On a recent road trip thru the desert southwest I eagerly got off the fast-paced, deadline-oriented traffic flow of I-10 at a lonely junction near Steins, New Mexico. I headed south thru the San Simon Valley for the express purpose of hiking in a place called Skeleton Canyon, where Geronimo and his band of Chiricahua Apaches surrendered to the U.S. Cavalry in 1886, thus unofficially ending the Indian Wars of the post-Civil War period. But it really goes much deeper than that.
I wanted to see with my own eyes the site and surroundings of such a truly historic moment in Western history. Five-hundred years of armed resistance against European encroachment pretty much fizzled out when Geronimo and his followers were finally cornered in this rugged, boulder-strewn canyon on the west-facing slopes of the Peloncillo Mountains. The Aztec, for all their architectural genius, imperial grandeur, and “pioneering advances” in open heart surgery, had thrown in the towel centuries earlier.My ancestors, the Inca, for all their organizational and engineering wizardry, also called it quits practically from the gitgo. But I guess no one bothered to tell that to Geronimo.
Nightfall approaches in the desert near the village of Placita, New Mexico. In the distance, the Apache Kid Wilderness
Relying on a detailed county map, I left the hard-surface Highway 80 and headed east on a dirt road toward my own self-imposed rendezvous. At one point the dirt road narrowed into what looked like a private lane, as it ran straight thru a small ranch with several outbuildings and sheds right beside the shoulders of the road. I crossed a cattle guard, looked around for No Trespassing signs, didn’t see any, and kept going. A couple miles further on I came to a dead-end at another small ranch. I hated to pull up in these folks driveway, but I figured they were used to it by now. A couple hundred feet before the main house there was a small Forest Service wood-post with a white-blazed arrow pointing towards a chained gate. There was no lock on it and I pondered for a moment whether to invoke the rancher’s honor system that allows you to go thru closed gates. After a few moments of looking around I decided not to, in my naivete, I just assumed that if this was the right place, there would surely be a historical marker, hikers bulletin board, or maybe even a granite obelisk with cast iron birds of prey mounted on each corner of a marble pedestal. But there is nothing but barbed wire, scrub vegetation, and some stately trees. There is nothing to let you know that you have reached the right place, or to inform the traveler about the significance of an event that took place somewhere nearby, just over that boulder-strewn ridge. I knew the Coronado National Forest boundary must be close by, and yet the No Parking signs posted along the fence and on a big cottonwood tree hardly made me feel comfortable about leaving my car there, not to mention opening a chained gate.
I got back in my car and looked towards the ranch house in hopes of seeing someone outside that I might talk to. I didn’t want to invade their privacy by entering their quaint, shaded front yard, but more importantly I didn’t feel I should have to. Time was running out now, the twilight was darkening as the sun had already set beyond the towering Chiricahuas on the opposite side of the valley floor. Reluctantly I drove back to the highway, dismayed and pissed off about this site being so completely ignored; it was obviously not meant for public viewing. I assume that the Apache Nations have no interest in honoring or bringing any attention to this place either since as far as they’re concerned, they never really surrendered. This is a debatable point for sure as one drives across the desert and sees flashing neon-lit signs on huge billboards extolling tribal gambling joints that accept all major credit cards and are open 24 hours a day (“Visit our website!”). I don’t begrudge the Coronado National Forest Service on this matter; they can hardly be expected to post signs at every historical site within their domain, particularly when their budget is trimmed to the bone. Ranger Rick has enough work on his hands fighting forest fires, marijuana growers, and picking up beer bottles, scraps of aluminum foil, dirty diapers and burnt Campbell’s soup cans left in fire pits by so-called lovers of the great outdoors. But I’d think some government agency or historical organization would’ve done something by now to give this site a more appropriate recognition, something better than a wooden trailhead sign hanging on a strand of barbed wire covered with small clumps of coyote fur along a dry arroyo. It kind of cheapens the context and significance of what took place in Skeleton Canyon. For this was a pivotal, watershed moment in White Man/Injun relations, it doesn’t belong in the same category as the site of an overnight bivouac by sunburned Confederate cavalry (for which there is a pull-off along the highway and a historical marker), or the abandoned homestead remains of an alcoholic gold prospector (as advertised on a local county’s historical brochure, but they don’t mention the booze), or the crumbling ruins of countless ghost towns across the Old West that rivaled Sodom and Gomorrah in their depravity and cruelty.
“The serpents were so wise that they could not all be killed. One took refuge in a perpendicular cliff of a mountain in Arizona, and his eye (changed into a brilliant stone) may be seen in that rock to this day.” -Geronimo, “In His Own Words”
Indeed you can drive around this country and see scores of historical markers and signage that describe far less significant events and people, like the one in the sleepy, desolate village of San Antonio, New Mexico that marks the birthplace of Conrad Hilton, the famous hotel magnate (a side note: I wonder if his granddaughter Paris has ever stopped by there to pay her respects and offer a prayer of gratitude for her inheritance?); or one in downtown Richmond, Virginia that tells us that Edgar Allen Poe lived in a 2-story boarding house for two years, a building currently occupied by some law firm.
I never did find the actual surrender site. But, in all fairness, at the dirt road turn-off on Highway 80 there is a rough looking, weathered stone monument that commemorates this incident. Erected in the 1930’s by the City of Douglas, Arizona, it contains a historical plaque embedded in stone that describes the basic facts of the surrender. No offense to the civic minded citizens of Douglas, but Geronimo and his small band of die-hards deserve much better than this. Ideally there could be a National Monument or World Heritage Site designation around a few acres of the actual surrender site. After all, we honor Jamestown Island, where white settlers established the first permanent English toehold in the New World, and Appomattox Courthouse, where “Lee’s Miserable’s” laid down their arms. We erect massive bronze statues to men like William Tecumseh Sherman (one block east of the White House), Juan Cabrillo (he overlooks San Diego harbor), and gold-seeking conquistadors like Francisco Coronado; three dudes who absolutely despised the Red Man. We honor so many places in American history where momentous and not-so-momentous events took place. But Geronimo and his small band, the last defiant holdouts in a struggle that began centuries earlier along a stretch of white sand beach on a low-lying cay in the Bahamas, are mere ghost figures, and their place of capitulation is just as ghost-like.
“I was born in No-doyohn Cañon, Arizona, June, 1829. In that country which lies around the headwaters of the Gila River I was reared. This range was our fatherland; among these mountains our wigwams were hidden; the scattered valleys contained our fields; the boundless prairies, stretching away on every side, were our pastures; the rocky caverns were our burying places.” – Geronimo, “In His Own Words”
Extraordinary photo captures the peace council of Geronimo(center-left with hands on knees) and General George Crook and his small force in Canon de Los Embudos, Mexico. Promising to return the next morning, Geronimo and his band instead took off that night, a few months later it was all over when they surrendered in Skeleton Canyon.
Guess I shouldn’t be surprised. There ain’t going to be any rallying cry for a man who gave us such a good whipping on so many occasions. Geronimo didn’t help matters any when, as one of the first celluloid heroes, he hammed it up for the camera and left us with an indelible image of ferocity. Bent down on one knee, with a scowl on his face and grasping a rifle, he seems to be saying, “I’m your worst nightmare”. What greater testament to his fighting prowess could there be, than to know that seventy years later the brave men of the 82nd Airborne would holler out his name as they dropped out of the skies over Normandy in June of 1944?
The vatos south of the border knew all about his warrior skills. Over the course of thirty years, from hideouts tucked away in the rocky chasms of the Sierra Madre, Geronimo led dozens of stealth-like raids on “rancherias” and settlements in Sonora and Chihuahua. Few people know that Geronimo’s original name was Goyathlay (“one who yawns”), or that he lost his wife, his three little children, and aged mother in the Massacre of Kaskiyeh in 1859 when roughly four-hundred Mexican dragoons lured all the adult males of his band away from their camp by inviting them to a supposedly peaceful trading parley. Many Apache women, children and elderly were brutally slain in this act of treachery, but no one lost as much as young Goyathlay, in an instant his entire family was wiped out. Needless to say, he never sought counseling. A year later, in a stroke of perennial Mexican bad luck- perhaps against a backdrop of flowing tequila and the strumming of guitars-for it was the festival of San Geronimo, the Apache, led by a grieving but enraged Goyathlay descended like howling wolves on the same military garrison that had perpetrated the massacre. Frightened civilians came out afterwards and saw the smoldering ruins, smelled the stench of death, and discovered once again that when dealing with the Apache paybacks are hell. From then on, Goyathlay was given the name Geronimo, perhaps to remember him for his bravery and fearlessness in that battle, or as one account states, because some Mexicans called out “Jeronimo!”, as they begged for mercy. None was given. Geronimo was not the type to turn the other cheek. In old age he chillingly remarked, “I have killed many Mexicans; I do not know how many, for frequently I did not count them. Some of them were not worth counting.” Ouch.
“Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to Apacheria.”
In dealing with Geronimo, the U.S. government always had a case of Victorian-era heebie-jeebies. After the surrender President Grover Cleveland sent a telegram to his Secretary Of War stating “I hope nothing will be done with Geronimo which will prevent our treating him as a prisoner of war, if we cannot hang him, which I would much prefer.” Even in old age, with his body failing him, and having openly accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Savior, the Taft administration upheld the lie made by General Nelson Miles back in 1886; that Geronimo and his kinsfolk would all be free to return to their sacred homeland after two years, barring any further incidents of aggression against the United States. That lie is now over a century old, and Geronimo lies buried on the grassy plains of central Oklahoma, a time zone away from the Gila River country that he loved and knew so well. “I want to spend my last days there, and be buried among those mountains.”, he remarked late in life. Geronimo kept his end of the bargain. His conduct in exile was passive and law abiding. Oh sure, he sadly became an alcoholic, and the Dutch Reformed Church kicked him out for gambling, but at least he wasn’t roaming the dusty streets of Lawton, Oklahoma trying to pick up prostitutes, like Jimmy Swaggert and other horny modern-day Preachers of the Gospel who, I might add, have not been kicked out of their churches. Still, the Feds didn’t dare allow him to return to the canyons, pine forests and desert expanses of his birth, and yet with 20-80 bureaucratic clarity they had no issues with inviting him to President Teddy Roosevelt’s inaugural parade in 1905 (I wonder if Secret Service agents patted him down first?).
Geronimo (second from right, in front) and other Native American chiefs parade past the reviewing stand for newly-elected president Teddy Roosevelt.
Other Indian notables have gotten better press, particularly when we view them as having fought a clean fight; like the peace-loving Chief Joseph who waxed eloquent that “from where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”; the mighty Crazy Horse who never allowed his picture to be taken; or Red Cloud, the gifted orator who met with the Great Father in Washington to try and straighten things out. Easterners liked Red Cloud, his polite message of compromise and pleas of sympathy for his people just about brought the house down when he spoke to a standing room only audience at the Cooper Union in New York City.
Seems like the only Indians we care to memorialize are the ones who were cooperative. Like Sacajewea, Sequoyah, or even the “Crying Indian” of the memorable eco tv commercial from 1969, who looked squarely into the camera and shed a tear as he saw a speeding motorist toss a bag of trash out the window (talk about a con job, he was actually Italian, and trust me, that’s not how Geronimo would’ve handled it). No, Geronimo was loathed in life and in death, there are no monuments or statues for this stubborn holdout, and he’ll never be a poster boy for good Injun behavior. Damnation, at the very least someone could erect a historical marker by the curbside at Fort Sill, Oklahoma where he left this world after drowning his sorrow overnight, perhaps it might read;
“Here, in the freezing rain of a cold February night, Goyathlay, alias Geronimo, in a drunken stupor collapsed in the middle of the road and died of a broken heart.”
But maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe such obscurity is just how it should be. After all, who wants to see Skeleton Canyon overrun by hordes of tourists, who, like lemmings going to sea, would merely follow the well-marked signs in the hope of finding clean air-conditioned restrooms and maybe a souvenir or “curio shoppe” where they can purchase knick-knacks and other gaudy memorabilia that, in their minds, will prove they really visited “Injun Country”. Invariably, as I saw happen in the parking lot of the Yorktown Victory Monument in Virginia (where we turned the world of King George upside down in 1781), a spoiled teenager wearing baggy pants will complain, shouting out, “This place is boring!” His yuppy dad will meekly tell him to get in the car, and they’ll haul-ass to the more familiar sights and sounds of I-10 where commercial culture offers material comforts that Geronimo never had, but is devoid of the tranquility and spiritual understanding that Apaches were so accustomed to, a level of awareness and happiness really, that we today can only dream about. But unbeknownst to this family, Geronimo’s shadow will tag along for aways. You see I think he did make it back to the Gila River Country, barefoot of course. And now his spirit wanders for eternity, phantom-like, across the dusty hills of Sonora and into narrow chasms of the Sierra Madres, upwards into the cool airs of thick pine forests covering the heights of the Chiricahua Mountains, along the grassy banks of Turkey Creek and across the flat Plains of San Augustine where water is scarce and cumulus clouds hover against a circling blue sky. His footprints and campsites have been erased by the passage of time but his defiant spirit remains, and he still has a few scores to settle with the White Eyes and the Mexicans, so be careful, keep an eye out, and be respectful if you do go thru that gate.
Postscript retraction-16 Sep-2013:
Since I wrote this story I’ve done some research on the waning days of the Indian Wars and discovered that Geronimo and his band were certainly not the ” last holdouts” as I wrongly described, there were many clashes and fights with various Indian groups that lasted well into the 1900’s amazingly enough. I still stand by my assertion that Geronimo deserves special recognition as the most famous holdout of them all, and his surrender is a milestone event, but there were many renegade bands of Apaches who continued to fight on in smaller actions, mainly in southern Arizona. Most famously perhaps, the Yaqui of northern Sonora deserve the distinction of holding out the longest, fighting their final battle at a place called Cerro del Gallo in the mountains outside of the port city of Guaymas in…are you ready….1923. Los Federales threw everything they had at the “hostiles”, including planes, poison gas, and machine guns. Like Skeleton Canyon, there is no historical marker or designation for this important battle. I wish you the best of luck trying to find the site.
Lastly, I offer an important update that I only recently discovered, lest anyone think that this bad ass’s fearful status in our consciousness has faded. When U.S. Navy Seals went in for the kill against America’s Public Enemy Nu#1, the elusive Osama Bin Laden, what code name did Pentagon officials give him? You guessed it……..Geronimo.