This week, I’m talking about Geronimo and my visit to his grave. He’s had countless books written about him, along with several movies and documentaries. People even shout his name when they jump out of airplanes. It turns out there are a lot of theories on where that came from (including something about paratroopers at Fort Benning, Ga.), but let’s not get off track.
Geronimo was a larger than life individual who people still talk about today. I want to preface this post by stating that I am nowhere close to being an authority on Geronimo, his life, or his legacy. I’m not going to write much about his backstory for that reason. Many have already done that work.
This is Geronimo’s grave. He is buried between one of his daughters, Eva Geronimo Godeley, and one of his wives, Zi-Yeh. A debate has raged for years about whether or not his remains are still here. A long-standing rumor has it that a grave-robbing posse of Yale students that included Prescott Bush (father of George H.W. and grandfather of George W.) stole his skull and some of his remains in 1918. I’m not going to spend time on that but you can read about that here.
I first visited Geronimo’s grave in 1999 when I visited Oklahoma with Sarah the first time. If I’m remembering it correctly, we didn’t have to get a pass to visit the cemetery and we just drove past it slowly. This time, I was there much longer.
Geronimo is buried on the Fort Sill grounds at Beef Creek Apache Cemetery. According to Find a Grave, there are about 340 burials recorded there. There are two other Apache prisoner of war (POW) cemeteries nearby (which I also visited), but this is the largest. It was established in 1894.
You may have noticed there are a lot of coins at the base of Geronimo’s grave. There are many reasons for that. Some do it (as people do at other graves) as a way to leave a token of their visit. Others do it as a sign of respect. But many do it hoping their visit will bring them good luck.
One Who Yawns
Contrary to popular belief, Geronimo was not a tribal chief. But he was considered a warrior, a leader, and a medicine man. According to the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture:
Geronimo was born in the 1820s, perhaps near present Clifton, Ariz. His Apache name was Goyahkla (One Who Yawns). He achieved a reputation as a spiritual leader and tenacious fighter against those who threatened his people’s ways of life. Later he was called Geronimo (Spanish for Jerome), most likely because of the way he fought in battle against Mexican soldiers who frantically called upon St. Jerome for help. He willingly accepted the name. Geronimo’s hatred toward Mexicans intensified when Mexican troops killed his mother, wife, and children in 1850. In addition, after the United States–Mexican War ended and the United States entered the Southwest, Geronimo faced another enemy that threatened his tribe’s existence.
During the Apache wars, Geronimo fought alongside Cochise and other tribe leaders. Their guerrilla-like raids and attacks forced the United States to negotiate treaties that confined Geronimo and his band to the San Carlos Reservation in the 1870s. Finding reservation life unacceptable, Geronimo escaped and resumed his raiding activities in Mexico and in the United States. Gen. George Crook and later Gen. Nelson A. Miles pursued the Apache leader for the next several years. Geronimo finally surrendered to Miles in September 1886.
As POWs, Geronimo and his followers were sent first to Florida, then Alabama, and finally Fort Sill in 1894. Geronimo farmed at Fort Sill. As his fame grew, his presence was requested at events such as the 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in Omaha, the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. In 1905, he rode in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration parade. Geronimo received money for his appearances at such events and even sold autographed items/photos of himself.
In February 1909, Geronimo was thrown from his horse while riding home and lay in the cold all night until a friend found him. He was very ill and near death. His last words were reported to be said to his nephew, “I should have never surrendered. I should have fought until I was the last man alive.”
Geronimo had several wives over his lifetime. To the right of his gave is a marker for one of them, Zi-Yeh. I don’t know exactly when he married her but it is thought to be before 1885. They had at least two children together, Fenton and Eva. Born in the 1880s, Fenton is thought to have died on July 22, 1897. He is buried at Beef Creek Apache Cemetery near his parents.
Born in 1889, Eva was the only daughter of Geronimo and Zi-Yeh. Accounts say that Geronimo was especially attached to Eva. Zi-yeh died from tubercular lupus in 1904. Geronimo was concerned for Eva, being that many of the women in Geronimo’s family suffered in childbirth. He supposedly did not want her to marry for that reason.
At the time of Geronimo’s death, Eva was in school at Chilocco, Okla. She returned for her father’s funeral. She later married classmate Robert Godeley. They had a daughter, Evaline Golene, on June 21, June 1910. Some say the baby died soon after, others say she lived two months and died on Aug. 20, 1910. That is the date on her marker. Eva died from tuberculosis on August 10, 1911. Evaline’s marker is to the left of Eva’s. I don’t know what happened to Robert Godeley.
One more child of Geronimo’s is buried at Beef Creek Apache Cemetery and that is Lulu Geronimo. Her Apache name was Dohn-Zay. She was his daughter with wife Chee-Hash-Kish. Lulu was born around 1865 and married Mike Dah-Ke-Ya, a warrior who fought with Geronimo. Dah-Keh-Ya and three of their children are buried at Beef Creek. Geronimo’s other children and wives are buried in several other states.
As you look at the dates on the markers, with the exception of Geronimo, you may be asking yourself the same question that I was. Why did they die so young, both children and adults?
From what I can gather, it was a combination of things. Native American POWs were allowed to have homes on the base and were not imprisoned in cells. Some of the men became trusted scouts. But it is undeniable that their land and way of life had been taken from them. Illness and infant mortality were other factors. In the end, when your spirit has been broken, how long can it be before your body is as well?
There are more others buried at Beef Creek Apache Cemetery whose stories I want to share with you. Come back next time for Part II.