Measured against Yale's standards, Geronimo
- born, according to legend, near the Gila River in June of 1829
- would scarcely have regarded himself as a scholar, although by
Chiricahua Apache standards, he likely thought he measured up pretty
well as a seer, a medicine man and a preeminent warrior.
His clairvoyance and prestige notwithstanding, however, he probably
never foresaw finding a long-term home at Yale, with an honored place
in the esteemed university's most prestigious and enigmatic fraternity,
the Skull and Bones Society, a student organization that taught future
presidents the value of cronyism and secrecy.
How Geronimo Qualified for Yale
Geronimo did not look like the stereotypical candidate for Yale,
not to mention the Skull and Bones Society.
In an early version of the manuscript for the book Making Peace
With Cochise, Captain J. A. Sladen described Geronimo - in his early
50's at the time - as an "old looking, very dark complexioned,
unprepossessing appearing Indian… His sensual, cruel, crafty
face, as well as his dissatisfied manner had prejudiced me against
him from the first.
"He was short and stout, in size, exceedingly dirty, and wore
a white man's shirt, loose like a blouse, and little else beyond
the usual breech cloth and moccasins…"
If he held few academic credentials and looked slovenly, however,
Geronimo had won the respect of the Chiricahuas for his ability to
see events outside the normal range of human perception. (That skill,
of course, would have served him well in preparing for Yale's exams.)
Leading a war party at the height of the Apache conflict, he and
his warriors had paused near Casas Grandes, in northwestern Chihuahua,
to eat. "Geronimo was sitting next to me with a knife in one
hand and a chunk of beef which I had cooked for him in the other," said
Jason Betzinez in his book I Fought With Geronimo. "All at once
he dropped the knife, saying, "Men, our people whom we left
at our base camp are now in the hands of U. S. troops! What shall
"This was a startling example of Geronimo's mysterious ability
to tell what was happening at a distance. I cannot explain it to
this day. But I was there and saw it."
As his war party turned back for the base camp to investigate, Geronimo
said, according to Betzinez, "Tomorrow afternoon as we march
along the north side of the mountains we will see a man standing
on a hill to our left. He will howl to us and tell us that the troops
have captured our base camp."
"About the middle of the [next] afternoon," said Betzinez, "we
heard a howl from the hilltop to our left. There stood an Apache
calling to us." Geronimo and his warriors heard the report that "the
main camp, now some fifteen miles distant, was in the hands of U.
"Thus the event which Geronimo had foretold…came to
pass as true as steel. I still cannot explain it."
Geronimo also gained the Chiricahuas' respect as a medicine man,
with battlefield surgical abilities that might have proven useful
in Yale's pre-med academic programs. "Usually about eight persons
worked together in making medicine," he said in his autobiography
Geronimo: His Own Story, "and there were forms of prayer and
incantations to attend each stage of the process.
"Some of the Indians were skilled in cutting out bullets, arrow
heads, and other missiles with which warriors were wounded. I myself
have done much of this, using a common dirk or butcher knife."
Nearing 40 years old, Geronimo gained respect at another level among
the Apaches. He became an exceptionally fierce warrior in a war-making
society after a Mexican force massacred his band's encampment, in
northwestern Chihuahua, in 1858. "… I found that my aged
mother, my young wife, and my three small children were among the
slain," he said in his autobiography.
"… none had lost as I had, for I had lost all."
A year later, Geronimo - driven mad by his thirst for revenge -
led a Chiricahua Apache war party into battle against that same Mexican
force in northern Sonora, on the western slopes of the Sierra Madre
range. "…I thought of my murdered mother, wife, and babies…and
I fought with fury. Many fell by my hand, and constantly I led the
"… the Apaches had seen…
"Still covered with the blood of my enemies, still holding
my conquering weapon, still hot with the joy of battle, victory,
and vengeance, I was surrounded by the Apache braves and made war
(Such battlefield experiences would certainly have been enlightening
for those Skull and Bones Society members who would someday hold
the office of president of the United States and send our military
forces into war.)
Over the next two and a half decades, as a prophet, a healer and
a top-gun warrior, Geronimo would forge his place in American legend,
alongside the fabled chiefs Cochise and Mangas Coloradas, although
he never reached their heights in the tribal hierarchy.
For nearly three decades, he capitalized on his skills to lead Chiricahua
warriors on raiding parties across south- eastern Arizona and southwestern
New Mexico and into Chihuahua and Sonora. He led them in escaping
from the hated Apache reservation in southeastern Arizona, taking
them southward into Mexico's Sierra Madre Mountains.
He led them in desperate flight from U. S. and Mexican troopers
and civilian militia. Finally, in early September of 1886, Geronimo,
with the remnants of his band, dispirited, starving and defeated,
gave up their quest. He surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles at
Skeleton Canyon, in the Peloncillo Mountains, near the Arizona/New
Geronimo - promised by Miles that he would be reunited with family
members on a forested reservation in the east - instead found himself
imprisoned with other warriors at a squalid and disease-ridden prison
in Florida. Still a prisoner, he was moved, finally reunited with
his family, to Alabama and, then, in August of 1894, to Fort Sill,
near Lawton, Oklahoma, where he put the Chiricahua way of life behind
him. (Even so, he still did not find the door open to Yale.)
As a matter of fact, Geronimo "…became a very shrewd
capitalist when the white way was forced upon him," said S.
M. Barrett in an introductory note to Geronimo's auto- biography. "… he
took on all the trappings of the white man's civilization, becoming
a farmer, a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, a Sunday school
teacher, and a tireless promoter of himself, hawking photographs,
bows and arrows at various fairs [including the 1904 World's Fair
in St. Louis] and exposition. He was one Indian who exploited the
exploiters better than they could him." And he may, unwittingly,
have qualified himself here for Yale, which has a penchant for capitalism.
He also developed a passion for the white man's drink. In early
February of 1909, at about the age of 80, Geronimo got drunk in Lawton.
Coming home alone, in a stupor, he fell out of his buggy. He "lay
all night on the road in a freezing rain," said Barrett. "He
was discovered the next day and taken to the hospital, where he died…" still,
technically, a prisoner of war."
Interred in the quiet, secluded but ill-kept Apache cemetery at
Fort Still, he had probably passed from this world with little notion
of going to Yale. In fact, he had always yearned to return to the
Chiricahua Apache homeland.
Before his death he said, in his autobiography, that "It is
my land, my home, my fathers' land, to which I now ask to be allowed
to return. I want to spend my last days there, and be buried among
His people still remember him by the Indian melody that he sang, "Geronimo's
O, ha le
O, ha le!
Through the air
I fly upon the air
Towards the sky, far, far, far,
O, ha le
O, ha le!
There to find the holy place,
Ah, now the change comes o're me!
O, ha le
O, ha le!
~ from the Indigenous Peoples'
Literature Internet site
So how did Geronimo - seer, medicine man, warrior, capitalist and American
legend - lose his head and go to Yale?
How Yale Recruited Geronimo
On a night in late May of 1918, more than nine years after Geronimo
fell, not to the white man's rifles, but to his liquor - six young
army officers from Fort Sill's "School of Fire," stole
into the Apache cemetery on Beef Creek. Armed with picks, shovels
and axes, they threaded their way quietly through Apache grave markers
until they arrived at Geronimo's resting place.
Alumni of Yale and members of the Skull and Bones Society, they
came in great secrecy, mindful, as one of them had said, that "Six
army captains robbing a grave wouldn't look good in the papers." They
had come to recruit the American legend, believing him fully qualified
for Yale and their organization.
Of those named, the captains, according to Kathrin Day Lissila and
Mark Alden Branch, "Whose skull and bones?" Yale Alumni
Magazine, May/June 2006, included - Charles C. Haffner, Henry Neil
Mallon, Ellery James, and one Prescott Bush.
The latter would become a businessman in Connecticut, a member of
the United States Senate, the father of President George H. W. Bush,
and the grandfather of President George W. Bush. These army captains,
like all Skull and Bones members, addressed each other, not as "Sir," but
as "Patriarch" or "Knight."
According to the Skull and Bones Society's own Continuation of the
History of Our Order for the Century Celebration, 17 June 1933, written
by one of the organization members, one of the six grave robbers
recalled that, "The ring of pick on stone and thud of earth
on earth alone disturbs the peace of the prairie. An axe pried up
the iron door of the tomb, and Pat[riarch]. Bush entered and started
"We dug in turn, each on relief taking a turn on the road as
guards… Finally Pat. Ellery James turned up a bridle, soon
a saddle horn and rotten leathers followed, then wood and then, at
the exact bottom of the small round hole, Pat. James dug deep and
pried out the trophy itself …
"We quickly closed the grave, shut the door and sped home to
Pat. Mallon's room, where we cleaned the Bones. Pat. Mallon sat on
the floor liberally applying carbolic acid. The Skull was fairly
clean, having only some flesh inside and a little hair. I showered
and hit the hay…a happy man…"
The Skull and Bones Society has long called the story a "hoax," said
Lassila and Branch, but only a few days after the captains robbed
the grave, society member Winter Mead wrote, in a personal letter
to member F. Trubee Davison, that "The skull of the worthy Geronimo
the Terrible, exhumed from its tomb at Fort Sill by your club and
the K-t [Knight] Haffner, is now safe inside the T-[or, Tomb, the
crypt-like home of the society] together with his well worn femurs[,]
bit & saddle horn."
According to several accounts, the society placed Geronimo's skull,
bones and artifacts in a display case near the entrance to the Tomb,
making them, according to the San Francisco Bay View Internet site,
part of a collection of dozens of skulls (including Pancho Villa's),
other human remains, several coffins and Adolph Hitler's silverware.
Geronimo, presumably having now lost his head and gone to Yale,
might have been bewildered by the strange band that had forcibly
inducted him into a life of Establishmentarian secrecy.
(George W. Bush, in his campaign autobiography, A Charge to Keep,
said that in his senior year at Yale, "…I joined the
Skull and Bones, a secret society, so secret I can't say anything
Rumor holds that the Bonesmen - the pinnacle of America's social
hierarchy - must kiss a skull and swear secrecy to gain admission
into the society. They place Geronimo's skull on a table in front
of them during Sunday and Thursday night rituals.
Lissila and Branch said that, "In 2001, journalist Ron Rosenbaum … reported
capturing on videotape what appeared to be an initiation ceremony
in the society's courtyard, in which Bonesmen carried skulls and
Judging by history, these same Bonesmen, we can expect, will one
day take hold of levers of world power.