May 10, 2011

Code Name: Geronimo

By Craig Springer
Unless you live under a rock, you no doubt have heard that the U.S. military evoked the name of a former (albeit transient) Sierra County, New Mexico, resident in its designs to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. "Operation Geronimo" was the tag given to the recent Navy Seal operation. President Obama confirmed in a recent 60 Minutes interview that when bin Laden was shot it was communicated by, "Geronimo - EKIA," code for "enemy killed in action."
The original "operation Geromino" went down in southern New Mexico 126 years ago, with there being significant U.S. Army and Apache activity at Kingston, Lake Valley, and Hillsboro. The threat of loss of life and property by Apaches was significant on a number of occasions from 1877 until 1886, such that commerce and travel were conducted at great risk. Observers at the time commented that Apache depredations prostrated the mining industry. Hillsboro was the first of the three towns to be founded, in 1877, followed by Lake Valley and Kingston in the early '80s.

The Apache, Geronimo, as he appeared before surrender in 1886. Geronimo and his band attacked outlying ranches near Lake Valley a few months before this image was taken. Library of Congress.
The Apache named Goyakla, or "One Who Yawns," was nicknamed "Geronimo" by the Mexican military when he escaped injury in gun fire, the Mexican soldiers evoking the name of St. Jerome for the Apache's remarkable luck in cheating death. "Geronimo" became an American war cry during World War II.

The U.S. Army put considerable resources on the ground to capture or kill the Apache paladin and his lieutenant so to speak, Naiche, the son of Cochise. Geromino's last outbreak from the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation occurred in 1885 and lasted until his surrender in the fall of 1886. Some of those U.S. Army resources were at Camp Hillsboro/Camp Boyd, about a mile north of today's Hillsboro post office.
This string of U.S. Army soldiers are heading out of the Percha Creek bottom at Camp Hillsboro/Camp Boyd. The photo was taken by Kingston photographer, J.C. Burge circa late 1885. The camera looks toward the northeast, with Hillsboro only a short walk away. The former camp is on occupied private property. Courtesy Patti Nunn.

Naiche, seen here a prisoner of war circa 1898, was with Geronimo to the last. Library of Congress.
The national media carried news about the Indian campaign. The 1885 Harper's Weekly shows Ft Bayard soldiers in a training exercise. Ft Bayard is roughly 25 miles from where Geronimo last struck near Lake Valley. Library of Congress.
Companies of infantry and cavalry were stationed for about a year--mid-1885 until September of 1886--at Camp Hillsboro, later called Camp Boyd in honor of Capt. Orsemus Bronson Boyd who died in the Black Range. "Operation Geronimo," the one that unfolded in Pakistan last week, has come under criticism as being insensitive to Native Americans for relating the Apache to bin Laden. Understandably, American Indians, especially those who have proudly served in the U.S. military would rather not be viewed as in league as with an avowed enemy of the U.S. Witness New Mexico's own Navajo Code Talkers who were vital in the Pacific theatre in World War II.

But one cannot ignore the historical significance that Geronimo had locally--and nationally. Thousands of soldiers, both American and Mexican, were put on the ground in his pursuit. Hundreds of people died in the Geronimo campaign and other notable conflicts with Apache men, both his contemporaries, and in the years before him: Ulzana, Chihuahua, Victorio, Nana, Cochise, Mangas. Civilians, soldiers, and Apaches were victims of the violence.
U.S. Army surgeon and well known naturalist Edgar Mearns for whom Mearns quail is named took this image in eastern Arizona. Scenes like this unfolded near Lake Valley on Berrenda Creek, west of Hillsboro on Percha Creek, and through the Black Range. Library of Congress.
Geronimo was not only an enemy to the U.S. military, he was an enemy of some of his own Apache people. Companies of enlisted Apaches, led by U.S. Army officers chased after Geronimo. Geronimo murdered and kidnapped Anglo, Hispanic, and Apache people--men, women, and young children. He kidnapped Chief Loco's band and ensured that eventually all of the Chiricahua Apaches would be treated as prisoners of war, and removed to Florida, and eventually Oklahoma by way of a stay at Alabama. The condition of the then imprisoned Apaches at Ft. Sill is surveyed in the recently published book, Chief Loco: Apache Peacemaker, written by a descendant of the Apache leader. Geronimo lamented late in life that he had no friends among his own people.

Geronimo, a prisoner of war, taken circa 1898. Library of Congress.
Though the Geronimo Trail National Scenic Byway slices through Kingston and Hillsboro, perhaps his most significant presence was made at Lake Valley. On September 10, 1885, Geronimo's band moved over Macho Canyon and shot rancher Brady Pollock twice, then crushed his head with a boulder. Onward the Apaches went, north to McKnight Ranch on Berrenda Creek where they stole horses. Geronimo made it over the Mimbres Mountains to the west, probably going over the pass at the head of today's Pollock Canyon, and down Gavilan Canyon, the site of a battle with Nana in 1881. On September 11 more would die. By noon, Avaristo Abeyta, George Horn, and 17-year-old Martin McKinn were dead, just over the Black Range from Kingston. The teenager's younger brother, 9-year-old Santiago "Jimmy" McKinn witnessed Geronimo crush his brother's head and then don his brother's jacket. With little Jimmy McKinn Geronimo headed into the Black Range, chased by cavalry and a militia from Hillsboro, headed by Sierra County pioneers Nicholas Galles and Frank W. Parker, the latter a future supreme court justice.

Geronimo evaded capture, but surrendered a year later, the last to give in to the concentration policies of the U.S. government. The McKinn boy remarkably survived and was returned to his parents when Geronimo surrendered. You can learn more about how the young McKinn lived his life in this story by Jerry Egan, called The Captive in Desert Exposure. The original "operation Geronimo" came to a close in September 1886. Many lives lost, many lives ruined. The Chiricahuas--the entire tribe--became prisoners of war and were removed from the Southwest.

These events are well documented in scholarly works, and among the best resources is the book, From Cochise to Geronimo by Edwin R. Sweeney. Members of the Hillsboro Historical Society have written a book, titled, Around Hillsboro, due to be released in August. In this book, you'll see rare images related the Apache wars--and a whole lot more.