This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
Texans by the thousands flocked to the San Antonio railroad station on Sep. 3, 1886 for a look at the manacled passengers on-board a special army train. The star attraction was none other than Geronimo, who eyed the crowd with cool contempt as he stepped onto the platform.
After 30 bloodcurdling years on and off the warpath, the Chiricahua Apache hung up his tomahawk for the fourth and final time. While the President of the United States wrestled with the problem of what to do with him, Geronimo stoically awaited his fate.
When the renegade chief and a handful of followers jumped the San Carlos reservation, the instructions from Washington were short and to the point — capture or destroy. Although 5,000 troops went over the Southwest with a fine-toothed comb, the elusive band always stayed one step ahead of them. A master of the frontier game of hide-and-seek, the clever Chiricahua toyed with the frustrated soldiers.
In August 1886, a tired and hungry Geronimo sent word he was ready to talk peace. The pleas of several reservation Indians persuaded him to meet with Lt. Charles B. Gatewood, a brave soul who went alone and unarmed to the Apache camp.
The same day the most wanted red man in America agreed to negotiations, President Grover Cleveland wired the War Department, “I hope nothing will be done with Geronimo which will prevent our treating him as a prisoner of war, if we cannot hang him, which I would much prefer.” But an ambitious general soon spoiled the plans of his commander-in-chief.
At the desert parley, the lieutenant laid it on the line. “Surrender and you will be sent to join the rest of your friends in Florida,” Gatewood told Geronimo. “Accept these terms or fight it out to the bitter end.”
After hemming and hawing for hours, Geronimo suddenly said, “We want your advice. Consider yourself one of us and not a white man.” He paused thoughtfully before asking, “As an Apache, what would you advise us to do?”
Without a moment’s hesitation the young officer implored him to trust Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles, the glory hunter in charge of the expedition. Prepared to promise the moon in order to make Geronimo his prisoner, Miles offered safe passage from hostile Arizona to a reunion with exiled tribesmen in faraway Florida.
Though in his 50’s, Geronimo still had plenty of fight left in him, but the younger warriors refused to follow his defiant example. Bowing to their wishes, he reluctantly accepted Miles’ seemingly generous terms.
Miles were under direct orders to detain the Apaches in Arizona, where the band was blamed for the slaughter of 250 settlers in less than a year. An understandably inflamed public demanded that Geronimo and company pay the supreme price for their crimes.
Worried he might not be able to protect the prisoners, Miles shipped them off to Florida. But at San Antonio in the middle of September 1886, another general halted the eastbound express and took custody of the captives.
Filing a story from the sensational scene, a reporter for the Galveston News reflected the passions and prejudices of the times. After describing the throng of 3,000 on hand to greet the savages, he observed Geronimo had “a villainous countenance.” Warming up to the subject, the journalist wrote, “It is a disappointment to gaze upon such an insignificant looking specimen of depraved humanity, whose appearance is so incompatible with his bloody record.”
The second day at the Alamo City, nearly half of the town’s 25,000 inhabitants filed past the compound that held the exciting visitors. During the following weeks, many more thousands came from miles around to see the strange sight for themselves.
Not until late October did the president finally reach a decision. He honored Gen. Miles’ pledge to spare the lives of the Apaches but drew the line at allowing them to join their kin in Florida. On Oct. 22, the men were separated from the women and children and sent to different prisons in the Sunshine State.
Six years later, the Chiricahuas were transferred to Fort Sill in the Indian Territory, where most died in a matter of months. As for the aged Geronimo, he became a pathetic figure who performed for his captors in the futile hope of someday returning to his old haunts.
On special occasions like the inauguration of Teddy Roosevelt and the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1901, Geronimo made personal appearances in ridiculous costumes no Apache ever wore in the wild. Despite his endless efforts to please the government, the ancient chief got no closer to Arizona.
Geronimo spent his last 23 years as a prisoner in the Indian Territory. The terror of the frontier, whose very name sent chills up pioneer spines, died a tame and toothless tiger in 1909 at the age of 79.
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