Perhaps if he’d been born a few years earlier, Geronimo would have lived out his life as an Apache chief, adhering to tradition and ensuring the safety of his people. As it happened, one of the most famous Native Americans in history was born to a life of turmoil at the tail-end of America’s westward expansion. The life of Geronimo was fraught with heartache, true, but a life filled with pain didn’t stop the brilliant tactician and charismatic leader from making history.
Born in 1829 in what is now New Mexico, the man who would become the Apache’s most famous warrior was raised traditionally. His normal life came crashing down in 1858, however, when a horrible tragedy sent Geronimo on a thirty-year quest to right the wrongs assailing his people. Though he ended his life in 1909 as a prisoner of war, Geronimo’s legacy helped raise awareness for his people’s struggles in a way few others have ever done, before or since.
Legacy talk aside, this Apache warrior was someone you truly didn’t want to screw around with. In spite of the fact he spent his career outgunned and outmanned, the Native American hero was one of the most righteously feared and universally respected men ever to walk onto a battlefield.
Though his later legacy would be defined by his conflict with the United States cavalry, it was a raid led by Colonel Jose Maria Carrasco that spurred Geronimo and his Apaches forward.
In the summer of 1858, while Geronimo and a band of eighty warriors traded with the nearby town of Kas-Ki-Yeh, a band of Mexican soldiers rode through the Apache camp, killed the few warriors who had stayed behind to guard the civilians, burned the camp to the ground, confiscated the Apache's guns and horses, and then murdered the majority of the women and children.
The attack was in retaliation for the supposed raids Geronimo and his Apaches had led against nearby Mexican towns, a crime of which the Apaches were completely innocent. As a result of the attack, Geronimo’s entire family - his first wife, Alope, his three children, and his mother - were slaughtered.
It took nearly a year for the Apaches to round up tribes to help them retaliate; Geronimo himself went from tribe to tribe soliciting help with incredible success.
As the Apache tribes gathered to avenge the massacre at Kas-Ki-Yeh, the chiefs (including the famed chief Cochise) decided to anoint Geronimo as the battle’s leader. Though that honor typically went to a chief (which Geronimo was not), it was determined that Geronimo’s loss was the greatest among them.
In his own words, Geronimo says that he lead his Apache braves against the Mexican army in a bloody, two-hour battle that saw the murder of nearly every combatant on the field. Always at the fore of the battle, Geronimo reputedly killed dozens of men until he was left with nothing to rely on but his knife.
Still covered with the blood of my enemies, still holding my conquering weapon, still hot with the joy of battle, victory, and vengeance, I was surrounded by the Apache braves and made war chief of all the Apaches. Then I gave orders for scalping the slain.
That quote that might go down as one of the most chilling yet awesome things an historical leader has ever said.
After the revenge for Kas-Ki-Yeh, the Apaches resumed their daily lives and attempted to put the massacre behind them. Geronimo, however, was still bent on revenge. He convinced two other warriors to join him as he went on the war path to Mexico.
Almost immediately after picking out a small village, Geronimo’s little band came under fire from Mexican rifles. His two companions were killed and Geronimo was surrounded by armed soldiers. Rather than run and hide, Geronimo fought his way back to Arizona - on foot - while being closely pursued by the soldiers.
This raid, most likely caused by Geronimo’s incomparable grief, set back the Apache’s plans to get revenge on any Mexican who would dare to get close enough to him.
Though his first battle was a victory, Geronimo spent several years early in his career getting his ass kicked by the Mexican people. His first several raids in Sonora were beaten back soundly, his band of warriors returning empty-handed.
Geronimo himself spent a lot of his time injured. In one attack on a convoy, he rushed into the fray only to slip on some blood and get smashed in the skull with the butt of a Mexican soldier’s rifle. In another nearly successful raid, Geronimo’s Apaches were followed by soldiers and Geronimo was shot several times. In fact, the opening volley actually saw him shot in the face, after which the soldier got up and fought his way to safety.