In the dappled shade of the Fort Sill Apache Prisoner Of War Cemetery in Comanche County, beneath a spread-winged eagle of concrete, a cobblestone pyramid rises above the surrounding graves.
The monument offers no eulogy, no dates, no details. Not even a surname.
Its marble nameplate is carved with a single word: GERONIMO.
Through the gate of a rusting chainlink fence, a well-worn path curves left toward the grave of the most famous Indian who ever lived.
Visitors trickle in, pausing for photos by the cobblestone pyramid. Some leave behind offerings: A knotted prayer cloth, tied to a nearby tree. Sunglasses. Tobacco. Coins. A smudge feather with beaded handle. A tube of lip balm.
More than a century after his 1909 death while a POW at Fort Sill, his name inspires tributes even – or, maybe, especially – from the military force he eluded and embarrassed for years. Demonized during his three decades of hostilities with settlers and soldiers, Geronimo often now is lionized as a man who was pushed to breaking by the murder of his family, a freedom fighter defending his people and their way of life.
He became 20th century America’s first one-name celebrity, a romanticized survivor of the old Wild West, who at the end of his life sold tourists his autograph and buttons off his clothing for 25 cents a pop.
The character of Geronimo has starred in more than 20 films – silent movies, made-for-TV broadcasts, epic sagas. After watching a 1939 Western about his life, U.S. paratroopers began to shout his name as they jumped out of planes, to prove their fearlessness.
He has been featured on a U.S. postage stamp, honored with namesake towns in three states and immortalized as an action figure. In the 1970s, his enduring legend inspired Andy Warhol to create a Geronimo portrait to add to his pantheon of American pop culture icons, joining Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Jackie O.
With the permission of his descendants, his name is used as the motto and insignia of the U.S. Army’s 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. Without their permission, it was used as a codename in the Navy SEAL Team Six strike in 2011 that killed Osama bin Laden.
Although one of the most famous people to be laid to rest in Oklahoma, Geronimo was kept here against his will and longed to return home.
He was born to the Bedonkohe band of Apache in June 1829, in No-Doyohn Canyon, near what is now the Arizona-New Mexico border. His name at birth did not indicate future greatness: Goyahkla, “one who yawns.”
At the time, he was one of an estimated 8,000 Apache, a loose group of tribes that shared a similar language. His early life unfolded much as his ancestors’ had. He provided for his widowed mother from a young age, and at 17 married his childhood sweetheart, Alope.
The newlyweds lived in a buffalo-hide tepee, lined with bear robes and embellished by Alope’s drawings on the walls: “She was a good wife, but she was never strong. We followed the traditions of our fathers and were happy. Three children came to us – children that played, loitered and worked as I had done.”
At the age of 29, his idyllic life shattered. While traveling through northern Mexico with Chiricahua Apache, he and the men left camp for supplies. In their absence, the encampment was attacked by 400 Mexican soldiers. More than 100 Apache women and children were massacred. Returning to the smoldering remains, he found the bodies of his mother, his wife and his young children among the dead. Outnumbered and knowing the attackers were nearby, the Apache bodies were left without burial. In mourning, Goyahkla quickly sliced off his long hair and left the strands near his slain family. A half-century later, he remembered his grief:
“I had no weapon, nor did I hardly wish to fight, neither did I contemplate recovering the bodies of my loved ones, for that was forbidden. I did not pray, nor did I resolve to do anything in particular, for I had no purpose left. I finally followed the tribe silently … I spoke to no one and no one spoke to me – there was nothing to say … Within a few days we arrived at our own settlement. There were the decorations that Alope had made – and there were the playthings of our little ones. I burned them all, even our tepee. I also burned my mother’s tepee and destroyed all her property … my heart would ache for revenge upon Mexico.”
He talked to Apache councils about a course of action, and gathered 200 warriors to return to Mexico. He had a premonition – one of many – that bullets would not kill him, although he told his band: “If I am killed, no one need mourn for me.”
Goyahkla was selected to lead the charge. “I was no chief and never had been, but because I had been more deeply wronged than others, this honor was conferred upon me, and I resolved to prove worthy of the trust. In all the battle I thought of my murdered mother, wife and babies – of my father’s grave and my vow of vengeance, and I fought with fury.”
During two hours of battle, the Mexicans were heard to shout “Geronimo” again and again. Historians cannot agree why. Some think it was an attempt to pronounce the name of their foe. Others say they were calling for the protection of St. Jerome.
Regardless, the word had an epic ring. After the battle, One-Who-Yawns took it as his name.
“Still covered with the blood of my enemies, still holding my conquering weapon, still hot with the joy of battle, victory and vengeance, I was surrounded by the Apache braves and made war chief of all the Apaches. Then I gave orders for scalping the slain,” Geronimo recalled near the end of his life. “I could not call back my loved ones, I could not bring back the dead Apaches, but I could rejoice in this revenge.”
The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which Mexico ceded all land claims north of the Rio Grande, had cleared the way for ranchers and miners to occupy and annex open territory. The Apache fought back with raids to protect their ancestral lands and nomadic ways. Although never a leader off the battlefield, his premonitions and cunning under fire struck terror throughout the Southwest.
After the Civil War was resolved, as more Anglos headed west, the federal government established a reservation for the Chiricahua Apaches, which included part of their homeland. Before long, however, the boundaries were changed as pieces were carved off. The U.S. Army forced the tribe to move north to the less hospitable San Carlos Reservation with other Apache groups.
On the reservation, Apaches had to wear identification tags, attend daily head counts and ask permission for outings. They were ordered to dig irrigation ditches and plant vegetables in the rocky soil. Time and again, an irked Geronimo would slip away to commit raids and outright war, eluding capture by troops unfamiliar with the lay of the land.
At the end of his life, Geronimo catalogued his battle injuries: “Shot in the right leg above the knee, and still carry the bullet; shot through the left forearm; wounded in the right leg below the knee with a saber; wounded on top of the head with the butt of a musket; shot just below the outer corner of the left eye; shot in left side; shot in the back. 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.”
He took other wives, and fathered other children. Over the years, his skill and tenacity evading those who would tame him burnished his legend and embarrassed outfoxed military commanders on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Some in the tribe resented his refusal to quit. They had adjusted to their new life, for better or worse, tending crops and raising sheep and cattle. Samuel Kenoi, whose father fought with Geronimo, recalled Geronimo would “raid a settlement here, or kill a person, and the whole tribe would be blamed for it. Instead of coming and getting his rations and settling down and trying to be civilized, he would be out there like a wild animal, killing and raiding. Then they would organize the Chiricahua scouts and send them out after Geronimo’s men. In this way, he caused Apache to fight Apache and all sorts of trouble to break out among our people.”
Geronimo made his final run from the San Carlos Reservation on May 17, 1885. Joining him were 143 followers, including 41 fighting men. The rest of the Chiricahua tribe – 384 men, women and children – opted to stay behind.
For more than a year, the nation followed the pursuit, which saw Geronimo and his followers raiding settlements and killing those who got in their way. Newspaper headlines called them “red devils,” “savage villains” and worse. Geronimo later noted, “We were reckless of our lives, because we felt that every man’s hand 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 favors.”
It took more than 5,000 U.S. soldiers and 500 scouts – one-fourth of the military resources of the U.S. Army – to finally pin them down. Sixteen months after their escape, Geronimo and his band of 39 were finally cornered in Skeleton Canyon near present-day Douglas, Arizona.
Entering Fort Sill
In life, Geronimo longed for a life without constraints. In death, he was buried beneath a concrete slab in a fenced graveyard in the heart of the heavily guarded Fort Sill. The base is an artillery center, home of the U.S. Army, Marines and Army Air Defense Field Artillery Schools, the 31st Air Defense Artillery Brigade, the 75th Fires Brigade and the 214th Fires Brigade, and is one of four locations nationwide for Army Basic Combat Training.
Visitors to his grave require either a Department of Defense ID or a formal application and background check to enter the grounds.
At the white trailer, off Exit 40B of I-44, applicants walk in and take a number. Clipboards with FS Form 118a await upon entry, requesting visitors’ name and address. Purpose of visit. Length of stay.
Social Security number. Driver’s license number. Employer. Phone number. Email. Race. Leave plenty of time. On my most recent visit, on a Saturday in June, the loudspeaker called number 27 when I came in. I took a number. It was 66. The wait and completion of the process took nearly an hour.
The date was September 4, 1886. It was the last formal surrender of an Indian leader to the United States government.
In negotiations, General Nelson Miles promised Geronimo that he and his people would be allowed to return to Arizona Territory after serving two years in a Florida prison.
In the end, the government did not keep its promise, or even differentiate between tribe members. Even those who had peaceably stayed behind on the reservation were imprisoned. The Apache scouts who had worked for years with the U.S. Army to help capture Geronimo were shackled as well. Man, woman and child, they were taken into custody and shipped in boxcars to military prisons in Florida and Alabama.
Designated as prisoners of war, they were denied trial and imprisoned. Within three years the group of 500 lost 119 members, mostly to malaria. Children born to the prisoners became prisoners themselves. Dozens of the young were forced to attend the tuberculosis-riddled Carlisle boarding school in Pennsylvania.
After eight years, in 1894, Geronimo and 341 other surviving POWs arrived in Fort Sill. With the relocation, the Apache band became the final group of Indians forcibly removed to Oklahoma and Indian Territory.
History swirled around them, and passed them by. In 1901, the last of the Indian lands were opened for settlement. The St. Louis World’s Fair opened in 1904, with Geronimo as a featured curiosity, “the Apache Terror.” Under guard – not so much to protect the audience from Geronimo, but to protect him from the audience – he was allowed to join Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show, which billed him as “The Worst Indian That Ever Lived.” In 1905, Geronimo rode in the inaugural parade for Teddy Roosevelt.
Before his return to Fort Sill, Geronimo and five chiefs who rode in the parade, including Quanah Parker, were invited to meet the new president. Through an interpreter, Geronimo said: “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 cut the ropes and make me free. Let me die in my own country, an old man who has been punished long enough and is free.”
Geronimo died February 17, 1909, nearly 80 years removed and 800 miles away from his birthplace, and was buried within the confines of Fort Sill.
The next day, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran the headline, “Geronimo Now a Good Indian,” alluding to the sentiment “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead” attributed to (and later denied by) General Philip Sheridan.
In an article published the month after Geronimo’s death, a time when many newspapers gloated about his passing and recounted his crimes, real and imagined, attorney Maurice Salzman wrote: “I venture to prophesy that … when we shall be able to look back upon this Indian war chief with a historical perspective, we will decide that he was one of the greatest ‘Americans’ that ever lived.”
Four years after his death, on the eve of World War I, an Act of Congress ended the captivity of its Apache POWs.
Of the 264 tribal members who had survived or been born into the band during 27 years of captivity, 187 opted to relocate to the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico in 1913. The other 77 remained in Oklahoma, where in 1914 they were granted farmland in Caddo and Comanche counties.
In his final months, Geronimo dictated his autobiography, which he dedicated to Roosevelt in the hope of softening his stance. In the final chapter, he makes one last plea to be released from Fort Sill: “It is my land, my home, my fathers’ land, to which I now ask to be allowed to return. I want to spend my last days there, and be buried among those mountains. If this could be I might die in peace, feeling that my people, placed in their native homes, would increase in numbers, rather than diminish as at present, and that our name would not become extinct.”
If Roosevelt read the words, he chose not to respond.
One hundred years after the end of their imprisonment, the Oklahoma branch of the Fort Sill Apache numbers 667. The Apache POW cemetery continues to accept burials of descendants of the original detainees, and remains the final resting place of Geronimo, reluctant Oklahoman.
The grave is not far from his Fort Sill deathbed where, before he succumbed to pneumonia, Geronimo uttered his final words: “I should never have surrendered. I should have fought until I was the last man alive.”
Skullduggery at Skull and Bones
Whispers echoed for decades about a skull kept under glass inside the entrance of “The Tomb,” the windowless stone headquarters of Yale University’s secretive Skull and Bones Society. Its members call the skull Geronimo.
In 2006, a historian digging through the Yale University archives came across a letter dated June 7, 1918, sent to F. Trubee Davison by classmate Winter Mead that read: “The skull of the worthy Geronimo the Terrible, exhumed from its tomb at Fort Sill by your club and Knight Haffuer is now safe inside the T[omb] — together with his well-worn femurs, bit and saddle horn.”
The letter confirms a Skull and Bones log entry from 1919, which had been included in a centennial history of the club, which read: “The ring of pick on stone and thud of earth on earth alone disturbs the peace of the prairie. An axe pried open the iron door of the tomb … dug deep and pried out the trophy itself … We quickly closed the grave, shut the door and sped home … where we cleaned the Bones … liberally applying carbolic acid. The Skull was fairly clean, having only some flesh inside and a little hair. I showered and hit the hay … a happy man …” Among the group of grave robbers named in the entry: Prescott Bush, future U.S. senator, father to the 41st U.S. president and grandfather to the 43rd.
On February 17, 2009, the centennial of Geronimo’s death, his great-grandson and 19 other descendants sued Yale University, the Skull and Bones Society and the federal government for the return of his remains.
Not all of Geronimo’s descendants, however, want his grave disturbed. Great-grandson Lariat Geronimo and his branch of the family insist the remains should stay in Oklahoma. “Everywhere the Apache roamed, they considered their land. Wherever they were laid to rest —that’s where it is.”
The lawsuits were dismissed in 2010.
As for the Skull and Bones claim, experts are dubious.
Dr. David Miller, a history professor at Cameron University in Lawton who has lectured on the case of the skull taken by Skull and Bones matter, concludes: “My assumption is that they did dig up somebody at Fort Sill. It could have been an Indian, but it probably wasn’t Geronimo.”
The POW graveyard in 1918 was overgrown, and located miles from the officers’ quarters, across a washed-out bridge. Some of the graves, including Geronimo’s, were unmarked. In 1931, a centenarian cousin of Geronimo finally met with Morris Swett, the Fort Sill historian, to identify the gravesite. The next year, Swett spearheaded the construction of a cobblestone pyramid, extending its Oklahoma rocks and concrete over the length of the burial area to dissuade any attempts at removal.
Fort Still officers donated $40 for a cement eagle to crown the monument. The statue has itself been decapitated, and now features an inartful replacement head atop
the bird’s outstretched wings.
Editor’s note: Quotes from Geronimo are from his autobiography, “Geronimo’s Story of His Life.” The work, published in 1906 with the permission of President Theodore Roosevelt, was subject to editing by the U.S. Army. The book was dictated to S.M. Barrett, superintendent of education in Lawton, with the translating assistance of Geronimo’s nephew, Asa Daklugie.
This installment is part of author M.J. Alexander’s “77 Counties” series, chronicling her travels across Oklahoma. The full series is available at sliceok.com/travel/