On the morning of October 25, 1886 a train pulled into the bustling maritime city of Pensacola. Onboard were 16 Apache warriors, but unlike many who visit here today, these men were not here by choice. They had been hunted down, captured and dragged against their will by the U.S. government to one of the nation’s most battle-hardened military fortresses — Fort Pickens — and locked behind bars.
This is a lesser-known chapter in American history that is often glanced over, or even skipped entirely in school textbooks. Over the past century, Hollywood and television have portrayed Native Americans as savages and propagated harmful stereotypes of their culture. But this detriment of an entire people didn’t begin in Hollywood or on T.V. It had its roots in reality.
129 years ago this week, just three days before the worldwide symbol of freedom — the Statue of Liberty — would be dedicated, the train that arrived in Pensacola from the desert plains of the western territories was carrying a notable passenger. He went by the name Geronimo, an Apache leader, who led his people’s defense of their homeland against the military might of the United States. Historians would later define his legacy as one of the most legendary warriors in American history.
The Apache Story
After the Civil War, the U.S. government turned its military might against the native peoples of the West. The native tribes were forced to give up most of their traditional lands and ways of life for reservations.
After 1875, the reservations were steadily made smaller, as silver miners and settlers moved into the territory and demanded more land. The Chiricahua Apache reservation shrank from 7,200 square miles to 2,600 square miles by the 1880’s and the Apaches faced loss of their land as well as their freedom. Bands of Apaches hostile to one another were forced together on the dwindling lands. They distrusted the American government due to broken promises and as conditions on the reservation worsened, some bands escaped. Among these was the band led by Geronimo, who after the loss of his family during a Mexican raid, became a fierce leader. His actions to save his homeland from America’s Manifest Destiny would earn him recognition as the top target of the the U.S. Army and his capture even became a personal mission of the President of the United States.
Geronimo’s band raided across much of what is now New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico, successfully evading 5,000 U.S. soldiers (about a quarter of the U.S. Army at the time), and 3,000 Mexican soldiers. During the hunt for Geronimo in the Summer of 1886, President Cleveland said, “I hope nothing will be done with Geronimo which will prevent our treating him as a prisoner of war…if we cannot hang him, which I would much prefer.”
In the search for Geronimo in the deserts of the southwest, the U.S. Army hired about 500 Apache scouts to track hostile bands. Geronimo’s group was finally contacted by two of the Apache scouts and agreed to meet in Skeleton Canyon, Arizona territory where they negotiated with General Miles on September 3, 1886 for their surrender to the U.S. Army.
At the time of his surrender, Geronimo stated, “I’m not going to bother anybody again. If you want to do anything to me, if you want to kill me, well that’s all right. If you want to hang me, that’s all right. Whatever you want to do, do it.” General Miles replied to the Apache chief, “No, I don’t want to do nothing.” In response, Geronimo said, “If you not going to kill me, get people good food, good water, good grass, good milk.” General Miles answered the Apache chief, “Well, we can’t move you to the western states. That’s the reason why I’m going to send you out east where nobody knows you. You live a long life that way. But you can’t do nothing wrong, or you can’t live down here. All right.”
Four days later, the entire Chiricahua tribe were put on trains and exiled to Florida where they were to be held as prisoners. The president ordered them sent to Fort Pickens, stating they were “guilty of the worst crimes known to the law, committed under circumstances of great atrocity, and public safety requires them be removed far from the scene of their depredations and guarded with strictest vigilance.”
During the transfer, President Cleveland gave his Army commanders explicit orders: “All the hostiles should be very safely kept as prisoners until they can be tried for their crimes, or otherwise disposed of, and those to be sent to Florida should be started immediately.”
Those chilling words, or otherwise disposed of, symbolized for many Native Americans how the U.S. government truly felt about them and their families.
Pensacola Gets a Tourist Attraction
All of the Apaches were intended to be held captive at Fort Marion, Florida. In hoping to capitalize on Geronimo’s fame, several prominent Pensacola citizens lobbied the local congressman to have Geronimo’s group sent to Fort Pickens. The petitioners stated Fort Marion was too crowded, and that Army troops from Fort Barrancas could guard Geronimo’s band at Fort Pickens.
The editor of the local newspaper at the time, The Pensacolian, noted Geronimo would be “an attraction which will bring here a great many visitors” and stated upon Geronimo’s arrival that, “We welcome the nation’s distinguished guests and promise to keep them so safely under lock and key that they will forget their hair raising proclivities and become good Indians.” President Cleveland approved the petition for the Apache men only, separating them from their families and breaking another promise.
In early February 1887, tourists from all across the country began arriving in Pensacola by train and crossed Pensacola Bay on a ferry to visit the fort and see the prisoners. Admission to see the imprisoned Apache warriors was fifty cents for adults and twenty five cents for children. On one recorded Sunday, 459 tourists visited the fort. Geronimo’s imprisonment had been reduced to a sideshow spectacle.
The Legacy of Geronimo and the Apaches
The Apaches fought with skill and courage against insurmountable odds for their lands and freedoms. Geronimo became a leader of one of the last Native American groups to submit to the United States government. To some Apaches, Geronimo’s band embodied the Apache values of aggressiveness and courage in the face of difficulty. Some Apaches who cooperated with the U. S. Army, such as the scouts and those who remained on the reservation condemned Geronimo because they believed his actions caused harsher treatment on the reservations and ultimately resulted in their exile.
To the settlers of Arizona, they were raiders and murderers. The Apaches’ exile and captivity eased their fears. To many Americans in the east, they were a tourist attraction. To the military, Geronimo was a great fighter who won the respect of many of the soldiers that pursued him. Today, this story of continued resistance against tremendous odds inspires thousands of visitors to Fort Pickens. As they discover more about the Apaches and their captivity, they learn the price of that resistance. The Apaches lost loved ones, their lands, their traditional ways of life, and for 27 years their freedom. The Apache population dropped 95% from 1850 to 1914. The few descendents of those who survived are proud to be called Apache.
On his deathbed, Geronimo confessed that he regretted his decision to surrender to the U.S. 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.”