by Jim Olson
“Geronimo – Last Surrender to the First Rodeo”
When Sitting Bull agreed to appear in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show in 1885, he gave world-wide attention to the Native American Indian and their participation in Wild West Shows (the predecessor of today’s rodeos). Buffalo’s Bill’s Wild West Show captivated audiences from 1883—1913. Other famous Native Americans who performed with the show at various times included Geronimo, Chief Joseph, and Rains In The Face. Today, thousands of Native American Indians and Canadian First Nations people compete in rodeos. Geronimo, however, was the first Apache to participate.
Remembered as a fierce warrior, who later became a celebrity, few associate Geronimo with Wild West (rodeo) performances today. Although it is generally accepted that he was born in 1829, other reports say it could have been nearer 1832. Goyathlay (his Apache birth name which is sometimes also given as Goyahkla), Geronimo was one of the last Native Warriors to submit to the US Government. He surrendered to General Nelson Miles, at Skeleton Canyon (in Arizona), September 4, 1886. He was then sent to the Southeast as a prisoner of war.
By 1894 he was shipped westward to Fort Sill, near Lawton, Oklahoma, where he spent the remainder of his life. Much has been written and several movies have been made about his life leading up to the surrender, so we will not delve into that here.
We now know that Geronimo was quick to learn about making a dollar. Soon after realizing his own popularity he began signing autographs—charging visitors around a buck each. He branched out into making little wooden bows and arrows. He even learned some English (already being fluent in Spanish and, of course, Apache). He would sell the buttons off his shirt. As soon as one was sold and the customer gone, he would sew another in its place to be sold again. Pretty soon, anything connected to Geronimo became a souvenir. If asked, he even would show off old battle wounds.
By the late 1890s, he started appearing at Expositions, Fairs and Wild West Shows. The promoters of these events had to obtain permission from the war department, as he was considered a prisoner of war.
Although he probably appeared at local shows around Oklahoma before this, the Trans-Mississippi International Exposition in Omaha, Nebraska during 1898 was the first time he was presented on a world-wide stage. Over the next several years he made appearances at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, several Worlds Fairs and numerous Wild West shows including for Buffalo Bill, the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch and Pawnee Bill. He even rode in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration parade in 1905.
At most of these events, Geronimo received money for his appearance but he would also sell his autograph, photographs of himself—and just about anything else he could! He was akin to what we might call a “specialty act” at today’s rodeos. However, even at his advanced age, he did occasionally rope!
At the St. Louis World’s Fair, when he was not selling items to tourists and making appearances, he delighted audiences with roping exhibitions, even reportedly roping buffalo in the Wild West show!
Bob Boze Bell of True West Magazine once said, ”Geronimo had a little bit of PT Barnum in him and a whole lot of courage.”
After the 1904 World’s Fair, Geronimo went on tour with Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show (again, with permission of the US Government since he was technically a prisoner of war). His act was to shoot buffalo from a moving automobile!
In 1905, the 101 Ranch Wild West Show made its world-wide debut. It expanded into an international show which featured roping, riding, bulldogging, Indian dancers, trick roping, shooting and much more. A contemporary newspaper report said there were over 65,000 people at the ranch for opening day. It is no wonder, with attractions such as Bill Pickett, Lucille Mulhall and of course, “The Apache Prisoner Geronimo” was promoted as a headline act.
In his autobiography, Geronimo said, “When I was at first asked to attend the St. Louis World’s Fair I did not wish to go.”
According to another account however, what Geronimo does not say is that he did not wish to go because the government was only willing to pay him $1 per day for appearing at the exposition, while commercial promoters offered much more. Once the government made it clear that he could only leave the compound at Fort Sill under these terms, he agreed. Or, as he put it, “I consented.”
He went on to say, “Later, when I was told that I would receive good attention and protection, and that the President of the United States said that it would be all right, I consented . . . Every Sunday the President of the Fair sent for me to go to a Wild West show. I took part in the roping contests before the audience. There were many other Indian tribes there, and strange people of whom I had never heard . . . There were many strange things in these shows . . . I am glad I went to the Fair. I saw many interesting things and learned much of the white people. They are a very kind and peaceful people. During all the time I was at the Fair no one tried to harm me in any way.”
In 1905, Geronimo agreed to tell his life story to S. M. Barrett, Superintendent of Education in Lawton, Oklahoma. Barrett had to ask the President of the United States for permission to publish the book. Geronimo reportedly came to each interview knowing exactly what he wanted to say. He refused to answer questions or alter his narrative afterwards, saying, “Write what I said.” Frederick Turner then re-edited the autobiography by removing some of Barrett’s footnotes and writing an introduction. Turner wrote that the book is in the style of an Apache reciting his oral history.
It is believed because of a 1939 movie about the famous Apache warrior, US Paratroopers began shouting, “Geronimo,” to show they had no fear when jumping out of an airplane during WWII. The name has since become a household word. Many contemporary accounts from his day said Geronimo was a liar, scoundrel and thief. Modern accounts tend to paint him as a noble Indian hero. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.
Thanks to his embracing capitalism however, and his willingness to participate at the Wild West Shows, Fairs, and Expositions, at the time of his death Geronimo reportedly had a large sum of money saved in the bank. Whether this was true or not, he did in fact, make a lot of money during his later years. The Apache warrior, turned statesman, Wild West celebrity and entrepreneur died on February 17, 1909.