He was known to the Apache tribe as Goyalkla which translates into “One who yawns,” but most non-native Americans knew him by his Spanish nickname, Geronimo. While most people have likely heard of his name, many may be unfamiliar with the dramatic and heroic life this most famous native American man lived.
When Geronimo was a young man, he was thrust into violence and chaos early on. While he was out on a trading trip, his wife and children were murdered in a savage attack on his village. From that moment on, he became one of the fiercest native American warriors of all time.
In his show of grief, Geronimo burned his family’s belongings to the ground and then headed into the wilderness to bereave the deaths. According to the his autobiography, it was in the wilderness where Geronimo heard a voice tell him: “No gun will ever kill you. I will take the bullets from the guns of the Mexicans … and I will guide your arrows.”
For a decade, Geronimo then exacted his revenge on the Mexican soldiers who murdered his family and when he was done with them, he turned his attention to the whites who were wreaking havoc on his people by stealing their land.
For three more decades, Geronimo would prove to be as elusive as he was aggressive. Operating in southern Arizona and New Mexico, Geronimo and a band of 50 Apache warriors succeeded in fighting off the white settlers who were trying to overtake their land.
As History.com details:
Geronimo never learned to use a gun, yet he armed his men with the best modern rifles he could obtain and even used field glasses to aid reconnaissance during his campaigns. He was a brilliant strategist who used the Apache knowledge of the arid desert environment to his advantage, and for years Geronimo and his men successfully evaded two of the U.S. Army’s most talented Indian fighters, General George Crook and General Nelson A. Miles.
After successfully protecting his land for decades, Geronimo began to grow weary of the constant battles and the never-ending barrage of white settlers who eventually overtook the diminishing Apache tribe.
On September 4, 1886, Geronimo surrendered and turned himself in to General Miles. He would become the last native American to formerly surrender to the United States. This move would mark the beginning of a new era, one in which the indigenous people of the North American continent would be pushed onto reservations, their land seized, and their fate sealed.
Geronimo would spend the next decade of his life bouncing around between prisons where his tales of war had made him a celebrity. Eventually, his celebrity status would grant him a private audience with then President Theodore Roosevelt. During their meeting Geronimo would plead with the president to let his people return to Arizona. However, he would be denied.
In 1909, Geronimo would finally succumb to death—but the voice he heard in the wilderness was right, it was not by a bullet. As he rode home on a cold February night, Geronimo was thrown from his horse. He was gravely injured and by the time he was found the next day, his health was rapidly declining. Six days later, the last native American warrior would die.
On his deathbed, and while he was still a prisoner of war, Geronimo’s final last words were regret for surrendering.
“I should never have surrendered,” he said. “I should have fought until I was the last man alive.”