LAWTON, Okla. (AP) – The story of Geronimo epitomizes the Old West: a larger-than-life Indian warrior whose remarkable exploits in battle bordered on the supernatural.
His remains also have taken on interest beyond all expectations. Some people believe grave robbers, including Prescott Bush, the father and grandfather of future presidents, took his skull for use in a powerful secret society at Yale University.
Historians don’t buy it. They say Geronimo is still buried at Fort Sill in Oklahoma and that many of the legends surrounding the Apache medicine man are more myth than reality.
“We are constantly faced with the undoing of some of these stories of the past,” said Towana Spivey, an archaeologist and the director and curator at the Fort Sill Museum for 20 years. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they have a skull ... but I have no doubt that it is not Geronimo’s.”
Still, some of Geronimo’s descendants want to move the bones of the legendary frontier warrior, wherever they may be, to New Mexico.
A lawsuit filed in February – on the 100th anniversary of Geronimo’s death – against the Ivy League school, the federal government and the secretive Skull and Bones group has stirred divisions among tribal members and some of Geronimo’s relatives.
The legend that Prescott Bush and some other bonesmen broke into a Fort Sill cemetery gained steam in recent years after a Yale researcher uncovered a 1918 letter in which one bonesman wrote that rhe skull of “Geronimo the Terrible” had been exhumed and taken to the Skull and Bones headquarters in Connecticut.
But Oklahoma historians who have studied Geronimo for years say the story is one of many pure myths about the American Indian icon that have surfaced in the century since his death.
David Miller, a retired professor at Cameron University in Lawton who has spent years studying Geronimo and the controversy surrounding the grave, says he’s confident Geronimo’s remains still lie at his grave site beneath an ornate pyramid of rounded cobblestones topped with a stone eagle.
Miller says when Bush was stationed at Fort Sill in 1918 with a few other members of the Skull and Bones group, a cemetery where some Indians were buried was located near their barracks. But Geronimo’s grave was actually miles away across a washed-out bridge and nearly inaccessible.
Miller also says Geronimo’s grave wasn’t marked at the time and that only a handful of Apaches knew the true location, and they weren’t likely to share that information with young officers at the post.
“I don’t know how Prescott Bush could have found it,” Miller said. “They dug up somebody and said it was Geronimo. These are frat boys. Who knows?”
But the combination of the mystique surrounding the Apache warrior combined with an ultra-secret society of the nation’s elite and its strange rituals provide perfect ingredients for a fascinating tale, said Alexandra Robbins, author of “Secrets of the Tomb,” a historical account of Skull and Bones.
No one from Skull and Bones has responded to the lawsuit, and Robbins says the group has no incentive to return any remains it may be hiding inside its crypt in New Haven.
“Why would Bones agree?” she said. “They have no incentive to agree, and the longer this case goes on, the more smoke and mirrors surround the society, which is something bonesmen like. They love the mystery and love to appear more great and terrible than they really are.”
While the legend about the disappearance of Geronimo’s remains is perhaps the most enduring, historians Spivey and Miller say there are countless stories about the famous warrior that are more fiction than truth.
The fact that Geronimo was among the last great Indian warriors, who spent years famously fighting the U.S. and Mexican armies, and the growing use of photographs in newspapers in the late 19th century helped feed his lore.
Indeed, one of the most iconic black-and-white photographs of Geronimo shows him kneeling in his traditional Apache garb, gripping a rifle and narrowing his eyes to a steely gaze.
Geronimo spent the last 15 years of his life as a prisoner of war at Fort Sill, but he was allowed to live in one of the tribal villages on the post and even participated in the inauguration parade in Washington, D.C., for President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905.
Nevertheless, school children who toured Fort Sill for decades were told a tale of how Geronimo paced so feverishly inside his jail cell that he wore a path in the stone.
“By Geronimo’s own account, he only spent three weekends in his cell house,” Spivey countered.
Other legends about Geronimo center on his ferocity as a warrior.
“One of the folklore stories that was common at Fort Sill was that Geronimo had this blanket of 99 Mexican scalps that he used to wear in parades in Lawton,” Miller said. “The problem is no one ever saw this that can remember it. That’s just an example of some of the folklore.”
When Geronimo traveled into nearby Lawton, Spivey said he was always accompanied by at least one armed military guard, fueling the belief that the defiant warrior was a threat to escape.
“It was often thought he needed an escort so he wouldn’t try to escape, but it was really so that nothing would happen to him,” Spivey said. “They were trying to protect him.”
As Geronimo appeared in newspaper accounts, magazine articles and books, there was a growing romanticism about Indians, and Geronimo himself was eager to embrace his increasingly legendary status, Miller said.
“When he gets to Fort Sill, people are very interested in him, and he has run of the fort basically,” Miller said. “People want him for international expositions, and Geronimo is happy to oblige. He’s a PR machine. He poses with firearms and becomes very, very well-known.”
Geronimo’s name even is emblazoned on some patches worn by U.S. Army Airborne soldiers, which Spivey said stems from a World War II-era paratrooper who had seen a Western movie about Geronimo the night before a scheduled jump. As he leapt from the plane, he yelled, “Geronimo!” a motivational cry that youngsters still use when jumping from a swing or jungle gym.
Miller said another myth is that Geronimo jumped hundreds of feet off a steep cliff at Fort Sill while being chased by the U.S. Cavalry during an escape attempt.
“This idea of jumping off Medicine Bluff during an escape is just nonsense,” Miller said.
“As (American Indians) became less dangerous, they take on this romantic element, and Geronimo kind of feeds into that as the most famous of these romantic people who are still around.”