Written by Jason Epperson, Storytelling by Abigail Trabue

If you only know the name Geronimo from the call that paratroopers in old war movies and Bugs Bunny cartoons shout, it’s a nickname bestowed upon an Indigenous hero by Mexican soldiers. During repeated conflicts, The Apache warrior attacked them with nothing but a knife, surviving each time despite being continually shot at. The soldiers would plead to Saint Jerome as they faced him. Geronimo is Spanish for “Jerome.”

On today’s episode of America’s National Parks, Geronimo, and his imprisonment at Fort Pickens, now a part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Pensacola, Florida.

Colonization in the West

One of the leading causes of the Civil War was westward expansion, and whether new states like Kansas would be slave states or not, tipping the scales of power toward to the North or South. After the Civil War ended and the question of slavery was decided, the U.S. government turned its military prowess towards the native people of the West. Tribes gave up most of their traditional lands and ways of life as they were forced onto reservations.

Eventually, the reservations were encroached upon as miners and settlers moved in and demanded more land. The Chiricahua Apache reservation shrank to nearly one-third of its original size. Bands of Apaches hostile to one another were forced to live together on the shrinking lands, and as conditions on the reservation deteriorated, some bands escaped. Including a band led by a man named Geronimo, who lost fear when he lost his family during a Mexican raid. In the summer of 1850, a contingent of Apaches went on a trading mission into Mexico. While the men were in town, a force of Mexican troops attacked the lightly-guarded camp. When Geronimo returned, he found his mother, his first wife, and his three children all dead.

Geronimo became the #1 target of the U.S. Army and President Grover Cleveland, who made Geronimo’s capture his personal mission, saying “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 1886, Cleveland dispatched a full quarter of the U.S. Army, 5000 soldiers, in an effort to capture Geronimo, who was also evading 3000 Mexican soldiers as he raided across the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico. Eventually, the Army hired 500 scouts from rival Apache bands to track Geronimo, two of which found his band and negotiated a surrender to General Miles in Arizona’s Skeleton Canyon.

After the surrender at Skeleton Canyon, the entire Chiricahua tribe were exiled to Florida where they were to be held as prisoners. President Cleveland publicly stated that 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.”

His orders to the Army commanders stated that “all the hostiles should be very safely kept as prisoners until they can be tried for their crimes, or otherwise disposed of.”

Three days before the dedication of the Statue of Liberty — October 25th, 1886. A train arrived in Pensacola, Florida. Onboard, 16 Apaches who surrendered at Skeleton Canyon in Arizona. Their leader – the renowned warrior Geronimo.

The Deplorable Results of Assimilation

The rest of the Chiricahua were sent to Fort Marion in St. Augustine, but it was claimed that Geronimo himself and his warriors would be better guarded at Fort Pickens than at the overcrowded Fort Marion. However, an editorial in a local newspaper noted that Geronimo would be “an attraction which will bring here a great many visitors.” Upon their arrival, the paper’s editor said: “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.” In fact, it was local business leaders that lobbied for the move. President Cleveland himself approved the petition, separating the men from their families, breaking the terms of the surrender.

In February 1887, tourists from all over the country began arriving in Pensacola, crossing Pensacola Bay on a ferry to visit the island fort and see the Apache prisoners and the famed warrior Geronimo. Admission was fifty cents for adults and twenty-five cents for children. Visitors talked with the captives, bought souvenirs from them, and brought them gifts. Geronimo learned his part. He became a genial sideshow attraction, doing what he could to coax tourists to hand over a few nickles. He was well-liked, particularly by the women who visited. A writer from the local paper gave this advice to visitors: “We think that the ladies who visit these savages indulge in too much gush, and we are certain they would not do it if they were to pause and reflect upon the barbarities practiced upon the people of their own race by these cutthroats.” One woman asked a guard what kind of gift would be appropriate for Geronimo, and he responded by saying “a piece of lead in the forehead.”

Now that Geronimo was of no concern for harm, he was a celebrity. Were he alive today, he’d be making the talk show circuit and guest-judging on cooking shows. But Geronimo was still a prisoner. He and his warriors spent many days working hard labor at the fort, another violation of the agreements made at Skeleton Canyon. “they put me to sawing up large logs,” Geronimo said. “There were several other Apache warriors with me, and all of us had to work every day. For nearly two years we were kept at hard labor in this place and we did not see our families until May 1887.”


The families of the warriors were moved to Fort Pickens, creating an even bigger attraction. The Indians held traditional dances. Soldiers would put pennies on the posts for the Indian boys to shoot off with their arrows.

After Grover Cleveland left office, Geronimo, his warriors, and their families were moved to Vermont, Alabama, where they stayed another five years, working for the Government. “We were not healthy in this place,” Geronimo said, “for the climate disagreed with us. Many died, others committed suicide.”

They were then sent to Fort Sill in Oklahoma, where, though imprisoned, houses were built for them by the Government. They were also given cattle, hogs, turkeys and chickens. They were operating upon the understanding that they could raise the stock and sell grain in order to establish their own support system, but again the government had misled Geronimo. Part of the money was given to the Indians and part was placed in what the officers call the “Apache Fund,” to go towards clothing and other care, but the government-issued clothing eventually ceased, and the Apache were never given account of their earnings.

Geronimo lived the rest of his days as a prisoner. He visited the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and according to his own accounts made a great deal of money signing autographs and pictures, though he could do little with it. He died in 1909 at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The captivity of the Chiricahua Apache ended four years later.

To the settlers of Arizona, Geronimo’s band were raiders and murderers. The Apaches’ exile and captivity eased their fears. The price of Geronimo and the Chiricahua Apache’s resistance was lost loved ones, lost lands, lost traditions, and 27 years their freedom. From 1850 to 1914, the Apache population dropped 95%.

On his deathbed, Geronimo confessed that he regretted his decision to surrender to the U.S. His last words were reported to be “I should have never surrendered. I should have fought until I was the last man alive.”

Travelling Geronimo’s History

The Gulf Islands National Seashore protects a chain of barrier islands between Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle, several with intact fortresses from the early 1800s. On the eastern end, you can take a ferry from Gulfport, Mississippi to West Ship Island, for swimming, hiking, and touring the historic Fort Massachusetts. In nearby Ocean Springs, Mississippi, the Davis Bayou portion of the seashore offers trails through the wetlands, with plenty of opportunities to view alligators and other wildlife. There’s a developed campground on site, with water and electric hookups and a modern bathhouse.

In the Florida panhandle, historic Fort Barrancas lives on the Pensacola Naval Air Station. Crossing the Pensacola Bay Bridge into the town of Gulf Breeze, you can find the park headquarters at the Naval Live Oaks area. This is the first piece of federally managed land in the United States. The Live Oak trees with their thick, crooked branches, were excellent for ship-building. The original United States Naval fleet was built largely from this grove of trees.

Crossing a $1 toll bridge onto the community of Pensacola Beach you’ll find a typical Florida beach town full of sugar sand, sunbathers, and outdoor eateries. But as you pay your entrance fee at the gate for the Gulf Islands and drive the 6 miles to the end of Santa Rosa Island, the world changes. The party atmosphere, the music, and the people disappear, but the sugar sand remains. You can explore miles of pristine beaches, watching osprey hatchlings leave their tiny footprints while the wide-winged adults loom overhead. Ghost crab almost disappears into white shores, and dolphin leap in the bay. At the end of the island is Fort Pickens, Geronimo’s tourist-attraction prison, which offers self-guided and ranger-led tours. All around the island are cannon batteries that developed over time as the armed forces protected Pensacola Bay, an important naval harbor. The giant cast-iron cannons of the 1800s and large-caliber disappearing grey gun batteries of the early 1900s are set among the palm trees and sand dunes all over the island. It’s like being in an episode of LOST, as you climb and play on the deprecated war equipment, almost wondering what decade you are in.

The campground near Fort Pickens at the end of the island is one of the best places to camp in all the National Park system. For $25 a night, you have water, electricity, and private access to the sugar sand beaches and trails to the fort and gun batteries. The legendary Blue Angels team of stunt jets is based across the bay at the Pensacola Naval Station, and they regularly practice right overhead and fly low over the water. It’s a particularly interesting affair since warplanes are the entire reason the gun batteries along the island are no longer necessary.

National Park Service sites across the southwest also relate closely to Geronimo’s history, especially Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona, which is also a place of wondrous natural beauty.

The tradition of yelling “Geronimo” comes from the forties, when the Army was testing parachute jumps. A unit had gone out drinking and watched the 1939 film “Geronimo.” As fellow soldiers were harassing a young private who was acting tough about the jump. Early paratroopers didn’t have the greatest survival rates. His comrades said he’d be so scared, he wouldn’t remember his own name. He told them that to prove he wasn’t scared, he’d yell “Geronimo” as he jumped, referencing the warrior’s bravery in battle against the Mexican Army. He did, and his company followed suit, starting the tradition of making the expression in the face of death.

Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Gulf Islands National Seashore – National Park Service Website

Chiricahua National Monument – National Park Service Website