Western Trips

Western Trips

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Trip To Skeleton Canyon New Mexico And Geronimo's Surrender

 Explore Historical Sites of the Southwest

If you are planning a trip to southern New Mexico or Arizona, you're passing through territory that was very active near the end of the Indian Wars.

 The scenery is beautiful as you might expect and the desert/mountain geography allows many good photo opportunities. A road trip to Skeleton Canyon is a good addition to your vacation planner. Interstate-10 runs just north of this location which makes it a good, convenient and historic low cost side trip. The area straddles the modern day New Mexico/Arizona border. Southwest of Skeleton Canyon is Douglas Arizona and further is historic Bisbee and Tombstone Arizona.

Chasing Geronimo

geronimo with rifle
When General George Crook pursued Indians he went by the principle of "it takes an Indian to catch an Indian". That method doesn't say a lot about the ability of his regular troops but I don't think he really meant it that way. Native Americans were children of that land and often times to pursue an Indian it always helped to see things through the Native's eyes. Nobody knew the southwest as well as an Apache Indian. The fact is documented that the U.S. Cavalry, especially during the last decade of the Indian Wars, employed Native American scouts during these type of search expeditions.

In the year 1886, Crooks target of pursuit was none other than Geronimo.

There were several photos taken of Geronimo. The one shown above was taken in 1887.

The Apache tribes were regarded quite differently than the plains Indians. The army learned that the plains tribes would engage them head on. In other words there was a battle ground such as at the Little Bighorn in Montana. The plains Indians engaged combat in the open as if defending ground. The Apaches on the other hand fought guerrilla style.

There were hit and run attacks and the Apaches engaged in combat when there was something of material value to gain. Attacking settlers to steal livestock and other property. More than not the settlers attacked were killed.

The Apache tribes were similar to the Comanches, being nomadic and very skilled warriors. History tells us that some Apaches were even part of Quanah Parker's several hundred strong Comanche assault at Adobe Walls in the Texas Panhandle back in 1864 involving Kit Carson. It took some time for the War Department to realize they were fighting a different kind of foe. Several publications point to the fact that General Philip Sheridan, shown below right, then the head of the Army in Washington, himself didn't fully understand the Apache Indians. Because of this he often issued orders that realistically couldn't be carried out.

Geronimo The War Leader

general philip sheratonThe facts are that Geronimo was a leader. He was not officially an Apache chief. Geronimo led the Apache struggle after Cochise began the uprising back in 1861 during the Civil War years.

Geronimo and several other leaders went off the reservation and raided civilians on both sides of the border with a campaign of murder and pillage. For instance, it was chronicled in Mexico that the Apaches would enter a town on the premise of peace. They would get drunk with the locals and maybe a day or two later would turn back and attack the same town. Supposedly this happened in many Mexico settlements.

The Dangerous Border Area

The atmosphere along the American side of the border in the early 1880's was that of outrage. Local newspapers demanded that the army do more to protect the towns. Because of this there were large groups of American civilians also hunting Geronimo and his group. The Mexican army itself was engaged in the pursuit on their side of the border but met with little success. The renegade Apaches held up in the canyons on the western side of the Sierra Madre range just south of the border. This was a rugged mountain range with peaks of 10,000 to 12,000 feet. If the Apaches were met by an overwhelming opposing force they would scatter into the canyons and be impossible to battle. The Mexican's could not penetrate this mountain stronghold and essentially gave up the chase.

After General Crook's 1883 expedition into Mexico he was given pointed suggestions by his superior, Gen. Philip Sheridan, commander of the army, to consider just pulling back and to simply provide protection to the American border towns. Sheridan thought this was the best tactic and it most likely was inspired by the cries of the press. In response, Crook asked to be relieved of his command. He told Sheridan that the past eight years of his command of the army in Arizona were the hardest years of his career. Sheridan obliged and turned over command to General Nelson Miles, pictured below left. Miles in later years would be known for his intervention in the Chicago Pullman Strike. He was also a veteran Indian fighter serving in the Sioux uprising immediately after the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana. He was a very well regarded officer.

In Comes General Nelson Miles

general nelson miles at skeleton canyon According to the 1920 book "The Truth About Geronimo" written by Britton Davis, there was quite a change after Nelson Miles assumed command. Davis contends that the farms of the peaceful Apaches had been protected by Crook's presence but that after Miles took over the Apaches were removed to San Carlos and their homes, farms and all fixed improvements were turned over to white settlers. Also under Miles watch there were trainloads of Apaches, not combatants, sent east to Florida.

An Offer To Surrender

In 1886, General Miles sent a Major Charles B. Gatewood, pictured below right, on a mission into Mexico to speak with Geronimo about surrendering. Charles Gatewood was a 1877 graduate of West Point and the son of a Confederate soldier. Upon his graduation he was assigned to the Army of the West. Gatewood was chosen by Miles because he had a relationship with Geronimo dating back when the renegade leader spent time around Fort Apache in the 1870's. Gatewood was also very familiar with the causes of the Apache outbreak and Miles felt he was just the emissary he needed.

Gatewood Travels Into Mexico

In 1886 Gatewood and his troops did travel to Mexico and did meet with Geronimo. The story of his meeting is a long one but essentially Gatewood met up with other army detachments that had been in Mexico for months occasionally skirmishing with the renegades. It was not through these sources but through two of Gatewood's Apache scouts that he finally determined where Geronimo and the one remaining Apache leader with him, Nachite, were camped. Geronimo agreed to meet with Gatewood but only if Gatewood came with only a few others...no troops.

major charles gatewood
Major Charles Gatewood
Geronimo was interested in what message Gen. Miles had sent. Gatewood reportedly got right to the point and told Geronimo that he had to surrender and he and the others would be sent to Florida. Gatewood told Geronimo that all of the Apaches had already been sent to Florida. Geronimo initially refused but the meeting continued for a few days. Nachite wanted to see his family in Florida and the prevailing story is that he convinced Geronimo to change his mind and agree to go north with Gatewood. The terms were agreed upon, most of which was for Gatewood to protect them during the journey from both the Mexican's and the United States Army already deployed in Mexico.

The Journey Back to New Mexico

The traveling party finally crossed the border near where New Mexico and Arizona meet Mexico.
There are many side stories connected both with Geronimo's surrender and with the trip up from Mexico.

Geronimo ultimately surrendered to General Nelson Miles on September 3, 1886  at which time Miles repeated the terms of the surrender. On September 8th Geronimo and others were put on a train to Florida.

Much to Geronimo's surprise the destination was not St. Augustine where the other Apaches were but to a prison at Fort Pickens in Pensacola. The decision to send him to prison must have come from Washington. No research material I've found mentions this in the agreement Geronimo made with Gatewood in Mexico.

The Apache families were ultimately put together and sent to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) via Alabama. Geronimo passed away on February 17, 1909 of pneumonia. His gravesite is at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Reportedly, on his deathbed he confided to a family member that he regretted surrendering in 1886. Geronimo's name lives on in Native American history along side many others such as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Cochise and Red Cloud. Geronimo's Fort Sill gravesite is shown below left.

geronimos grave at fort sill oklahoma
An interesting side note is that the U.S. military used the codeword "Geronimo" for the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011. Another interesting Western Trips story is the Buffalo Soldiers involvement in New Mexico.

If you would like to add the Geronimo Monument to your New Mexico vacation planner, directions are to take Route 80 south off Interstate-10 to Rodeo New Mexico. This is near Apache Arizona and southwest of Lordsburg New Mexico. A short drive southeast of the monument is the actual surrender site. The Google driving directions tool on this website can help with getting there. 

The photo below shows the surrender site.  You may also be interested in the Western Trips short story about George Armstrong Custer's Garryowen. 

Another quite interesting Western Trips article is the Cheyenne Campaign of 1868 and Custer's involvement in the Washita River Battle.

The websites below offer more information on New Mexico and Arizona vacation planning.

Southwest New Mexico Tourism

Arizona Travel and Tourism 

(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images in the public domain)

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