The PBS series American Experience examined two historical Old West figures in back-to-back episodes on January 24th. The first hour-long episode explored the story of lawman-gunman Wyatt Earp and the second profiled the Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo. The two episodes mark the 3rd and 4th installments in the series’ “Wild West Month.”

Following the Earp episode, this viewer sees a connection between the actions of Wyatt Earp and the previous week’s profile of US Cavalry leader George Custer – each functioned as instruments for an expanding and centralizing US nation. Earp’s service as a lawman in rough cattle towns and expanding settler communities like Tombstone (Arizona territory) assisted the business class in securing control of such towns and the federal government in moving territories toward statehood and centralization. Similarly, Custer was a tool of US westward expansion as he carried out orders to push Indigenous peoples from their unceded traditional territory onto government-designated reservations.

In both cases, Earp and Custer had their own personal goals as they carried out – unconsciously or not – the centralizing and assimilationist goals of the much larger forces of industrial capitalism and a Euro-American government. Earp sought a personal fortune and social respectability while Custer sought to build his national public image and spend as much time with his wife, Libbie, as possible.

It would be such independent Indigenous leaders as Geronimo that the expansive society of Earp and Custer would come up against. In the early-to-mid 1880s, Geronimo and his followers were the last Indigenous group in the US to physically resist the American nation-state, doing so across what are now Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Geronimo’s resistance and rejection of a US-controlled reservation has left a complicated legacy.

Following his final surrender in late 1886, Geronimo would in time come to be celebrated by the very American society that had sought his demise – he was seen as brave and independent for his resistance. (One could argue that American society did such celebrating only once it was safe to do so!) The episode, however, shared that some Apache blamed Geronimo’s stubborn resistance for their suffering – a vast number of Apache (including Geronimo) were imprisoned in Florida where men and women were separated and many succumbed to tropical disease. Geronimo was viewed by some Apache as the reason the US government did not allow them return to their traditional lands.

Geronimo would remain a prisoner-of-war for the rest of his life, even as he was allowed to travel and attend such events as the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis and to ride in President Teddy Roosevelt’s 1905 Inaugural Parade. Geronimo died in 1909 after having been thrown from a horse and contracting pneumonia from a February night spent on the ground – he died a US prisoner at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. His nephew reported that upon his deathbed Geronimo regretted having surrendered.

One film treatment of the Geronimo story has been Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), starring Cherokee actor, Wes Studi. Here is the trailer:

(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)

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