Geronimo’s bones

Geronimo’s name became forever etched in Western lore in the mid-1880s when he eluded 5,000 U.S. Army regulars in the rugged mountains of Arizona and Mexico with a handful of tribal holdouts. A series of close encounters with the rebel leader left soldiers to wonder if they were chasing a ghost. Finally, on Sept. 4, 1886, Geronimo surrendered to Brig. Gen. Nelson A. Miles at Skeleton Canyon, Ariz.

News of Geronimo’s surrender sent shock waves across a relieved nation. Yet the Apache warrior cleverly parlayed his infamy as America’s most notorious prisoner of war into a capitalistic venture that P.T. Barnum would have admired.

Throughout the remainder of his life, he sold the Geronimo name for a price — 10 cents for an autograph, 50 cents to two dollars for a photograph and so forth. Despite being a prisoner of war, he was permitted to appear in local parades, and in 1904 traveled to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis with the president’s approval and assurances he would be protected. As word of his presence in St. Louis circulated, orders soon began arriving by mail. One fair official commented to a customer, “The old gentleman is pretty high-priced, but then he is the only Geronimo.”

‘Death house’

Bullet-hole scars checkered Geronimo’s body by the time a Lawton undertaker placed the elderly warrior in a coffin 102 years ago. Once, Geronimo placed a large pebble in one of those deep pits on his upper torso, imitated the sound of gunfire and tossed the pebble to the ground.

“No, no,” he shouted to his guest. “Bullets cannot kill me!”

Death arrived ignominiously for the once proud warrior. On a cold February day, Geronimo rode into Lawton from his Fort Sill home, sold bows and arrows he made, and then coaxed a young man into illegally purchasing whiskey for him at a saloon. (American Indians could not be sold alcohol). Geronimo drank until intoxicated, and in an attempt to return home after nightfall, tumbled from his horse. Neighbors discovered him the next morning near a pecan grove, lying partly in water a short distance from his house.

He soon contracted pneumonia and eventually was taken to the post hospital — a simple rock structure known to the Apaches as “the death house” because so many of their tribesmen had died there.

On the morning of Feb. 17, 1909, Geronimo took his last breath. By his own account, he was 79 years old.

A day later, an elaborately decorated hearse carried Geronimo’s body.

A large funeral procession, featuring both Indians and Caucasians, trailed the hearse to the tiny Fort Sill-Apache Cemetery amid a cluster of leafless trees on Beef Creek.

Geronimo fervor

Geronimo’s
popularity was mixed among his own tribe. By all accounts, he was
respected as a powerful medicine man and fierce warrior, but many viewed
his defiant actions as selfish. Detractors ultimately blamed him for
the government’s persecution of the Apaches — a status that wouldn’t end
until 1914. There were also those who frowned upon his bouts with
drunkenness and failed attempts to embrace Christianity.

Even
Geronimo’s eulogy proved a sad and poignant monument to his
controversial life. Naiche, the Apache’s last hereditary chief, stood
over Geronimo’s grave and delivered a powerful message lauding him for
his loyalty and courage in battle, but said he ultimately failed as a
man of peace by not accepting God. Naiche closed his talk by urging
those in attendance to profit from Geronimo’s poor example.

Stories
of grave robbers and whispers of reburials by loyal tribesmen have
swirled repeatedly around the tiny cemetery since Geronimo’s burial that
February. Some accounts claim his body was secreted away in the night
and buried in his native lands in Arizona or New Mexico. One widely
circulated rumor was that Geronimo was buried with all his possessions,
including the more than $10,000 from his bank account. Although untrue,
the rumor had legs.

Quanah
Parker, the last Comanche chief, was buried near Cache in 1911 and, in
1957, reburied at the Fort Sill Post Cemetery in Lawton. He was laid to
rest in full battle regalia with a buckskin bag containing his favorite
war bonnet and feathers, as well as a diamond brooch given to him by
local cattlemen. Tribesmen stood guard over his grave for four straight
nights, but four years later, thieves dug up his grave and stole its
valuables.

Apache
fears ran even deeper. “I understand his (Geronimo’s) grave was molested
and his body took out and somebody else’s put in that grave,” said
Christian Naiche, son of the great Apache chieftain, in 1958. “The
Indians did it to prevent his being taken by the white people. They
remembered what happened to Mangas Coloradas.”

No, no! Bullets cannot kill me!

—Geronimo

Like
Geronimo, Mangas Coloradas was a notorious Apache leader who left blood
in his wake. Mangas surrendered to U.S. soldiers in January 1863, only
to be tortured and shot to death amid dubious allegations that he was
killed during an attempted escape. Soldiers severed his head, boiled it
and shipped it to reputed New York City phrenologist Orson Squire Fowler
for research.

The
Apache people were angered and mortified by the desecration. They would
revisit that anger in 1986 when news surfaced that members of Yale
University’s Skull and Bones Society plundered Geronimo’s grave in 1918.
An anonymous letter from someone claiming to be a Bonesman was sent to
then-San Carlos Apache Tribe Chairman Ned Anderson, who had been
lobbying to return Geronimo’s remains to Arizona. The writer alleged
that Bonesman Prescott Bush — father and grandfather of the U.S.
presidents — used an ax to pry open the iron door of Geronimo’s tomb,
and then ran off with the warrior’s skull.

A
photograph of the purported skull accompanied the letter, but the skull
is most certainly not that of Geronimo, who was never laid to rest in a
tomb. In fact, Geronimo’s grave wasn’t even marked in 1918. If Bonesmen
did indeed steal a skull at Fort Sill that year, it likely belonged to
someone else. Yet the myth survives to this day.

Geronimo died as a prisoner of war at age 79 on Feb. 17, 1909, at Fort Sill.

Tenacious Sgt. Swett

Everyone loves a
good mystery. Master Sgt. Morris Swett was no different in that respect
when he first arrived at Fort Sill in 1915 to help establish a new
artillery library.

Swett quickly became
enthralled by Fort Sill’s history and lore, and recognized the
historical significance of locating the exact spot of Geronimo’s grave.
His quest to find Geronimo’s final resting place thus became an
obsession. Over the next 15 years, Swett questioned anyone who might
know the truth. He interviewed former post officers and enlisted men who
were stationed at Fort Sill in 1909, and befriended many of the Apache
people.

Still,
despite their fondness of Swett, the Apaches closely guarded the truth
of Geronimo’s whereabouts. By 1930, Swett appeared resigned to the fact
that the location might forever remain a mystery.

“A
relative of Geronimo has promised me that he may disclose the secret to
me after the death of his aged mother, who is now more than 100 years
old, but not until then,” he told The Oklahoman in February 1930.

Swett’s
fortunes changed dramatically in the coming months. An elderly Apache
woman named Nah-thle-tla called on him to reveal a secret.

Nah-thle-tla
was a first cousin to Geronimo and the oldest living tribal member at
age 107. Sensing death was near, she told Swett she wanted Geronimo’s
grave marked and protected. At the time, the Apache cemetery was full of
unmarked graves and overgrown with weeds.

On
April 3, 1930, Swett accompanied Nah-thle-tla and Geronimo’s nephew,
Arthur Guydelkon, to the Apache cemetery. Nah-thle-tla gingerly walked
over the uneven prairie.

“She
was old and feeble, and could not see very well,” Swett later recalled.
“But she walked straight to the grave, looked at several old trees and
landmarks for assurance, then pointed down and nodded simply.”

Nah-thle-tla
went to the exact spot secretly shown to Swett nine years earlier by
Apache Belle Nicholas, who witnessed Geronimo’s funeral and later
discovered the vandalism of his grave. Nicholas told Swett how she
visited the cemetery in September 1914, only to find Geronimo’s
unearthed grave — an obvious attempt to recover gold trinkets and other
valuables.

Nicholas
saw Geronimo’s remains still in the open grave. She immediately
reported her discovery to tribal leaders, who agreed to refill it and
intentionally spread rumors that Geronimo’s body had been moved. The
ruse even included the digging of fresh graves to throw off the curious.
In the end, the ploy probably worked better than expected.

Today,
the truth of Geronimo’s grave is but a shadow to the mythology that
towers over his legend. Geronimo, like the mystery, simply refuses to
die.

Ron J. Jackson

This material falls under the archives category because it was imported from our previous website. It will eventually be filtered into the proper category as time allows.

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