Pensacola, Florida
Thursday October 23rd 2014

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The Public Record

by Maxwell Chase

Dear Maxwell,
I would like to know about the story of Geronimo in Pensacola. I heard he was brought here as a tourist attraction. Is that true?
-Lauren H.

Yes, it is true. In the late 1800s Pensacola’s most notable tourist attraction was not a beautiful beach—it was a prisoner of war.

Born in 1829, Geronimo served as a medicine man in the Chiricahua Apache tribe. He was living in New Mexico (then still a part of Mexico) when a group of Mexican soldiers raided the reservation. His mother, first wife and three children were killed. As a result, Geronimo led a band of murderous braves who set out for revenge. The group attacked various towns in Mexico, and later American settlements across Arizona, New Mexico and western Texas.

It took 5,000 American troops over two years to chase down Geronimo and his band of 45 braves. On Sept. 3, 1886, the group officially surrendered to Gen. Nelson A. Miles at Skeleton Canyon in the Arizona territory. As part of the surrender, Miles promised Geronimo and his men that they would be forgiven their crimes after a brief imprisonment.

The Apache men and their families were rounded up and sent by rail to Florida. The army’s protocol was for Native American prisoners to serve their terms at Ft. Marion in St. Augustine, but some influential Pensacolians had a better idea.

With the help of the local newspaper, several businessmen started a petition requesting that Geronimo serve his sentence at Ft. Pickens as a means to boost tourism. Permission was granted, and on Oct. 25, 1886, a four-car train rolled into Pensacola with the infamous cargo. Even though the train arrived at 2 a.m., thousands of locals gathered to catch a glimpse of what had become the talk of the town. Geronimo, Chief Natchez (son of the famous Cochise) and 13 of their men disembarked while their families were taken on to Ft. Marion. The men boarded a Navy steamer and were taken to Santa Rosa Island.

Ft. Pickens had been without a garrison for a long time, and the fort was not in the best of conditions. The prisoners worked about seven hours a day clearing overgrowth and gathering firewood. The men cooked their own meals from provided rations including pork, beef, flour, beans, coffee, sugar and salt.

In the early part of February 1887, officials began allowing visitors to the encampment. Each tourist was required to apply for a pass to view the Apaches. Many people visited the isolated attraction, as many as 450 in one day. Geronimo soon learned how to turn a profit from his notoriety. He sold his signature and buttons from his coat to the visitors. At night, he would sew new buttons on his jacket for the next boat of onlookers.

Eventually, in April 1887, the prisoners’ families were brought to live with them at Ft. Pickens. The fort became a makeshift village for the displaced natives. After a year and a half on Santa Rosa Island, the group was transferred several more times until they reached Ft. Sills, Oklahoma. In 1914, Geronimo died in Ft. Sills after 28 years of celebrity captivity.