Very few names in history have been as infectious as the name “Geronimo”.
The endearing legacy of this man remains to this day. Having been immortalized for generations into the psyche from the traditional retelling of tales, to documented events of his time. Of course, we must not forget the screaming of the man’s name at the top of your lungs while attempting daredevil stunts like jumping from high places.
I’m sure most folks my age have similar memories.
“Geronimo” was a name given to the warrior by his enemy. His true name was: (Mescalero-Chiricahua: Goyaałé [kòjàːɬɛ́] “one who yawns”; His Chiricahua name is often rendered as Goyathlay or Goyahkla in English. Geronimo, born June 16, 1829 Died– February 17, 1909, was a prominent leader of the Bedonkohe Apache who fought against Mexico and the United States for their expansion into Apache tribal lands for several decades during the Apache Wars. “Geronimo” was the name given to him during a battle with Mexican soldiers. -Wikipedia Home
The influence of Catholicism on the region may have been the reason Mexican Troops named this fierce warrior Geronimo.
Geronimo is Italian for “Jerome”. The definition of Jerome is “Sacred”. There are 20 variant forms of the name. Gerome, Geronimo, Gerrie, Gerry, Hierome, Hieronim, Hieronimus, Hieronymos, Hieronymus, Jairo, Jairome, Jeroen, Jeromo, Jeronimo, Jerrome, Jerron, Jerrone, and Jerry. Catholic missionaries no doubt educated the Mexican people since the first Spanish conquest. Enter “St. Geronimo”,
-Saint Francis de Geronimo (1642–1716), a Jesuit priest and missionary who was canonized by Gregory XVI in 1839.
History records the warrior Geronimo led an almost charmed life in battle. He escaped from prison on numerous occasions as well. Hence, the name, “sacred”;
Definition: -1. Set apart by solemn religious ceremony; especially, in a good sense, made holy; set apart to religious use; consecrated; not profane or common.
When I was a child, I had the privilege of visiting Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island prior to the National Park Service reconstruction. I remember the whole experience as surreal, like a trip back in time. The long straight roadway leading to the extreme western end of the island where the Fort is located was partially covered by sandbanks. The Fort itself and surrounding Batteries were half buried by mountainous sand dunes with crumbling brick walls. I spent most of my time with my Grandfather in those days, another rare privilege. My Grandfather was a great man. He fought with the 71st infantry in WW2, later served as Gen. George S. Patton’s “radio man”, and later after the war worked for the General Accounting Office.
Prior to our trip to the fort, I was jumping from a rope swing off an old Live Oak tree into the bay when I first heard my grandfather exclaim, “GERONIMO”!!! I came up from the water stunned having rarely EVER heard my Grandfather yell or even raise his voice. “Why did you yell ‘Geronimo’ at me?”, I asked cautiously. He laughed and explained that U.S. Paratroopers used to shout the name for good luck prior to a jump. Being the ever inquisitive “Why?” kid, I immediately asked what the meaning of the name ‘Geronimo’ was.
My Grandfather then explained that ‘Geronimo’ was a great Apache Chief and warrior who was greatly wronged in his life and led a fierce life as a result. He embellished some things in relating them to me to a humorous point. For instance, he told me that Geronimo could not be held captive for too long throughout his life based on his superhuman abilities. “The strength of ten men and the ability to render himself invisible at will.” -That kind of stuff. So, when my Grandfather looked at me and asked if I’d like to see where Geronimo was held while driving out to Fort Pickens, I was ecstatic!
We got out of the car onto a crushed shell parking area in front of a huge red brick wall. I remember getting the “Danger Will Robinson” vibe walking through the crumbling brick tunnels and archways. Home My grandfather’s tone was solemn as he told me to “Stay close.”
We emerged from the tunnel and stepped up into a large brick room through a crumbling wall. “This was Geronimo’s cell.” my grandfather stated. “They couldn’t keep him here though, he ripped that wall down with his bare hands.” I was awed. I stared up and down at the huge hole in the wall with piles of crumbling bricks and pictured the great Chief bashing through.
I never forgot that day and often fantasized about the great Chief as I “battled” my best friend in the woods behind our homes.
One day years later, after constant pestering of my Grandfather he conceded to take another trip out to Fort Pickens. This time we brought my friend. As we got closer to the fort I noticed the roads were cleared and the walls were rebuilt with bright red brick. A big brown sign read, “Welcome To Fort Pickens, National Park Service”. Laminated tables with old photographs of the fort were now dotted about the area. As we approached the fort, a Park Ranger informed us the tour would start shortly. I remember being disappointed the fort had been cleaned and repaired. The nostalgic surroundings and the sense of being the only people there for a long time piqued my adrenaline and curiosity I suppose. As we walked along the tour, there were perhaps ten to fifteen people listening intently to the Ranger’s historical dissertation of each of the chosen “stops”. When we reached the “Cell Of Geronimo” I was jumping out of my skin with excitement. The Park Ranger began his talk about Geronimo while standing in the cell and referenced the wall with the huge hole. The crumbled bricks had been removed and fresh bricks patched the upper part of the hole now. He said the hole had been created by an explosion and I immediately interrupted the ranger to correct him.
“Geronimo ripped that wall down with his bare hands!” I blurted.
“Isn’t that right Paw Paw?” My Grandfather laughed with everyone in the room while turning 3 shades of red.
After acquiring copies of “The Pensacolian” from 1886, I learned the true and greatly saddening story of Geronimo at Ft. Pickens.
(When the newspaper published this article, a decision already had been reached regarding the disposition of the Apaches. They were sent to Florida as scheduled, but the families were divided. The 15 warriors were to be sent to Fort Pickens; the 11 women, two scouts and six children to St. Augustine.)
From “The Pensacolian”:
The long awaited and much talked about arrival of the Apache Indians finally took place in Pensacola at 2 a.m. Monday, Oct. 25, 1886, after an accident at Rigolets detained the train for more than 24 hours. The two coaches containing the women and children were sent across Northwest Florida on the L&N Railroad, while those carrying Geronimo, Natchez, the chief of the band, and other Apaches were sent to the railroad wharf. At Fort Pickens the Indians lived in two open case mates with fireplaces. They slept on cots and often hung netting in their quarters as protection from the mosquitoes. But the humid climate took its toll as they labored each day to clean up the old fort.
Geronimo became a great beggar and asked for anything that struck his fancy. Each day groups of visitors took an excursion boat across the bay to see him, and he often sold cigars. Besides entertaining visitors, Geronimo and some of the other Apaches were displayed in town, where they charged 25 cents for their pictures and autographs.
On Nov. 7, 1886, a reporter for the newspaper rode the sloop Frolic over to visit Geronimo. Inside the gates of the fort, he found two of the “savages” had their faces daubed with yellow and purple paint, which gave them sinister expressions.
According to the writer, “one of the soldiers at the fort gave a lady from Pensacola a good answer in relation to Geronimo to set down the sickly sentimentalism with which the average lady visitor seemed to view the red-headed assassins.”
When she appealed to the soldier asking “Can you tell me what is best for me to give Geronimo?” He replied, “Yes, Madam. The best thing you could give him would be an ounce of lead between his eyes.
-“The Pensacolian” 1886
–October 25, 1886, 15 Apache warriors arrived at Fort Pickens.
Geronimo and his warriors spent many days working hard labor at the fort in direct violation of the agreements made at Skeleton Canyon. Eventually the families of Geronimo’s band were returned to them at Fort Pickens, and then they all moved on to other places of incarceration. The city of Pensacola was sad to see Geronimo the tourist attraction leave. In one day he had over 459 visitors with an average of 20 a day during the duration of his captivity at Fort Pickens.
Unfortunately, Geronimo was ultimately Pensacola’s first “tourist trap”. The man obviously hardly needed a cell being stranded at the tip of a lonely sand spit known as Fort Pickens.
Geronimo had nowhere to run, and finally no care to run, his land taken from his people.
From Geronimo’s Autobiography:
Geronimo His own story
A Prisoner of War
When I had given up to the Government they put me on the Southern Pacific Railroad and took me to San Antonio, Texas, and held me to be tried by their laws.
In forty days they took me from there to Fort Pickens, Florida. Here they put me to sawing up large logs. There were several other Apache warriors with me, and all of us had to work every day. For nearly two years we were kept at hard labor in this place and we did not see our families until May, 1887. This treatment was in direct violation of our treaty made at Skeleton Canyon.
From “Civil War Era Cemeteries”:
-On April 28, 1887, Geronimo was reunited with his three wives and other members of his family. But on Sept. 28, Ga-ah, his second wife died. She was buried at Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola. Ga-Ah contracted pneumonia at Fort Pickens and died on September 28, 1887; she is buried in Section 18, Grave 1496.
Geronimo was born in the upper Gila River country of Arizona. He came to maturity in the final years of Mexican rule of the region. His antagonism toward the Mexicans was as deep-rooted as it was understandable. In one fateful encounter, Mexican soldiers killed his mother, his wife, and his three small children. This tragic event steeled the young man for a long life of frequent conflict.
Regardless of tragedies which beset Geronimo, from these tests of his will and character, it forged character and resilience. Let us learn from this. To understand the truth however painful it may be sometimes, we are afforded an opportunity to gain strength from such knowledge. Perseverance, determination, and focus has and always should be admirable qualities in a human being. Geronimo was such a man. A man who held true to his beliefs regardless of the changing world around him. He died at the turn of the century, a man from a different era, a different time.
Geronimo is buried at Fort Sill, Oklahoma