For those of you who'd like to learn more about the life of Geronimo, we thought we'd share this article from museum historian Mark Hirsch. It originally appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of NMAI's American Indian magazine.
By Mark Hirsch
American Indian history is filled with difficult stories of forced removal, but only one Indian people were wrenched from their homelands and held as prisoners of war for 27 years. That singular story is the focus of the Chiricahua Apache gallery in the Our Peoples exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Using quotations, photographs, and museum objects, contemporary Chiricahua Apaches describe how their ancestors were held in internment camps as prisoners of war in Florida, Alabama, and Fort Sill, Oklahoma, respectively, from 1886 to 1913 – the longest captivity of any group in U.S. history.
One of seven Apache-speaking tribes – which include the Jicarilla, Kiowa-Apache, Lipan, Mescalero, Navajo, and Western Apaches – the Chiricahua Apaches’ traditional homelands extended throughout southwestern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona, and northern Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico. Chiricahua bands moved with the seasons, hunting, gathering, and traveling over their lands, as one observer put it, like “fleet-footed Bedouins of the Southwest.” These lifeways were disrupted in the 1850s, when white settlers, miners, and soldiers arrived in large numbers and took possession of increasing amounts of land. Conflicts over land and free passage led to violence, and by the 1860s, violence morphed into all-out war.
Leaders such as Mangas Coloradas (ca. 1793-1863), Cochise (ca. 1810-1874), Victorio (ca. 1825-1880), Geronimo (1829-1909), and others fought bravely to protect the Chiricahuas’ lands and freedom, but they and their followers were outmanned and outgunned. Faced with extermination and starvation,most Chiricahuas had to move to the San Carlos Reservation west of the Rio Grande where the U.S. attempted to concentrate all Apaches.
The transition was painful. Accustomed to moving about at will, the Chiricahuas felt like prisoners on the hot, overcrowded, and insect-infested San Carlos Reservation in Arizona. Soldiers were everywhere, and the Chiricahuas chafed against their arbitrary authority, resisted efforts to quash Apache rituals, and complained bitterly of inadequate food supplies.
Geronimo and Naiche, son of Chiricahua leader Cochise, sit on horseback, flanked by Geronimo’s son (holding an infant) and an unidentified man. (PHOTO: CAMILLUS PHOTO: A. J. MCDONALD/NMAI/P07009 S. FLY/NMAI/P06892)
Geronimo, like the other leaders of the Chiricahua, detested the enclosure of his people. In 1876, he fled the San Carlos Reservation, but was later captured and thrown in the guardhouse. He and his people fled again in 1878, returned under pressure two years later, then bolted again in 1881. They returned in 1882 – this time, attacking the reservation and taking hundreds of their people with them.
During these breaks for freedom, the Chiricahuas survived by raiding towns and settlements and by waylaying wagon trains and stagecoaches. When pursued, Chiricahua horsemen evaded capture by blending into the rugged and uncharted canyons ofMexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains. These guerrilla tactics struck fear into the hearts of settlers throughout Arizona Territory, and a rising chorus of anti- Chiricahua accusations soon encouraged the U.S. Army to redouble its efforts to capture the warriors.
Under the command of Gen.George Crook and, later,Gen.Nelson Miles, some 5,000 soldiers, employing Apache scouts, finally tracked the Chiricahuas to their mountain hideout in Mexico.With the security of their hideout breached, the Apaches gradually surrendered, and drifted back to San Carlos.“The Chiricahua scouts were promised land and money for their service, but they, too, were betrayed,” says Anita Lester, one of the Chiricahua Apache community members who consulted on the exhibition. During the next three years, Geronimo and his band recurrently broke away from and returned to the reservation – a pattern that was ended when Geronimo surrendered to Gen. Miles at Skeleton Canyon.
Exiling Chiricahua Apaches was a popular notion in Arizona Territory in 1886. The idea was first tried out in the spring, when the U.S. began shipping Apache prisoners to Florida. By depopulating the San Carlos Reservation, army officials hoped to deprive the Apaches of supplies and support, the twin pillars upon which all popular guerrilla movements stand. But what began as a military strategy soon became a blueprint for social policy. Ultimately, the U.S. decided to exile all Chiricahuas from Arizona Territory. Even those who had stayed on the reservation and who had tried to walk the white man’s road would be rounded up as prisoners of war and sent off to Florida.
Some 498 Apaches were transported from Arizona to Florida in 1886.Most, including 164 children,were sent to Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Fla. Some 17 men, including Geronimo, Mangus (the son of Mangas Coloradas), Naiche (the son of Cochise), Perico, Fun, Chappo, and others,were separated from their families and sent nearly 400 miles away to Fort Pickens, a deserted structure on Santa Rosa Island, in Pensacola Bay. There they were put to hard labor.
In the steamy Florida lowlands, the Chiricahuas struggled to survive in an impossibly overcrowded, mosquito-infested environment. Accustomed to the dry Southwest, the Apaches were hammered by humidity. Given meager rations, the prisoners grew malnourished and took ill. Lacking access to traditional medicinal plants, the Chiricahuas were helpless to stem the tide of disease, which included tuberculosis – an affliction that had no known cure in Native or Euro American culture. By 1889, 119 of the 498 Chiricahuas were dead.
Even children separated from their families by the U.S. and sent to the Carlisle Indian Boarding School in Pennsylvania fell prey. Of the 106 students who arrived at Carlisle in 1886, some 27 would die by 1889. The Chiricahuas’ plight soon attracted the attention of reformers, who demanded that the detainees be transferred to a more suitable environment. The U.S. responded by sending the Chiricahuas to Mount Vernon Barracks, an installation 30 miles north of Mobile, Ala. Most of the Chiricahuas arrived there in 1887; the remainder, including Geronimo, came in 1888.
In Alabama, the Chiricahuas were permitted to butcher dead cattle found in railroad rights-of-way, to buy beef from farmers using money earned selling keepsakes and autographs to tourists, and to barter army-issued rations for more and better foods. But more palatable provisions could neither blunt humidity nor eradicate disease. “We had thought Fort Marion was a terrible place with the mosquitoes and the rain,” recalled Geronimo’s son, Eugene Chihuahua, “but this was worse.... It rained nearly all the time.... the mosquitoes almost ate us alive.... Babies died from their bites… [and] our people got the shaking sickness.... We burned one minute and froze the next....We chilled and shook.”
Walter Reed, an as yet little-known army physician, was assigned to Mount Vernon Barracks from 1887 to 1890. He built a hospital for the Chiricahuas and worked hard to beat the diseases that stalked them. Despite his efforts, mortality rates continued to soar, renewing discussions about relocating the prisoners to yet another installation. Returning the Chiricahuas to their homelands was never an option.
“[I]f an effort was made to send them back to Arizona,” Gen. Miles warned, “they would be immediately taken out of the hands of the military authorities and tried and hung, or killed without trial” by local vigilantes. The U.S. heeded Miles’s warning. On October 4, 1894, the 259 remaining Apache prisoners of war boarded another train – this one bound for Fort Sill, Okla.
At Fort Sill, the Chiricahuas were met by a delegation of neighboring Comanches and Kiowas.With winter coming, the newcomers quickly set about fashioning shelters made from branches, boards, and other materials. In the spring, they began to build wooden homes, and soon, 12 small villages, each composed of a separate Chiricahua band or group, were scattered across the western end of the post. People took up cattle-raising and farming. Each family tilled ten acres: eight for corn, one for garden crops, and one for cotton. Soon the Chiricahuas began to restore their traditional way of life. “They went back to using old-time cradleboards,” says James Kunestsis, Chiricahua Apache traditional dance leader who also consulted on the exhibit.“They started doing dances and prayers.And they started having children again, because when they were sent to Florida and Alabama, they stopped living.”
In Fort Sill, Miss Vos, a Dutch Reformed Church mission worker, teaches kitchen work to
Apache girls (left to right) Isabel Enjady and Eloise Perico (sisters), Irene Gooday, and
Minnie Dee. Circa 1900. (PHOTO: NMAI/P20960)
Yet the Chiricahuas continued to long for home – perhaps no one more so than Geronimo. Since arriving at Fort Sill, Geronimo was exploited for his notoriety. As a prisoner of war, in 1903, he appeared at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (World’s Fair) in St. Louis,Mo., selling his photograph for 25 cents each. In 1905, he was in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade and later related his experiences to Stephen Melvil Barrett,who published Geronimo’s Story of His Life in 1907. Still, Geronimo was homesick. In his autobiography, he implored President Roosevelt to allow his people to return to Arizona, but his petition was not granted. Geronimo died, still a prisoner of war, on February 17, 1909. He was buried at Fort Sill.
It took 27 years for the passions of the conflict to subside enough that some sense of justice could be administered. Finally, in 1913 the Chiricahuas’ status as prisoners of war was lifted. Of the 498 original detainees, only 271 survived their 27-year ordeal. The newly freed Chiricahuas were given the choice of accepting lands north of Fort Sill or sharing a reservation with Mescalero Apaches in south-central New Mexico. “Up to the last minute, people were trying to make the decision,” says Fort Sill Apache historian Michael Darrow. “Brothers and sisters split up, fathers and children split up. Some wanted to go one place, some to another. That’s how our tribe came to be split, with the Fort Sill Apaches in Oklahoma and the Chiricahuas at Mescalero.” Ultimately, 187 Chiricahuas decided to move to New Mexico; 84 chose to remain in Oklahoma.
One might expect to find words of anger in a history exhibition by and about the Chiricahua Apaches – retribution for the wrongs of the past. Instead, visitors will encounter a spirit of healing and a celebration of survival – ethos of the power of knowing and remembering. “War came to us, and we fought back. In the end, we were pushed aside and shipped off to prison for 27 years. Yet we survived in spite of everything.We kept our values and our traditions, no matter what. We preserve these stories because we want our children and grandchildren to know that they come from a great people,” the Chiricahua Apache curators explain in their exhibit. “No one can go into this world and be peaceful within themselves unless they know who they are.”
Mark Hirsch is a historian at the National Museum of the American Indian, where he won the Employee of the Year award in 2003.