At the time of his surrender to American authorities in 1886, the Apache warrior Geronimo was perhaps the most hated man in the United States.
The infamous war chief was condemned by The New York Times as being the worst kind of savage. And according to one U.S. official, Geronimo was the “greatest mass murderer in American history”.  These claims were not without merit.
During his decades-long insurgency, which was fought first against Mexican settlers and later Americans, the notorious Geronimo and his followers laid waste to entire towns while butchering (and I mean butchering) hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians and soldiers alike. Eventually, up to a quarter of the American army would be deployed to the southwestern United States to take part in his capture.
According to an article published this week on the news site The Daily Beast by noted historian Marc Wortman, 19th Century America’s abhorrence for Geronimo is comparable to the hatred most U.S. citizens today feel for the Taliban.
The story, entitled “The Bin Laden of His Day? A New Biography of Geronimo” is actually a review of a new book by Robert M. Utley on the warrior leader. And while Wortman spends a much of his article evaluating the new book, he also draws some compelling comparisons between America’s fight against the Chiricahua Apache in the 1880s and the counter insurgency currently being waged in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Wortman argues that like today’s Taliban, Geronimo and his followers waged a hit and run war across a vast barren landscape to terrorize what they saw as ‘foreign’ invaders seeking to modernize the natives’ homeland and traditional way of life – a fascinating comparison.
The article points out that after defeating the Apache, America’s hatred for Geronimo actually softened. Wortman reports that following the warrior’s confinement to a military prison in Florida, Geronimo became something of a popular celebrity. In fact, after his release from custody, he published a widely read account of his life, headlined a famous Wild West show, and made appearances at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. More amazingly, he was even invited to parade through the streets of the capital on the occasion of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential inauguration. After his death in 1908, the rehabilitation of Geronimo’s reputation would only accelerate. As memory of his atrocities faded into history, future generations would see him not as a butcher but a symbol of justified native resistance to the oppression of white America. In fact, by 2009, Congress voted on a resolution to recognize Geronimo as an American hero. You can actually read the bill here.
Wortman’s piece also raises an intriguing question: Someday will America’s opinion of bin Laden evolve, perhaps even soften in the same way as it did for Geronimo? Might future generations, particularly those that didn’t live through 9/11, feel some measure of sympathy for the terrorists’ cause? It’s a difficult concept to imagine in 2012, but according to Wortman, Americans in 1886 likely would have considered the prospect of a future Congress celebrating the life of Geronimo equally outlandish.
To read Wortman’s article click here.
For information on Utley’s book, simply entitled Geronimo, click here.