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Mythbuster: Geronimo

Geronimo is known to be one of the most famous and most dignified Native Americans of the American west. He struck fear into the heart of his enemies, while he boosted the morale of his Apache allies. There are countless stories that romanticize Geronimo giving him a supernatural appearance. But, the problem that lies amongst these stories is how to distinguish which ones are myth and which ones are reality.

Quite possibly, the largest misunderstanding about Geronimo is his name, because his real birth name is Goyathlay. Geronimo was born in June of 1829, near present day Clifton, Arizona [2]. He was given the name Goyathlay, which can be translated as “one who yawns” [2] or as “shrewd” [1]. He was raised as a warrior prince from birth, but did not start his warrior training till he was seven years old [1]. He would train as a warrior and live in peace with the Mexicans and the white settlers, for the next twenty years. This would change in the mid 1850’s when Goyathlay’s family was attacked by Mexican forces, while he went to town with other warriors from the tribe. Goyathlay became enraged by this pathetic attack and vowed to attack anyone who encroached upon his people’s territory [1]. Also, he immediately attacked the Mexicans who killed his family. During the ambush he killed many men in hand to hand combat. In fact, he killed so many Mexicans, that when they saw him charging at them they would shout “Geronimo! Geronimo, is coming!” [1]. With this being said, Geronimo the bloodthirsty warrior was born.

Goyathlay would never again be called by his birth name, he would be known as Geronimo for the rest of his life, and Geronimo embraced this. He enjoyed the fame that his new name brought him, it hyped him up and gave “power” to himself. Geronimo would go on to raid settlers and Mexicans for the next twenty years. During this time he was captured twice and both times he escaped. But, he surrendered in 1886 and was eventually brought to Fort Sill where he would remain until his death. While at Fort Sill Geronimo became a celebrity and gained a great deal of fame. With fame comes rumors, and rumors grow into myths. There were many myths surrounding Geronimo during his life time and even more in his death.

Our society is familiar with Geronimo through two of his greatest myths that remained in our society for over one hundred years. The first is the myth that Prescott Bush (grandfather of George W. Bush) claimed to take Geronimo’s skull from an Apache cemetery at, Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Prescott claimed that while he was stationed at Fort Sill in 1915 (for World War I), he and a couple of his friends found the grave of Geronimo and stole his skull and femur. Once they had it in there possession they brought it with them to a “tomb” on the Yale university campus, for their secret society, the Skull and Bones.

David Miller, a scholar for Cameron university, who has been studying Geronimo his whole life says otherwise. He claims that Geronimo’s grave wasn’t in the Apache cemetery at the time while Prescott Bush was stationed at Fort Sill. He goes on to say that “Geronimo’s grave was actually miles away across a washed-out bridge and nearly inaccessible.” [3] In a way, it is amazing how (even in death) Geronimo was able to escape from the white man.

Geronimo’s legacy still lives on and is even transferred from kid to kid on a playground. Why is it that Children call out “Geronimo!” when they jump from something high. This saying comes from one of Geronimo’s greatest myths. It was said that during one of Geronimo’s escape attempts he ran to the top of Medicine Bluff (a cliff near Fort Sill that is over a 100 feet tall) and jumped off it into a river for a successful escape [4]. There is also a claim that when he jumped off he shouted “Geronimo!” (it would later be depicted into a film titled Geronimo) [4]. This escape act was of course a myth, because no man could jump off a hundred foot bluff and survive. But, many people choose to believe this act because of Geronimo’s incredible supernatural powers.

In conclusion, Geronimo was an incredible man and it is not wrong to believe that he was a great warrior and leader. But, he was only human. He still dies in the end and his bones are still at Fort Sill to prove it. But, should children shout out the name Geronimo when they jump from high place’s? This answer lies within the myth and maybe it is the myth of Geronimo that our society wants to embrace. Geronimo’s myth is his greatest legacy.

Author: Nathan Strub


[1] Aleshire, Peter, “The Fox and the Whirlwind” New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2000

[2] Geronimo – The last Apache Holdout. ©Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated June, 2008.

[3] Myths about Geronimo’s Remains Get new Life. Sean Murphy, Associated Press
Sunday, May 17, 2009

[4] Geronimo. Wikipedia.org.

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