I always look forward to new titles by writer Robert Utley. While Utley, a former historian for the National Park Service, has created some excellent guidebooks for various parks, he has also written extensively about the American West. His books are always scrupulously researched, and he manages to remain objective about real characters that are sometimes larger-than-life. “The Lance and the Shield” offers great insights into the life and character of Sitting Bull, while “A Life Wild and Perilous” presents incredible details about the lives of the mountain men who explored and hunted the West.
I was not disappointed by Utley’s latest book, “Geronimo.” Like most of us, Utley had heard rumors about Geronimo’s past. To some people, for example, Geronimo is considered a heroic representative of the remnants of the American Indian tribes fighting for a homeland in the wake of pioneer settlements. To others, Geronimo is regarded as little more than a blood-thirsty killer who preyed on unsuspecting settlers. To still others, he is venerated as a chief who wisely led a band of Apache warriors in the Southwest.
Utley’s research led him to the discovery of a character that he describes as both complex and contradictory. Why? First of all, Geronimo was not a chief at all. He was a tactical leader, an expert in orchestrating raids to capture slaves and steal horses. He had a particular hatred for the Mexican population, so he frequently ventured across borders to take advantage of livestock holdings. And yet, he was regarded by his followers as being a great negotiator, particularly when the Apache people were later relocated to reservations.
He also frequently changed his mind, hence the contradictory nature of Utley’s findings. Geronimo regarded himself as a great healer, for example, and was sought out by his followers when they developed ailments. When he himself became ill, though, he immediately sought the aid of white American doctors. He also despised the lies that U.S. Cavalry leaders told in order to remove the Apaches from their native land, and yet he himself was guilty of frequent dishonesty, and on several occasions abandoned his friends during battle.
To what does Utley attribute Geronimo’s fame? Partly, it is the times in which he lived. Westward expansion did encroach on the Apache grounds, eventually pushing the native people to the unfamiliar and unhealthy reservations in Florida, and finally to a more habitable locale in Oklahoma. Geronimo resisted relocation as long as he could. Again and again, he suffered the loss of family members and close friends during surprise attacks that drastically reduced the Apache population. His skirmishes became legendary in newspapers, and his reputation grew, until he became symbolic of the solitary hero fighting a losing cause. He also adjusted surprisingly well to his new circumstances. Photographs taken late in his life depict him as an avid participant in the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Saint Louis, as well as the driver of an automobile for a 1905 convention.
Utley’s retelling of Geronimo’s life story is typical of the author’s lively accounts of the West. We learn, for example, that Geronimo was an unknown until he reached his middle fifties. Until that time, he had led a life unremarkable in the Apache tradition. He had a family to which he was deeply committed, a system of traditional beliefs to which he adhered and a fairly ordinary reputation as an Apache warrior. It was not until westward expansion and territorial battles developed, that his leadership skills in arranging ambushes and concealing encampments became crucial.
Jason Betzinez, who wrote a book entitled “I Fought with Geronimo,” was an Apache writer whose work Utley greatly admires. Betzinez wrote of the honesty and endurance of the Apache people, but also of their quarrelsome nature and their tendency toward drunkenness. Geronimo’s death resulted from his weakness for alcohol. Despite the fact that the law barred Indians from buying liquor, Geronimo obtained a bottle, drank it while riding a horse home in freezing temperatures and fell from the horse. He lay on the cold ground until found the next morning, dying of pneumonia a few days later. Some hundred years later, Geronimo remains, in Utley’s words, “one of the enduring icons of American and Native American history.” This worthy biography is an essential chapter in the history of the American West.