Bill Cavaliere with the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Department in Lordsburg wrote me to ask about the surrender of Geronimo in the late summer of 1886. That event brought to a close the long story of Apache wars in the Southwest.
The location of the surrender was in Skeleton Canyon, which heads in the very southwestern corner of New Mexico and runs westward across the state line into Arizona. Some accounts say that the spot where Geronimo gave up is inside New Mexico.
But that’s not so, says Mr. Cavaliere. “The Forest Service has a sign in Skeleton Canyon on the Arizona side designating the site. Even this is not accurate, however. From what I was told by a rancher born nearby, the event actually occurred farther west at the mouth of the canyon.”
And he adds: “The rancher informs me that after the surrender was over, some cavalry soldiers, realizing the significance of what had just happened, piled up stones at the exact spot where Geronimo had sat. And sure enough, to this day there is a big pile of rocks covered with weeds in the middle of an old corral! Many a tourist, following the signs, goes right past the pile on the way to the Forest Service marker.”
That is the first time I had heard that story, but it certainly sounds plausible. The several soldiers who were there and wrote later about the incident say only that it happened in Skeleton Canyon. They neglect to pin down the precise spot.
While that particular point remains open to debate, other details surrounding the surrender are fairly clear. Geronimo and his tiny band of die-hard warriors had been the scourge of the border country for years. Several times in the past, he had been obliged to settle on a reservation, but in each instance he had broken away with his followers and resumed raiding.
By the summer of 1886, with all hands turned against him on both sides of the border, he saw that the end was near. From his camp in northern Sonora, not far below present Douglas, Ariz., he waited for some opening that would allow him to return to the United States and make a final peace.
Meanwhile, Gen. Nelson A. Miles, commander of the troops hunting hostile Apaches, learned of Geronimo’s location. So, he sent a trusted officer, Lt. Charles B. Gatewood, to persuade him to give up.
Gatewood rode south with the famous scout Tom Horn and entered Geronimo’s camp carrying a white flour sack on a stick as a truce flag. As it turned out, the Indians had no idea what a white flag meant. But they allowed the Americans to pass.
A reputation for fairness gave Lt. Gatewood a chance to state the terms he brought from Gen. Miles. Geronimo listened intently and then with growing distress as the young officer explained the situation.
All the band would be made prisoners of war and would be sent to Florida for a period of two years. Many of their friends and relatives from the reservation had already been shipped there by railroad. Refusal to surrender would mean a fight to the death.
Geronimo had been drinking mescal. He seemed somewhat befuddled and his hand trembled. At last he said to the lieutenant: “Consider yourself not a white man, but one of us. Tell us what we should do.”
Gatewood replied instantly, “Trust General Miles and surrender to him!”
The Apaches spent the night discussing the matter, while Gatewood and Horn waited nervously for their answer. In the morning, it came. Geronimo placed his confidence in the officer and agreed to follow him north to the border.
They traveled together for the next several days until reaching Skeleton Canyon just inside the United States. Gen. Miles rode down from Fort Bowie for an historic meeting with the last fighting leader of the Apache nation.
Many years later Geronimo recalled what happened. He said that he told the general about the many wrongs he had suffered from the white men. Then he agreed to make a treaty that bound each party with an oath.
As Geronimo told his interviewer, “I do not believe that I ever violated my word. But General Miles never fulfilled his promises.”
All the Apaches were sent to Florida where the men served several years at hard labor. Later, they were transferred to Fort Sill, Okla. There, Geronimo died in 1909 without gaining a last wish to see his old homeland once more.
Now in semi-retirement, author Marc Simmons wrote a weekly history column for more than 35 years. The New Mexican is publishing reprints from among the more than 1,800 columns he produced during his career.