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International Socialism, Summer 1994


Peter Morgan

Geronimo and the end of the Indian wars


From International Socialism 2:63, Summer 1994.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


A. Debo
Geronimo: the man, his time, his place
Pimlico 1993) £10

For three centuries the Apaches had dominated the south west of America striking fear into surrounding Indian tribes, the Spanish colonialists in Mexico and, in the late 19th century, the American ruling class. The news that the Apache wars had ended following the surrender of the Apache chief Geronimo on 5 September 1886 was celebrated throughout America. It brought to an end an era of violence, greed and exploitation by the American ruling class as they fought to deal with the ‘problem’ of the American Indians. Then came the myth of the American West – the stories of mountain men and fur traders, the pioneers and cowboys who fought against the odds, the harsh climate, the rough terrain and the murderous Indians. Geronimo supposedly symbolised the dark, violent nature of an uncivilised creature.

To secure the final surrender of Geronimo and his band of 16 warriors, 14 women and six children, the American army was forced to use 5,000 troops – a fifth of its entire regular army – a network of heliograph stations flashing messages from mountain to mountain, and over 100 renegade Apache scouts to chase and hound Geronimo and his followers into submission. It brought to an end the Apache wars which had cost the American government over $1 million per annum. This book by Angie Debo, first published in the US in 1976 and now updated and reprinted in Britain, is a detailed and sympathetic account of the life of one of America’s great fighters, his relationship to other members of the Apache tribes and his fight against a ruling class that was prepared to spare no expense to conquer the American West and finally put an end to the resistance of the American Indians. [1]

American policy towards the Indians during the 19th century was violent and unyielding. In 1829 Andrew Jackson took office as President of the United States. Known as ‘Sharp Knife’ by the Indians, he had a frontier career and was involved in the deaths of thousands of Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks and Seminole Indians.

The Cherokees were one of the most advanced of the Indian tribes. They owned fertile land, ran 22,000 cattle and 7,200 horses. They had an alphabet, read books and published a newspaper, The Phoenix, until it was suppressed by whites. They also had a constitution – the only one possessed by an Indian nation. And they lived in log cabins and frame houses, not tents.

’Sharp Knife’ faced the problem that the Southern tribes were too numerous and clung stubbornly to their tribal lands. He was convinced that the white man and the Indians could not live side by side, and so he proposed that all Indians be moved westwards beyond the Mississippi. In 1830 the Indian Removal Act was passed, followed in 1834 with an Act to Regulate Trade and Intercourse with the Indian Tribes and to Preserve Peace on the Frontiers which declared that everywhere west of the Mississippi ‘and not within the states of Missouri and Louisiana’ would be Indian country. But before the new laws could be put into effect a new wave of white settlers swept westwards and the ‘permanent frontier’ was moved from the Mississippi to the 95th meridian. To maintain this policy and keep the Indians beyond the 95th meridian a series of military posts were established.

The ‘permanent frontier’ proved to be a myth – the Americans fought a bloody war with Mexico that ended in 1847 with soldiers marching westward and resulted in the capture of vast areas of land reaching from Texas to California. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 led to an eruption of the American-Indian wars, even though most of the Indians were at the time fairly peaceful. Thousands of white Americans were looking for a quick fortune and ignoring boundaries that were meant to keep them and the Indians apart. Prospectors looking for copper mines were often violent and lawless with no respect for the Indian lands they were invading: ‘The number of Indians dropped from 100,000 in 1846 to barely 30,000 in 1851 when the Governor of California predicted – practically preached – a war of extermination against them.’ [2] Although shooting of the Indians on sight was common, the majority were killed by disease, especially malaria, cholera and smallpox. Debo goes into some detail about the early Apache-American relations which were dominated by the emerging American capitalist class ripping treaties apart, reneging on promises and often brutally murdering those who stood in their way.

By 1870 the American government’s solution to the Indian ‘problem’ was to establish reservations for those remaining – even if that meant they were forcibly removed from areas they had occupied for hundreds of years. The Cherokee nation was destroyed in this way. Rounded up and held in camps, they were forced to march westward hundreds of miles – called the ‘Trek of Tears’. One in four died of hunger, cold and starvation. By 1871 Congress believed the way to ‘promote peace and civilisation’ with the Apaches was to remove them to various designated reservations. It was a policy that a number of the Apache leaders – Mangas Colorado, Cochise, Victorio, Nana and Geronimo – opposed with such determination. Debo concludes that it was government policy to prolong the Apache-American wars:

The US Indian office began to carry out a concentration policy so recommended by planners and theorists. This cruel and stupid uprooting of barely tamed hostiles, so recently guaranteed a settled homeland ‘forever’, was to bring about 11 more years of Apache wars with the most arduous military campaign in American history, the death of hundreds of civilians in the United States and Mexico, and damage and suffering without reckoning to the Apaches. As a direct result, Geronimo became a ‘renegade’ and his career from this time on becomes an epic of the Southwest. [3]

The Apaches were forced into the overcrowded and archaic conditions at the San Carlos reservation. Debo shows how the army used a combination of threats and bribes to ensure that all the Indians moved to the reservation. Geronimo had fled the round-up of Apaches and was raiding Mexicans, stealing horses, mules and cattle in Sonora and driving them to New Mexico to sell them. The US and Mexican government signed an agreement permitting soldiers of each country to cross the border in pursuit of hostile Apaches and by 1877 Geronimo was caught and forced onto the San Carlos reservation. Conditions on the reservations were chaotic. One army officer describes it as:

A most undesirable hardship post ... rain was so infrequent that it took on a semblance of a phenomenon when it came at all. Almost continuously dry, hot dust-and-gravel-laden-winds swept the plain, denuding it of all vestige of vegetation. In summer a temperature of 110 in the shade was cool weather. At all other times of the year flies, gnats, unnameable bugs ... swarmed in their millions. [4]

The Apaches were starving, poorly clothed, suffering from smallpox and malaria, longing for their mountain homeland. Some 4,000 were crowded onto land that originally had been the home for only 800 Apaches. Forced to farm, they were angry and resentful. Some had to walk 20 miles to get supplies. If old people or children were unable to come they would get no rations. The local Arizonans saw the reservations as nothing other than feeding stations for the Indians who would then go out and raid again. The attitude of the local Arizonan paper to the Chiricahua Indians – the tribe to which Geronimo belonged – was expressed vividly in April 1876: ‘... the kind of war needed for the Chiricahua Apaches is steady, unrelenting, hopeless, and undiscriminating war, slaying men, women and children ... until every valley, crest, crag and fastness shall send to high heaven the grateful incense of festering and rotting Chiricahuas.’ [5]

Under such conditions and hostility, with the Apaches fearing the very existence of their tribe, it was no surprise that there were frequent break-outs from the San Carlos reservation. In 1877 the chief of the Warm Springs Apaches, Victorio, forced a break-out of the reservation and led his band to establish a stronghold in Mexico. He, like many of the Apache warriors, was convinced that the US government wanted to wipe out the Apache tribe. Before the end of 1879 he had a warrior band of 200 Mescaleros and Chiricahua Indians. The US government placed a reward of $3,000 on his head, and in October 1880 Victorio and 78 other Apaches were slaughtered by the US army. Geronimo was greatly influenced by Victorio and was convinced that the only salvation for his people lay in breaking from the harsh life on the reservations.

Although Debo’s book covers the whole of Geronimo’s life it is his last stand against the US army that is by far the most absorbing part. The Apaches had developed a sophisticated method of warfare and Geronimo was their best fighter. In May 1885 Geronimo led an escape from San Carlos that was to lead to the final showdown with the US army. His reasons for fleeing, beside the appalling conditions the Apaches had to suffer, were given later by Geronimo on his final arrest:

I want to talk of the causes which led me to leave the reservation. I was living quietly doing and thinking of no harm while at the White Mountains ... I hadn’t killed a horse or man, American or Indian. I don’t know what was the matter with the people in charge of us ... I learned from the American and Apache soldiers [scouts] that the Americans were going to arrest me and hang me, so I left ... I have asked several times for peace but trouble has come ... Whenever I have broken out, it has always been on account of bad talk. [6]

The Apache warriors, Geronimo, Mangas, Chircahua and Nana, fled San Carlos with 92 women and children and 34 other warriors. The local newspapers had an interest in playing up the threat of the Apaches. The local group of Arizonan merchants – known as the ‘Tucson Ring’ – had much to gain from the Apache fear. The influx of troops into the area brought money and profits to the local merchants, and the name of Geronimo became the cry for blood. The orders from Washington however were explicit: kill the fugitives or take their unconditional surrender.

The US army had recently undergone drastic changes. In 1866 Congress ordered the reduction of the regular army, and by the mid-1870s it had only 24,000 enlisted men and officers. The average age of the army volunteer was 23 – many were recent immigrants escaping unemployment and financial hardship. Their equipment was old and obsolete as Congress had ordered that the army exhaust civil war surpluses before ordering new material. The army was under strength to fight the Indian wars. [7]

They faced a group of warriors who had developed a more sophisticated attitude to warfare. Geronimo understood the telegraph wire system and how to disrupt it (by cutting a small section of wire and replacing it with twine which would take days to detect). They had field glasses and revolvers that were better than those supplied to the American soldiers:

With his modern arms and newly acquired knowledge, he [Geronimo] had become a near-even match for the troops. In ambushes he no longer fled so swiftly after the first blow to escape superior fire-power; now he would stand his ground and make the soldiers retreat. [8]

The army campaign was headed by General George Crook. In Arizona in pursuit of Geronimo’s band Crook understood that only an army capable of rapid pursuit could cope. Thus he forced his troops to operate in small mobile units, using Apache trackers. At this stage, in the early part of the campaign to secure the capture of Geronimo, the army had 2,000 troops involved in the hunt. Geronimo was aware of the determination of the army and decided to meet Crook to discuss terms of surrender on 25 March 1886, a few miles south of the Mexican border at Canon de los Embudos.

Following two days of speech making Crook accepted the surrender of Geronimo on the basis that his band would face two years imprisonment in the East (at Florida) before they could return to their Arizona homeland. It appeared as though the Apache wars were to end with the final capture of the most hostile Apache chief. But at the last minute the American government changed the terms of surrender. They ordered Crook: ‘We cannot assent to the surrender of the hostiles on the terms of their imprisonment East for two years on the understanding of their return to the reservation’. The government was determined to end the war with the Apaches by removing them from Arizona for good, effectively liquidating them.

Upon hearing this news – and with the Tucson Ring promoting the belief that he would be hung by the American government – Geronimo took flight for the final time. He was accompanied by Nachez, 19 other warriors, 13 squaws and six children. This proved to be the last stand Geronimo made against the US army.

Crook resigned and was replaced by General Miles for the final assault against the Apaches. Miles was a military man through and through. At the age of 17 he had studied the military tactics of Napoleon in his spare time whilst working as a clerk. He had been involved in Plains Indian fighting during 1874-75, faced the Kiowas, Comanches and Cheyenne Indians and fought in the Sioux wars. In 1886 he came to Arizona determined to gain glory and seek promotion. At his disposal he now had 5,000 men, a fifth of the US army, to fight 38 Apaches. They, with Geronimo as their leader, went to the hills of the American-Mexican border at Sonora and disappeared. Whilst in hiding Geronimo struck at points around Sonora and raided at will, even around Fort Apaches and San Carlos. His account of this final violent flight is recorded by Debo:

... we finally decided to break into small bands. With six men and four women I made for the range mountains near Hot Springs [Warm Springs], New Mexico ... We ranged in the mountains of New Mexico for some time, then thinking perhaps the troops had left Mexico, we returned. On our return through Old Mexico we attacked every Mexican found, even if for no reason than to kill. We believed they had asked the United States troops to come down to Mexico to fight us ... We were reckless with our lives, because we felt that every man’s hands was against us. If we returned to the reservation we would be put in prison and killed; if we stayed in Mexico they would continue to send soldiers to fight us; so we gave no quarter to anyone and asked no favours. [9]

The Indians had been forced into these desperate measures, as Debo makes clear:

The killings on the American side of the border were a necessary part of the raiding. The raiders killed to obtain supplies, and killed every person they met to prevent his reporting their presence. [10]

In July 1886 Miles heard that Geronimo was negotiating with the Mexican government with a view to surrender. The army’s campaign was beginning to wear down the resilience of the Indians. Miles, determined to gain glory from the campaign, ordered his lieutenant in the field, Gatewood, to track Geronimo down, force his unconditional surrender, or kill him.

There still remained the ‘problem’ of the remaining 434 Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches who were technically prisoners of war on the San Carlos reservation. Fearing a breakout to join Geronimo’s band, Miles wanted them removed at least 1,000 miles away from the mountains of Arizona. Ironically, the Tucson Ring – who had screamed at every Apache outbreak and Indian attack – opposed the removal of the Indians. They were worried that thousands of soldiers (and therefore their money) would leave the area. In 1886, however, the remaining 434 Indians were forced aboard cattle trains. The windows were barred up and, suffering in the intense September heat, they were forcibly removed to Florida. It was a journey, Debo argues, that caused further suffering to the Apache Indians:

The Apaches were a clean living people, accustomed to breathe pure mountain air, bathing in clear streams, and frequently changing their campsites. It is possible that the tubercular infection that was to decimate them during their captivity began on this journey. If there was any source of contamination on the train, all were exposed. [11]

By the end of 1886 Gatewood and his troops eventually cornered Geronimo and his 24 warriors. With nowhere else to hide, with other sections of the army moving in and with supplies depleted they were forced into a final surrender. Geronimo was distraught to hear the news that the rest of his people had been forcibly removed from Arizona and sent to Florida. Respect for leading warriors such as Geronimo was apparent but no decisions were taken about the final surrender without also consulting others in the group. Debo recounts how the final surrender gave some idea of Apache decision making:

The deadly seriousness of the band was apparent throughout their conferences with Gatewood; they well knew that everything in their lives hung on the issue. And the deliberations of these 24 wild warriors in a mountain hideout indicate the strength and stability of the Apache institutions. There was a democratic manner of reaching decisions, and the influence, but never the despotic power of their leaders. Everytime Geronimo spoke to Gatewood, he expressed a conclusion that had been reached in Council. [12]

The final surrender of Geronimo was completed on 4 September 1886. As America celebrated at the end of the Apache wars, Geronimo and the Apache Indians were on their way to 27 years of captivity.

No sooner had Geronimo departed Arizona than the fight began to secure whatever glory and promotion might be had. General Miles sought recognition and advancement and took personal credit for persuading Geronimo to surrender, claiming that his strategy of hot pursuit had tired the Apache chief into eventual submission. In recognition of his services in the Indian campaigns, Miles was appointed commanding general of the US army in 1895. Lieutenant Gatewood, who eventually forced the surrender of Geronimo, was virtually ignored. There was no glory for Geronimo. He became a prisoner of war in Fort Pickens, Florida, where the conditions were poor and the Apaches suffered from an unfamiliar climate. Many of them died from diseases such as turberculosis and meningitis. Debo shows how Geronimo frequently suffered as a result of the deaths of those close to him:

Geronimo’s travels were marked by the graves, or in some cases by the mutilated corpses of members of his family. First, he buried his father in peace near the quiet headwaters of the Gila; next, through the violent years, the bodies of his mother, wives and children were strewn along his bloody trails through Old Mexico and Arizona; then there were the graves of his little girl at Saint Augistine and his wife at Pensacula; and the son upon whom he had set his hopes lay buried in the cemetery at Mobile. And he himself was bound for a last resting place where other graves would surround his own in the prisoners’ cemetery at Fort Sill. [13]

Although Debo’s account of Geronimo’s life is one of the best you will find on one of the greatest Indian chiefs, the narrative sometimes get lost in the wealth of detail she provides, and she does concentrate specifically on the Apache Indians. A more general account, and by far the best book on the history of the American Indians and their fight for survival, is Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, which exposes the brutality of the American ruling class towards the American Indians during the second half of the 19th century. But Debo doesn’t glorify traditional Apache life. Their lives were insecure and they were frequently forced to move to seek food. It was a precarious life often filled with much suffering. They were constantly at war with other Indians and the Mexicans. The expansion of the American frontier proved to be an enemy they could not defeat.

Geronimo’s final years were far removed from his earlier life. He became a showman and an exhibit – attending the Omaha and Buffalo expositions and the St Louis World Fair as an attraction. He rode in President Roosevelt’s inaugural parade in 1905 and in Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show in 1908. Geronimo gloried in his reputation, but he never missed an opportunity to plead to return with his people to Arizona. After riding in Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade, Geronimo met the president to appeal for the remaining Apaches to return to their land in Arizona:

I ask you to think of me as I was then ... when the soldiers of the great White Chief drove me and my people from our home we went to the mountains. When they followed we slew all that we could. We said we would never be captured. No. We starved but we killed. I said that we would never yield, for I was a fool. So I was punished, and all my people were punished with me. The white soldiers took me and made me a prisoner far from my own country ... Great Father, other Indians have homes where they can live and be happy. I and my people have no homes. The place where we are kept is bad for us ... We are sick there and die ... Great Father, my hands are tied as with a rope. My heart is no longer bad. I will tell my people to obey no chief but the Great White Chief. I pray you to cut the ropes and make me free. Let me die in my own country, as an old man who has been punished enough and is free. [14]

Roosevelt refused his request to return home and Geronimo died of pneumonia, a prisoner of war, on 17 February 1909. The legacy of the Geronimo campaign worried the American government despite the fact that the resistance of the Apaches had been broken. The army refused permission for Geronimo to tell his own story in his old age. It was only after prolonged appeals directly to the president that permission was eventually granted. But Geronimo should be remembered as a fighter – the last of the Apache chiefs who forced the American army to fight its most intense military campaign of the Indian wars.


1. A. Debo, Geronimo: the man, his time, his place (London 1993).

2. R. Dillon, North American Indian Wars (Magna Books 1983), p. 105.

3. A. Debo, op. cit., p. 94.

4. Quoted in D. Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (Vintage 1991).

5. A. Debo, op. cit., p. 97.

6. Ibid., p. 257.

7. O. Faulk, The Geronimo Campaign (Oxford University Press 1969).

8. Ibid., p. 24.

9. A. Debo, op. cit., p. 270.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid., p. 300.

12. Ibid., p. 287.

13. Ibid., p. 364.

14. Ibid., pp. 420–421.

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