I have to thank the National Post columnist who casually libelled Geronimo in a think piece (July 4) on the First Nations Day of Action on June 29. (See Colonials.) I didn't reply on that subject at the time because my knowledge of Geronimo was superficial, but the catch-up reading I've done since has been fascinating. I don't know enough yet to give more than a thumbnail sketch, but I can say the evidence I've encountered scarcely supports a charge of ruthlessness and implacability against Geronimo--far more against the adminstrations he made war on.
He was certainly a rough warrior. I'm not thrilled (as one example) with his account of killing four Mexican peasants. It isn't made any prettier by the fact that there was nobody in that war party (Spanish Territory, 1858) who wasn't raw over the recent murder by Spanish soldiers of somebody close to them--in Geronimo's case, his mother, wife and three children--none of these last, given the date of his marriage, could have been older than 11. Posit yourself as an adult soldier of the Spanish crown, charged with the murder of three children that age and younger. Legitimate act of war? Discuss. And these were only Geronimo's immediate family, this was a close-knit tribal community, it's unlikely there were many among the helplessly butchered who hadn't been known and in some way dear to him.
None of that makes the killing of farmers unaffiliated with the army a justifiable act. I don't even think it made sense tactically. Odds are these peasants owed a life of oppression and a few graves of their own loved ones to the kind ministrations of the crown--they might easily have been recruitable.
There are three things I don't find in the record of Geronimo's wars, and I'll accept correction and duly note it if anyone can point to counter-evidence that proves me wrong. I don't find a single campaign undertaken by Geronimo under less provocation than an atrocity committed against his people. I don't find a case where he met a band of brothers, weary of war and of wandering to escape further provocation to war, and lulled them with soft words the better to set them up for ambush and slaughter. I certainly find no evidence that he made war by preference on unarmed men, women and children who had no reason, until the sudden appearance of horses, guns and glistening sabres, to suspect they were anything but safely at peace. All three can be unequivocally charged against both the Spanish Crown and the U.S. government in their dealings with the Indians of the plains.
Far from being implacable, Geronimo more than once tried to reach an honourable accomodation with territorial adminstrations, and would have succeeded if he'd ever met one administrator who was a man of honour. I don't say it would have been impossible to find one, but I can't say it's surprising, after so many frustrations, that Geronimo grew tired of looking. From what's known of his character, it's very likely he would never have taken up arms again if the words of peace spoken to the Apaches at Apache Tejo (U.S. Territory, 1863) had been genuine rather than a calculated move in a despicable act of betrayal.
I suppose it could be argued that if the territorial adminstration was as ruthless as I've suggested, they would have hanged him unceremoniously at his last surrender. I suspect the administration would have been happy to do that if public opinion would have allowed it, but in fact it wasn't usual to hang or even jail enemy combatants who had honourably surrendered. The imprisonment at hard labour of Geronimo and his remnant band was a violation of the terms of surrender. Robert E. Lee wasn't imprisoned and put to hard labour at his surrender, and Lee's brilliant generalship considerably prolonged a far more devastating insurrection than Geronimo's, with far less justification at its core. Geronimo was not fighting to preserve a slave empire.
I'd guess the administration figured they could avoid the time, trouble and possibly embarrassing publicity of a trail and hanging, by quietly working Geronimo to death. He was nearly sixty, which is a lot older in 19th century years than in ours. He double-crossed them by living to be eighty and telling his own story in his own words. Words always rich in their cadence, and at the height of their sonority reminiscent of a Cathedral bell.
C 2007 Martin Heavisides