Geronimo – the Good or the Wicked?


Geronimo – the Good or the Wicked?

Today Geronimo is known as a fearless leader and warrior who spent years on the battlefield fighting the Mexican army, and his heroic achievements turned him into a living legend not only among the Indians but also to the non-Native Americans. And the reputation of Geronimo did not die out with time. Today most people are familiar with the famous saying, “Geronimo!” when one might jump off for example a cliff, or bungee jumping. The saying was born in the early 1900s when a couple of soldiers were going to parachute and to prove their courage they yelled out Geronimo just as they leaped out of the airplane.  But that is not the only reason Geronimo is a name that people recognizes. The actions of Geronimo has made him a legend that has survived long after his death. Geronimo is known as a heroic leader and warrior, with achievements beyond counting, and his actions has made world known. However, I am wondering if the story about Geronimo always has been told as it is today. Has Geronimo always been seen as the great leader, or has the myth been developed during time?

Geronimo, or Goyathlay as his real name was, was born in 1829 in Mexico Territory nowadays known as New Mexico. Born as a Bedonkohe Apache, he was a member of the nomadic Nedni band of the Chiricahua Apaches. It wasn´t till later that the Mexican soldiers who fought against Goyathlay gave him the nickname; Geronimo. As early as age 17, Geronimo married a girl from the same tribe as he came from, a girl named Alopa. Together they had three children. Sadly they didn’t have a very long life together. In 1851 a troop of Mexican soldiers, around 400 men, attacked the camp Geronimo and his family lived in. Among the people who were killed, were Geronimo’s mother, wife and children. This led to the hate Geronimo felt against all Mexicans which drove Geronimo and those who followed him to kill every group of Mexicans they confronted with1.


C.L. Sonnichsen’s “From savage to saint: A New Image for Geronimo” focuses on the transformation of the image of Geronimo, which he blames on the novelist Forrest Carter. Thanks to Carter, Sonnichsen implies that, Geronimo is now known as an Indian George Washington, as an Apache Moses. Sonnichsen argues that this is the opposite of how Geronimo was portrayed in the nineteenth century. In the 1880s Geronimo was “a symbol of murderous bloodlust and ruthless cruelty” is how Sonnicshen chooses to describe him as. Several generals of the American army have later on described Geronimo as a wild soul. General Nelson A. Miles ranked the Apache leader as the” worst, wildest and strongest” of all the Indians. General George Crook chose to characterize Geronimo as a “human tiger”. And then there is John P. Clum, an Indian agent who actually was the only man who was able to capture Geronimo. He thought that the country would be better off if the fierce Indian was hanged2. The fearful reputation of Geronimo lived on for a long time. Generations later people used to say to their children;” if you don´t behave, Geronimo will get you. This makes you understand how threatening the man really was.

In the early and mid 1900s the negative image of Geronimo was kept alive. Men from the army, their spouses and daughters wrote books about the Apache. And because of the many memoirs of generals, historians and novelists joined in. Although they emphasized some good sides of Geronimo, such as his courage and energy, they made it clear that Geronimo was a savage, “a cruel, perfidious rascal” as Frank C. Lockwood called him in 1938. What is interesting in this article is that Sonnichsen only tells us about the opinions of Geronimo from the perspective of American Generals. Not once does he talk about how the Indians saw the last leader of Indians. Perhaps it would be obvious what they would think but it someone might say that Geronimo was extreme, or on the verge of brutal.

It wasn’t until the last quarter of the 1900s that the negative image of Geronimo started to fade away. “Geronimo the Wicked” started to disappear and “Geronimo the Good” became more frequent. What began the change was the consciousness that people started to get about the Indians. Increasingly people now understood that the Indians, including the Apache, had been abused by the Mexican and American army. William Lloyd and Wendell Philips are mainly to thank for this increased consciousness. After the Civil War, instead of talking about the African Americans, they started to discuss the wrong actions that had been taken against the Indians. This eventually made the nation to feel some guilt over how the Native Americans had been treated. And with the guilt came different perspective. Eventually, novelist started to write about the great Apache leader in a more positive way, sometime making him the hero, allowing people to change their view. It was not long until the once fierce and brutal murderer had become heroic leader filled with courage.

By looking at some of the photos that were taken in the years of Geronimo we can conclude several things. The most famous picture of Geronimo is when he is down on one knee with a rifle in his hands. Here you can really see the determination and anger in his face. This photo is the first known photo of Geronimo and it is the face in this particularly one that launched hundreds of articles, stories and novels about the great Apache3. Another photo is of Geronimo in his older days. He is standing next to a man with horses by their sides4. It is another look in Geronimo’s face this time. The seriousness is gone and is replaced by calmness. What is interesting about this photo, is that Geronimo signed it. I can from this imagine how notorious Geronimo was at the time. The fact that Geronimo was in so many photos at the time makes me understand big of a name Geronimo was. It is obvious that he was man of violence, but whether he was a heroic leader is harder to conclude.

Geronimo was a man of determination. He was a stubborn, resolute leader who fought for his people. What you can say about Geronimo is that two sides has been presented of him, one where he is the bad guy and one where he is the hero. Until the mid 1900s Geronimo the Wicked was how people saw him as. After that a new image of him started to develop. Today we think of a heroic warrior when we hear the name Geronimo. Geronimo is not a myth, there is just two sides of him and it is the positive one that endured.









2 C.L. Sonnichsen “FROM SAVAGE TO SAINT: A New Image for Geronimo”, The Journal of Arizona History, (spring, 1986), page 7-8

3 C.L. Sonnichsen “FROM SAVAGE TO SAINT: A New Image for Geronimo”, The Journal of Arizona History, (spring, 1986), page 14

4 C.L. Sonnichsen “FROM SAVAGE TO SAINT: A New Image for Geronimo”, The Journal of Arizona History, (spring, 1986), page 19


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