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Geronimo’s Autobiography

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“Because he has given me permission to tell my story; because he has read that story and knows I try to speak the truth… I dedicate this story of my life to Theodore Roosevelt, president of the United States.”
– Geronimo, Fort Sill Military Reservation, 1906

These are the first words of the autobiography, “Geronimo’s Story of His Life.” The second part of the title reads, “Taken Down and Edited by S.M. Barrett, Superintendent of Education, Lawton, Oklahoma.” Barrett met Geronimo in 1904 when he helped Geronimo sell a war bonnet by interpreting from Spanish to English. He visited Geronimo often after that, and eventually asked his permission to publish his stories. At first Geronimo objected, but eventually agreed to tell his life story if Barrett would pay him and if it was all right with the Army officers.

Every officer Barrett approached was against the idea. Lt. George A. Purington told Barrett that Geronimo’s past deeds still caused bitter resentment among soldiers and civilians. He said a man like that should not profit from his story. Barrett took a bold step and wrote to President Theodore Roosevelt. He told him about this prisoner of war detained for 20 years without being allowed to tell his story. Roosevelt gave his permission, and passed his order through the ranks.

After six months of storytelling and editing, Barrett sent the manuscript to Roosevelt. The president replied, “This is a very interesting volume which you have in manuscript, but I would advise that you disclaim responsibility in all cases where the reputation of an individual is assailed.”

In his autobiography, Geronimo told about the lifestyle and beliefs of his people, the Bedonkohe, who lived in the mountains along the eastern border of Arizona. He said he was born in 1829 near the headwaters of the Gila River.

Geronimo said, “As a babe I rolled on the dirt floor of my father’s teepee, hung in my tsoch (Apache cradle) on my mother’s back, or suspended from the bough of a tree. I was warmed by the sun, rocked by the winds, and sheltered by the trees as other Indian babes.” Some passages in the book are so well-told that readers can imagine what growing up as a Bedonkohe was like.

Geronimo described a massacre in Mexico in 1858, when his camp was attacked by Mexicans, while men from the camp were away. He returned to find his mother, his wife Alope, and his three children lying dead. Dazed, he felt he no longer had any purpose left in his life. In revenge, Geronimo led a devastating attack a year later. He fought like a maniac, scaring the Mexicans, who warned each other to watch out for him. He said this is the first time they called him Geronimo. Years later, Mexicans killed his second wife. Geronimo tells of countless revenge attacks against the Mexicans over many years, and their retaliation in a continuing downward spiral of hatred and violence.

Later, when he spoke of life on the reservation, he said the officers tried to kill him or lock him up forever. Military reports and interviews with other Apaches differ from Geronimo’s version of several incidents. When he made disparaging remarks about generals George Crook and Nelson Miles, Barrett provided footnotes: “These are the exact words of Geronimo. The editor is not responsible for this criticism of General Crook or General Miles.”

Geronimo claimed that when he surrendered, Miles promised him a large fenced farm with servants so he would never have to work again. This was so far from the military accounts that one wonders who Geronimo thought would believe his story. While many of his stories may not be factual, Geronimo’s autobiography reveals many of his feelings.

In his last chapter, “Hopes for the Future,” Geronimo said, “there is no climate or soil which, to my mind, is the equal of Arizona. We have plenty of good cultivating land, plenty of grass, plenty of timber and plenty of minerals in that land which the Almighty created for the Apaches. It is my land, my home, my father’s land, to which I now ask to be allowed to return. I want to spend my last days there, and be buried among those mountains. If this could be, I might die in peace, feeling that my people, placed in their native homes, would increase in numbers, rather than diminish as at present, and that our name would not become extinct.”

Little did he know that his autobiography would eventually be published as an e-text on several Internet sites, available to be read and downloaded by thousands of people all over the world.

— Jim Turner. Photo courtesy of author.

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