This camp of 350 souls waited quietly while a single woman advanced towards the new arrival, her head bowed. Suddenly, she threw her arms around his neck, weeping bitterly. The prisoner showed no emotion as his daughter embraced him, but now the remaining prisoners gathered joyfully around him and the sixteen others who had accompanied him. The prisoner was the infamous Apache war shaman, Geronimo; the onlooker was US Army Captain Walter Reed, a native of Gloucester County.The two men were familiar with one another, for this was not their first encounter. To understand how these two men’s lives juxtaposed here and elsewhere, one has to understand the history of our nation’s westward expansion and the great Indian wars that ensued.
What began as a trickle of pioneers heading westward in the early 1800s turned into a torrent in 1848 with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California. The spigot slowed during the American Civil War, only to be cranked wide open in the years following Lee’s surrender in 1865.
America’s attitude of Manifest Destiny was finally transforming the last great frontier—the American West—in the belief that settlers were destined to expand across the continent. Only one thing stood in their way-- the Indian.
Since Anglos first arrived in North America, their view of indigenous people was not as residents so much as nomadic squatters on an empty landscape. Beginning in the East, tribe after tribe succumbed to disease, assimilation, trickery, violence, and relocation. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 authorized President Andrew Jackson to “negotiate” with southern tribes for their removal to federal territories west of the Mississippi River in exchange for their ancestral lands.
The act was heartedly supported by settlers eager to gain access to the region’s vast riches. As the act forced tens of thousands of tribesmen westward, they were pushed up against western tribes whose territories were already coming under increasing pressures. Not content to stop at the Mississippi, settlers cast their eyes ever westward and one by one the great tribes of the plains—Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche, Blackfoot, Crow, and others-- were exterminated or forced onto reservations. In the Southwest, the Apache was the last holdout of indigenous opposition.
For three centuries before Anglo-Americans arrived in the Southwest, the Apache had dominated the region, striking terror into the hearts of Mexicans and neighboring tribes alike. Their very name came from the Zuñi word meaning “enemy”. At their peak, their bands were scattered from West Texas, across southern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, north into southern Kansas and Colorado, and across the Rio Grande into Chihuahua and Sonora.
Geronimo, born in 1829, along with the Chiricahua Apache occupied the region bordering Arizona and New Mexico. Subsisting as small bands of hunter-gatherers, they lived in brush wickiups, and planted corn, beans, and squash. Although they had horses, Apaches traveled best on foot; from an early age Apaches were taught to run.
Ferocious warriors, they were adept at guerilla warfare and could be as cruel and harsh as the landscape that sustained them. They warred endlessly with their neighbors, and their economy was as much dependent on booty taken and traded as from hunting and gathering. The riches found in Mexican villages and rancheros were particularly appealing.
There were atrocities committed on both sides to be sure. In one raid on his camp, Geronimo’s mother, wife, and two small children were brutally slaughtered and set him on a lifelong path of revenge with all Mexicans. Then a new threat arrived from the east—Anglo-Americans.
Across the plains and into the desert southwest, a string of military forts was built to help assist and defend settlers continuing west or settling the region. It was to these frontier forts that Lt. Walter Reed was posted for more than a decade, practicing frontier medicine, and transferring frequently from post to post.
Reed was born in 1851 in Gloucester County. When he was nine, the Civil War began and two of his brothers served in the Confederacy. After the war, the family settled in Charlottesville where Reed could begin formal studies. At sixteen he entered the University of Virginia and took it upon himself to work towards a medical degree. Reed, a prodigy, passed all his exams before his eighteenth birthday. In a class of fifty, he ranked third.
He received his Doctor of Medicine in 1869 and set off for Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York for further study. He worked in public health for a few years but yearned to explore life outside the growing metropolis. His solution was to join the Army Medical Corps in 1875. With his new wife, Emilie, Lt. Reed received orders to Fort Lowell, Arizona Territory. He was the only physician in over 200 miles, and it was here he first began his research into the causes of malaria, a disease that was rampant at the fort.
When the main body of Chiricahua was removed to Arizona’s San Carlos Reservation in 1876, Geronimo’s band escaped into Mexico. Lured by trickery across the border a year later, he was captured. Life at San Carlos was unbearable; insufficient rations, bad water, poor farmland, and corrupt agents bred discontent. More than once Geronimo bolted with his band, dividing and reuniting later at predetermined locations.
In 1877 Reed was dispatched to Fort Apache, a place that would play a key role in both the cooperation and conflict with Western Apaches. During his tenure as post surgeon, Reed would witness the horrors associated with ongoing warfare. While there, the Reeds adopted a young Apache girl who had been severely burned during a military raid on Geronimo’s camp. The Apache brought the child to Dr. Reed when the remnants of Geronimo’s band fled. As the couple nursed her back to health, they named her Susie, who became a part of the family for the next fifteen years until she chose to reunite with her people.
In the summer of 1886, thirty-nine Apache men, women, and children raced across the desert, chased by 5000 American soldiers. They were the only Native Americans left still fighting the US Army. For months they evaded capture, at times running as much as eighty miles a day. But after thirty years of warfare and pursuit, they were starving and exhausted. On September 4, 1886 Geronimo surrendered. A few days later, he and his followers were loaded onto a train bound for Florida, well removed from their ancestral lands. The great Indian wars had ended.
Geronimo and his warriors were taken to Fort Pickens in Florida’s west coast. The women and children were remanded to Fort Marion on the east coast, joining other Chiricahua who had surrendered earlier. In 1887, amid cries concerning the deplorable living conditions at Fort Marion, almost 500 Apaches were moved to Mount Vernon, Alabama. A year later, Geronimo and his warriors joined them.
Walter Reed wrote at length about the Apache plight while assigned there as the post’s physician.
“The Indian prisoners now gathered numbered 390: 80 warriors, 180 women, and 130 children. As many of them were sick and the health of all debilitated from close confinement at Fort Marion, the officer in charge directed his first efforts towards securing more liberal ration and better clothing. When later their health had been somewhat recuperated, it was thought best to teach the Apache that a part of his bread, at least, should be earned by the sweat of his brow.”
As Reed observed Geronimo’s people, he wrote at length about the Apache’s close family ties. How they mourned when their children were taken from them and sent to Carlisle, Pennsylvania to be educated in white man’s ways. Many died of consumption in Pennsylvania and the remainder was finally returned to their families. He wrote about their belief in a single great Creator, and about their practice of polygamy. When the Apache were unable to treat their sick successfully, they turned to Reed as a last resort, earning mutual respect.
Reed issued a scathing report on the high mortality rate in Alabama, citing high humidity, mosquitoes, and the unsuitability of good farmland as leading causes for tuberculosis and malaria. Despite the Apache’s desire to be sent back to the San Carlos Reservation, in 1894 President Cleveland signed legislation transferring the Chiricahua to Fort Sills, Oklahoma Territory.
Each family was given ten acres to farm, allowed to build houses, plant crops, and raise cattle. Geronimo, now seventy-one, settled into life as a farmer and tribal elder. He encouraged tribal youth to attend school and loved entertaining his neighbors.
Four years earlier, Reed and Geronimo had said good-bye in Alabama. Reed returned to Baltimore to study at Johns Hopkins University, where he would distinguish himself in the emerging field of bacteriology and pathology, leading a team that postulated and confirmed the transmission of yellow fever by mosquitoes.
But it was Geronimo who would become a legend; a symbol of the untamed American West. In 1898 he was part of the Fort Sill delegation at the Trans-Mississippi International Exposition. He was the star attraction at both the 1901 New York and 1904 St. Louis expositions. He sold autographs, photographs, handmade bows and arrows, and walking sticks. He even sold his clothes buttons.
At President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 inaugural parade, Geronimo rode astride a black stallion, flanked by five other war chiefs from various tribes. He later beseeched the president to allow him to return to his homeland in Arizona, but was denied. He never abandoned his passionate yearning to return home. He died in February 1909, having fallen from his horse and suffering exposure in freezing weather. He was buried in the Apache graveyard near Cache Creek at Fort Sill. In the end Geronimo outlived the younger Reed by seven years. Four years later, Geronimo’s remaining Chiricahua were finally granted their freedom.
In the late 19th century the population of the US was less than ten percent of what it is today. Nearly a million died during the Civil War and the Indian wars that followed. For two men from such diverse cultural backgrounds, growing up with thousands of miles of unsettled territory between them, to meet in first the desert southwest and later the Gulf Coast seems serendipitous.
Both were warriors, although their primary tasks were to preserve lives. Both were healers. The Reeds adopted an Apache child; Geronimo forced to walk the white man’s path. Both Reed and Geronimo wrote about their experiences and observations; Reed regarding the Apache culture and Geronimo about a way of life lost forever. Never friends but respected adversaries; their lives were intertwined during one of America’s most tumultuous periods. This was a facet of Reed’s career that is rarely written about and helps broaden our understanding of two American heroes.