Conflicts between the Mexicans and the Apaches occurred as early as the 17th century when the first Spanish settlers colonized territory associated with Native Americans in the American Southwest. Unable to resist Spanish military technology, many Apaches often fled under unfavorable conditions. However, some remained and raided the Spanish settlements in the hope that they would abandon the land. In the 19th century, self-assured Americans and Mexicans faced a severe challenge with the rise and daring of one of the best-known Apache leaders, Geronimo. Although he was never a chief, he became a symbol of resistance for the Apache people.
As a result, many historians have researched his life, hoping to separate fact from fiction. Geronimo by Robert M. Utley is one such work based on a lifetime of painstaking research. It offers various perspectives from those of the Apaches and their non-native white opponents. Utley conveys Geronimo’s story, not as a “thug” or a leader fighting to protect his homeland (p. 18) but rather as a person. Utley’s analysis gives the reader a deeper understanding of the Indian leader, his goals, and his reasons for surrendering to the US government.
Utley develops an informative biography of one of the most famous Indian leaders in world history. His purpose is to separate fact from popular fiction and to explain the significance of the Geronimo decisions. He focuses on analyzing Geronimo’s role as a symbol to the Apaches, the Mexicans, and the Americans. One of his main conclusions is that the Indian leader had negative reactions among Americans as they could not comprehend the origins of his revenge and anger against people. Utley neglects to rely on particular images of Geronimo as a cold-blooded assassin or a brave protector of his people; instead, he focuses on a picture of a military strategist fighting incessantly.
To understand these issues, Utley provides the reader with a factual account of the leader’s life. It is divided into 26 chapters, starting with his childhood in the Southwest, describing his armed resistance to US and Mexican troops, and ending with his death at Fort Sill. Besides the detailed biography, Utley details some of the Chiricahuan Apache military histories, describing the tactics they used against their opponents. Utley’s purpose is to balance the different views on Geronimo. According to Utley, the Indian leader was the product of Apache culture under duress from two governments, with the usual strengths and weaknesses (p. 18). He also delves into his character, which sought to remain consistently powerful and terrifying to his enemies.
One of the main themes of the book is how the family explains many of Geronimo’s actions. For instance, Utley claims that Geronimo’s hatred of Mexican was driven by the desire for vengeance for the death of his wife and three children in 1851 in the Carrasco massacre (p. 49). Geronimo mourned, “I had lost all, I had vowed vengeance upon the Mexican troopers; my heart would ache for revenge against Mexico” (Utley, 2012, p. 42). His family was always in danger of being abducted and killed. According to Utley, Geronimo did not give up to rescue wives, the number of which was about eight (p. 14). Utley argues that Geronimo’s war against the Mexicans stems from this desire to avenge his family.
Utley also claims that Geronimo was a product of his culture and the pressures applied to that culture at the time of his activity. Within the Apache culture, warriors were raised with the idea to survive in the dangerous heights of the Southwest (p. 54). Preparing for war, Apache boys went through excruciating trials, hurting themselves, and learned not to fear death (p. 143). The rigorous physical training aimed to “build strength and endurance and tolerate water and food deprivation for long periods” (p. 27). Geronimo was raised by Mangas Coloradas; the mentor had courage appreciated by all Apaches (p. 23). He was fighting vigorously, and aggressively with Mexicans (Utley, 2012, p. 23). Mangas Coloradas was also well-known for his hatred of the Mexican state of Sonora (Utley, 2012, p. 23). Moreover, in his early childhood, Geronimo was surrounded by the culture of war. He played with his sibling, imitated fighting men, and recreated the war stories told by adults. Therefore, it established the idea of war as natural and inevitable.
At this time, the Apache Indians were defending their homeland and used raiding as a form of resistance and to seek vengeance for death or injury (Utley, 2012, p. 24). To better illustrate the Apache cultural values that influenced Geronimo, Utley compares the Lakota leader, Sitting Bull, to Geronimo. The first he argues was dedicated “to the welfare of the Lakota, a consistent resistance to the encroachments of the white people, and an unflinching devotion to his people” (p. 13). Hence, these two leaders’ cultures differ as Geronimo’s traditions allowed him to act mercilessly, selfishly, impetuously, deviously, and egotistically (Utley, 2012, p. 283). For Sitting Bull, his people were the most precious, but for Geronimo, it was himself (p. 283). Thus, there is a clear difference between Sitting Bull and Geronimo, which prompts some people’s negative perception of the latter.
Nevertheless, Utley compares Geronimo to other Indian chiefs in favor of the latter. The spirit of leaders like Sitting Bull, Dull Knife, and Satanta was inscribed in American West history (p. 282). They fought with white people and their troops until defeated (p. 282). Geronimo supported these intentions since he refused to cooperate with the United States (p.56). He escaped several times from the reservation; Geronimo and his small group of Apaches were the last Indians not to be herded onto the reservations (p. 165). Subsequently, Geronimo and his people were not sent to reservations but were kept in various forts as prisoners of war.
Utley further argues for the selfishness of Geronimo in describing the Apache view of defending their traditional way of life. According to him, Geronimo’s motivation did not fit the Apache concept of a righteous war; he pursued a personal vendetta against those he saw as enemies (Utley, 2012, p. 142). As evidence, Utley argues that by raiding Mexico, far away from his homeland along the upper Gila River and Mogollon Mountains (p. 130), Geronimo showed his real reason for resistance did not align with the Apache concept of warfare. Geronimo was not a chief; while in one situation, he led the Chiricahua Apache tribe, in others, he commanded only a part of his large family (p. 12). Apache warfare demanded specific techniques of action; however, Geronimo neglected them.
Another Apache feature, which is their drunkenness, is presented by Utley. Utley emphasizes that Geronimo’s most notable weakness was liquor (p. 275). Utley says, “no less than other Chiricahuas, Geronimo loved liquor, no matter what kind, and at Fort Sill, he often got drunk” (p. 276). This is historically proved by evidence of Geronimo’s first breakout from the reservation being drunk (p. 106). Besides, the addiction impacted Apache troops’ inability to avoid the Mexican massacre (p. 41). The situation that happened in 1878 describes how Geronimo and some of his associates were drinking (p. 110). Whereas most of them were already drunk, Geronimo started to criticize his nephew (p. 110). The relative was mortified by the leader’s scolding and killed himself in the night (p. 110). Finally, Utley notes that strong drinks led Geronimo to death in 1909 (p. 280). Utley confirms the stereotype about Indians, particularly their drunkenness not on one person’s example, but the number of Indians, relying on the events’ testimony.
There are some issues with Utley’s book. One is that most of the information on Geronimo was gathered when he was around 50 years old, and much of his earlier life is speculation and patchy. This could make some of the conclusions he draws unreliable. However, Utley’s work is of interest to both scholars and a general audience. He analyzes Geronimo’s actions in their cultural and historical context. It is chronologically structured, refers to numerous studies, and systemizes them in his broad picture. Ultimately he argues that Geronimo was not so much a chief and cultural icon but a man ruled by his own passions and motivations. He also portrays Geronimo as a man deeply committed to his family, suffering greatly at their loss.
Utley, R. M. (2012). Geronimo. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.