Geronimo at Large

Geronimo, Nelson Miles and Skeleton Canyon hang out together in the southwestern corner of my brain the same way that Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and Appomattox Court House share a southeasterly spot in that same old organ. Each trio features two wartime opponents and the spot where one of them surrendered to the other. Like the threesome associated with the conclusion of America's Civil War, Geronimo, Miles and Skeleton are linked to a war's end--the last Apache war in the Southwest--and to an everlasting, though often bitter, peace.

Some Civil War buffs would no doubt love to pound me gray and blue for daring to compare a relatively minor agreement worked out in the Western wilderness to The Surrender in dear old civilized Virginny. It is certainly true that, despite the uncivil number of Civil War casualties, Lee still had more than a handful of able-bodied fighting men left--while a handful is all Geronimo had at the end...and at the start, too, for that matter. The point, though, is that both the so-called Rebels of 1865 and the so-called renegades of 1886 were in desperate straits and had little choice but to surrender to the U.S. Army. Afterward, the Southerners faced frequently repressive Reconstruction rule, but that sure beat the heck out of what the Chiricahuas faced--swift removal from their homeland. Geronimo, considered a prisoner of war, was sent to Florida. Nobody tried to ship Robert E. Lee, citizen of Virginia, to Arizona Territory. In any case, the legends of both men would live on everywhere while their roles in lost causes would be debated to no end.

End of comparison. You may return to your exalted place in all those Civil War magazines now, Mr. Lee. We'll concentrate on Geronimo here, much as Captain Henry Lawton and Lieutenant Charles Gatewood did in the summer of 1886 when they were pursuing him south of the border in the Sierra Madre. This issue of Wild West offers two stories on the hunt for Geronimo--one by Walter Holden told from Lawton's perspective, and the other by Louis Kraft featuring Gatewood's point of view. Geronimo was not the only Apache leader to surrender in Skeleton Canyon to General Miles--a fact often forgotten. Also surrendering was the actual hereditary Chiricahua chief, Naiche.

"Naiche was in command of the camp, and Geronimo always deferred to Naiche," says Edwin R. Sweeney, who has written award-winning biographies of Cochise and Mangas Coloradas and is now writing a book about the volatile Apache world during the 12 years before the final surrender in 1886. "There were only 18 warriors, half in Naiche's band, half in Geronimo's band. If Geronimo's supporters had wanted to fight, I think Geronimo would have gone along, but they were ready to surrender. Their relatives had already been taken to Florida, and they were being chased by the Mexicans, as well as by U.S. soldiers and Apache scouts. It was either surrender or die there in the mountains."

Geronimo had also temporarily given up his freedom earlier that same year, as well as in 1884 and in 1879. Each of those times he turned himself in after negotiating with the whites. The only time he was actually captured at gunpoint was by Indian Agent John Clum and Clum's Apache policemen in April 1877. But the September 3-4, 1886, meeting between Geronimo and Miles is the most significant of the captures/surrenders because it marked the end of an era.

Miles, Sweeney contends, does not deserve the credit for Geronimo's final surrender. Who then does? Sweeney, Kraft and Holden all say that Apache scouts Martine and Kayitah, who opened negotiations with Geronimo and Naiche, played significant roles. But Kraft casts his top vote for Gatewood: "Gatewood, without a doubt, played the pivotal role. The Chiricahuas liked and respected him. His honesty and integrity made him welcome in their camp. It was their trust in his word that swayed them to return to the United States and surrender." Holden, if forced to vote for only one, would choose Lawton: "The surrender was brought about by the arduous campaign of constant pursuit waged by Captain Lawton and his band of soldiers."

So that leaves it up to Sweeney to cast the deciding vote. Lawton had to push him to get out of camp and find Geronimo. The more I researched, the more I leaned toward Lawton as the most important. After all, Gatewood was detached to Lawton's party. Still, if Lawton had been the one to come up to the Chiricahua camp with the two scouts, who knows what would have happened? The Apaches didn't know Lawton, and at that point it was hard for them to trust anyone they didn't know. Gatewood was an important go-between. But Lawton made that possible. Lawton and Gatewood needed each other."

Sounds like we should just forget about the voting. Clearly, Lieutenant Gatewood and Captain Lawton both played starring roles in the final surrender. And no matter how any of us might feel about Geronimo or about the way Apaches in general were treated, none of us should doubt the significance of what those two U.S. Army officers accomplished. As Kraft notes, "Anytime people who do not speak the same language can get together and end a war without further bloodshed, it is significant."

Lieutenant Gatewood's Reward

As promised, First Lieutenant Charles Gatewood became General Nelson Miles' aide-de-camp on September 14, 1886. The assignment suited him. His years as military commandant of the White Mountain Indian Reservation proved to be the perfect training ground for the new administrative position. Besides, though only 33, Gatewood's physical condition had deteriorated to the point where he could no longer perform the duties of a field commander. Becoming Miles' aide gave him a new lease on life for it meant that the ravages of rheumatism did not threaten him with the possibility of an early discharge from the Army. Gatewood could not have been happier.

The euphoria would not last long. The moment the Apache war ended, everyone, from Miles on down, scrambled to take credit for the final surrender. Captain Henry Lawton's report of September 9 was the first blow. Lawton singled out Leonard Wood, Abiel Smith, Robert Brown and just about every other officer who served under him for exceptional service. One name did not make Lawton's list: Gatewood. The early snub was just the beginning. Gatewood found himself center stage in a war he could not win.

Most newspapers joined the Miles-led bandwagon, praising the officers of the 4th and ignoring Gatewood's contribution. Not all, though. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Gatewood walked into the hostile camp and stayed 12 days until he talked Geronimo into surrendering. After complaining about Lawton getting all the credit, the Chronicle proclaimed that Gatewood alone deserved the credit. Heady words even if they were balderdash.

The split placed Gatewood in an unhealthy situation. The man who dared to butt in on the 4th's glory, not to mention taking the side of the Chiricahuas against Wood and Smith, now found himself an interloper in Miles' inner circle. Surrounded by officers from the 4th, he found himself a hated man walking a lonely road.

On the surface, Miles appeared to be Gatewood's benefactor. He wrote glowing recommendations in Gatewood's efficiency reports. But that was just a front. In actuality, the general had become Gatewood's greatest antagonist.

On November 8, 1887, Tucson feted the victorious soldiers. During the reception at the San Xavier Hotel, Miles' officers were all praised--all except Gatewood. When asked about Gatewood's participation in the surrender, Miles snapped that he was "sick of this adulation of Lieutenant Gatewood, who only did his duty." Gatewood was conspicuously absent from the celebration. Miles had no intention of being upstaged and had ordered Gatewood to remain in Los Angeles.

Gatewood's situation never improved. His assignment as aide-de-camp ended on September 14, 1890. From then until his death on May 20, 1896, he continued to perform his various assignments to the best of his ability. But there would be no rewards. Whereas Lawton, Wood, Smith and almost every officer who served in Mexico during the summer of 1886 died or retired a colonel or general, Gatewood died a first lieutenant--the rank he held when he negotiated with Geronimo in Mexico.


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