister," Ishton, was two years younger and the daughter of one of Mahco's sons or daughters.
After Mahco's death, the Bedonkohe chieftainship fell not to Taslishim but to a Bedonkohe named Teboka, which explains why Geronimo never became a chief. Already, however, another chief had largely inherited the role filled by the great Mahco, and Teboka generally followed this chief. He was then known as Fuerte (Spanish for strong), but within a decade Mexicans would provide his lasting name, Mangas Coloradas (Red Sleeves).
Three other Chiricahua bands adjoined the Bedonkohe. To the east, extending almost to the Rio Grande, lived the Chihenne (Chee-hen-ee) band, which translates to Red Paint People. To the southwest ranged a Chiricahua band that in later years took the name of the most prominent subdivision, Chokonen (Cho-ko-nen). These people occupied the Chiricahua and Dragoon Mountains and the intervening valleys of southeastern Arizona. South of this band, below the line that would divide the United States and Mexico, the Nednhi (Ned-nee) band lived among North America's most rugged and inaccessible mountains, the Sierra Madre.
No single chief guided the Chiricahua tribe or its bands. Each band divided into local groupsextended families and any others who wished to belong. Each local group had one or more chiefs. All the bands included local groups of more or less size and influence that rose and fell. For example, the Warm Springs (or Ojo Caliente: Oho Cal-yent-tay) is the best known of several Chihenne local groups.
All the Chiricahua bands shared a virtually identical language, culture, and life-way. Their neighbors to the west, the White Mountain Apaches, bore close resemblance to the Chiricahuas in band and local group organization and in language and culture. Tensions sometimes unsettled Chiricahua and White Mountain Apache relationships, but in general they coexisted amicably. The White Mountain Apaches were the largest division of the Western Apaches, which on their south and west also included Cibicue (Sib-i-que), San Carlos, and Northern and Southern Tontos. East of the Rio Grande, in the Sierra Blanca of southern New Mexico, the Mescalero Apaches shared much of the Chiricahua language and culture and friendly if sporadic relations. The Jicarilla (Hick-a-ree-a) tribe lived in northern New Mexico, Kiowa-Apaches in Oklahoma, and Lipan Apaches in Texas, but they did not interact with the Chiricahuas. (See Appendix.)
During Geronimo's heyday, the entire Chiricahua tribe numbered about three thousand people, so in the relatively small local groups most people tended to know one another. By 1886, when Geronimo surrendered, the tribe had declined by about 80 percent, mainly the result of warfare.
During his maturing years, Geronimo's most influential mentor was his fellow Bedonkohe, Mangas Coloradas. By the 1850s, Mangas Coloradas excelled all other Chiricahua leaders in almost every way. Physically, he was a giant, six and a half feet tall, muscular, with an expansive chest and shoulders, brawny legs, and posture "straight as a reed from which his arrows were made." Black eyes flashed from beneath a high and wide forehead. A massive jaw and prominent cheekbones completed a physique unusual by every Apache standard. His character featured the trait most admired by Apaches, courage. In battle he fought with vigor, and after war resumed with Mexicans in the 1830s, he frequently demonstrated his bravery by aggressive moves against Mexican troop formations and in hand-to-hand combat. His hatred of the Mexican state of Sonora knew no bounds, but his attitude toward the state of Chihuahua was less belligerent. Yet as the years passed and his influence remained supreme, he increasingly wanted to cultivate crops in peace on the prairies where the upper Gila River emerged from the Mogollon Mountains. His superb leadership talents included a political instinct for uniting both tribes and bands behind his policies.
Born about 1790 (killed 1863), Mangas married about 1810 into a mixed Bedonkohe-Chihenne group living near Santa Lucía Springs, located in the foothills of the Burro Mountains bordering on the south the large southward arc of the upper Gila River in southwestern New Mexico. (See the map of the homeland of Geronimo and Mangas Coloradas.) Consistent with Chiricahua custom, Mangas went to live with his wife's family. Santa Lucía Springs remained his home base for the rest of his life and the center of a growing hybrid local group that drew on all the Chihenne local groups, the Bedonkohes, and even some of the Chokonens. By the time Geronimo had reached manhood and taken the name Geronimo, the Bedonkohes looked on Mangas Coloradas as having filled the leadership void left by the death of Chief Mahco. Over several decades, the hybrid group turned essentially into the Bedonkohe Chiricahua band. As an admiring protégé, Geronimo firmly linked himself to Mangas Coloradas until his death.
In old age Geronimo remembered rolling on the dirt floor of the family dwelling and being bundled in his cradle board fastened to his mother's back or swinging from a tree limb. When scarcely out of the cradle board, his instruction began. His mother taught him the origins, traditions, customs, beliefs, and ceremonies of his people. His father regaled him with stories of war and tales of hunting the animals on which much of the people's subsistence depended.
From his mother, the boy learned of Usen, Life-Giver, and the all-knowing, all-seeing deity that governed Apache life. She taught him to pray to Usen for strength, health, wisdom, and protection. She told of White Painted Woman, Child of the Water, and the Mountain Spirits. All had their role in the beginnings of the people; all had many, not always consistent, stories handed down of their place in the mists of antiquity; all except Usen had ceremonies of celebration or propitiation.
Rituals abounded. Geronimo learned them and practiced them. They defined the proper path through life, from which one strayed at his peril. For example, an elaborate ceremony conducted by a shaman attended the construction and first use of the cradle board. The process climaxed with a shaman raising the cradle to the four directions three times, after which the infant was placed in it. "Putting on the Moccasins" celebrated release from the cradle board and first steps. It, too, featured a shaman as well as much feasting. Certain men and women knew how to conduct the ceremony. This power came to them through the culture hero Child of the Water. This ceremony, as one old Apache related, "is done to keep the child healthy and strong, and because Child of the Water, when he started to walk, had a ceremony like this one." As in all Indian tribes, the number four was sacred and governed all ceremonies, which customarily lasted four days. Many others drew Geronimo along life's path.
The most critical personal attribute Geronimo's mother conveyed was "Power." Every Apache sought or received Power. Power derived from both the animate and the inanimatean animal, a bird, even an insect, or simply a spiritual revelation, perhaps from Usen. Power featured a wide variety of expressions, for both good and evil. Controlling the weather, such as bringing rain or redirecting lightning, are examples of good. Most notably, shamans and healing dominated the uses of Power. As he grew into manhood, Geronimo acquired a wide range of Power that impressed his people, including healing the sick through incantations.
Apache culture provided many occasions for social gatherings, including all the ceremonies. Simply a consensus that the people wanted to assemble for a good time was excuse enough. They told stories, danced, feasted, and drank a mild beverage fermented from corn called tiswin. Only when ample supplies of corn could be obtained as rations or by theft or cultivation, however, could the beverage be prepared. Women made tiswin. Some acquired distinction as tiswin brewers. As early as age fourteen, adolescents could drink tiswin.
Because tiswin soured several days after being made, an entire supply had to be consumed during a social affair. Increasingly, its alcoholic effect induced men to fast for several days before an event and then drink themselves into oblivion. Often, mayhem and even death occurred during a tiswin drunk. Not all, or even most, social affairs were tiswin drunks, but custom made them common.
Tiswin bears more of the blame for Apache intoxication than warranted. Much stronger drink could be made from the agave (or century) plant, including mescal, tequila, and pulque. Ultimately whiskey could be obtained by purchase or theft. So powerful was the addiction to alcohol in any form that it led to drinking parties that often featured violence, mayhem, and even murder. Worse, time and again it overcame experience and common sense to entice groups to expose themselves to massacre by Mexicans. By adulthood, many Apaches had become addicted.
Such would be Geronimo's fate, but for young Geronimo, all was not study and learning. He played with his brothers and sisters. Hide-and-seek was a perennial favorite. Also, they played at war. Imitating fighting men, they crept up on an object or playmate designated the enemy and, reenacting the stories they had been told of adult deeds, "performed the feats of war." A difficult and competitive game, hoop-and-pole, tested their emerging skills.
As the youth grew taller and stronger, he joined other young people in helping their parents till the soil. They cultivated corn, beans, melons, and pumpkins. The boys also joined with the women and their daughters to gather berries and nuts when ripe. Not until adolescence, after mastering horsemanship, did they begin to hunt the animals that provided a major source of sustenance.
As soon as the boy entered adolescence, Taslishim began to prepare his son for the novice period, the years when the boy learned, experienced, and ultimately mastered the demanding trials that ended in formal admission to adulthood and fighting status. Most men had qualified because the culture demanded fighters. Chiricahuas distinguished between raid and war. Raids aimed at replenishing provisions or stock running low, with every possible measure, including spiritual, undertaken to avoid casualties. War, much larger and more formal, was strictly for revenge of an earlier death or injury at the hands of the foe. Mexicans bore the brunt of both raid and war.
Taslishim and a shaman helped Geronimo construct a powerful and sacred bow and arrows and learn to use them accurately. Taslishim subjected his son to the beginnings of rigorous physical training, designed to build strength and endurance and tolerate deprivation of water and food for long periods. The boy exercised to toughen muscles throughout the body, but the challenge repeated almost daily was a long, fast run over rough terrain, usually up a steep slope and back down. To demonstrate that he had done his breathing through his nose, he carried a small stone in his mouth and showed it to his mentor on return. As the boy progressed yearly toward the novitiate, the runs became longer and harder.
Taslishim died when his son was ten, several years before the onset of novitiate. Someone else had to continue the training. Taslishim lingered in illness long before death, so he may have designated a man to take responsibility. An uncle often undertook this task. Taslishim had no brother, so his successor may have been an uncle who was born of Mahco's second wife or even some other willing member of the Bedonkohe band.
Horsemanship and skill in hunting were part of the preparation. Geronimo began serious hunting at the age of ten, about the time his father died. The prairies at the foot of the Mogollon Mountains abounded in deer, antelope, elk, and buffalo. Geronimo found buffalo the easiest to kill, using both bow and arrow and spear. Deer were the hardest. They had to be stealthily approached from downwind. "Frequently we would spend hours in stealing upon grazing deer." Once within range, the boys could often bring several down before the rest stampeded. The deer provided both meat and hide. "Perhaps no other animal was more valuable to us than the deer." Apache taboos barred eating the flesh of the fish swarming in the streams and the bears roaming the forests.
Special techniques applied to wild turkeys and rabbits. The hunters drove the turkeys from the woods into the open and pursued them slowly until they tired. Then the boys prodded their mounts and dashed on the birds, sweeping them from the ground with a hand. If a bird took to flight, they raced their horses beneath and struck with a hunting club. Rabbits posed a contest in speed, as the horses galloped after a fleeing animal and the rider either scooped it up by hand or threw the hunting club to strike it down. "This was great sport when we were boys, but as warriors we seldom hunted small game."
Excerpted from GERONIMO by Robert M. Utley Copyright © 2012 by Robert M. Utley. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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