2018-06-01 / Features


Famous chief held prisoner at Ft. Pickens
By Glenda Caudle

Sixteen men.

That’s how many members of the Apache band that had raided what is now New Mexico, Arizona and northern Mexico were finally captured and brought to Pensacola on the morning of Oct. 25, 1886.

Sixteen men.

That’s how many members of the Chiricahua tribe were loaded onto a steamer in the city and taken across the bay to Fort Pickens.

Sixteen men.

That’s how many proud but finally vanquished warriors were separated from their families and assigned to two casemates (rooms built to house cannon) on the south side of the fort.

Sixteen men.

And among them was their leader and a medicine man of the Chiricahua, who would become a seemingly model prisoner and a major tourist attraction at Fort Pickens. His name was Coyahkla, or, as he was better known – Geronimo.

For many people, the Apache leader is a figure firmly fixed in the West, but Geronimo made his mark in the East, as well. During the two years, he and his band were kept prisoners at Fort Pickens, he became something of a celebrity and his fame would continue until his death in 1909.

Local reports say he greeted visitors to Fort Pickens and regularly sold them buttons clipped from his jacket as mementos.

During the seven hours each day when he was not engaged in clearing overgrown weeds, planting grass and stacking cannonballs with the members of his conquered band at the fort, he had time to prepare simple meals for himself, utilizing the Army rations and cooking implements supplied by his captors, and ponder the fate of his family while he sewed a new supply of buttons on his Army-issued jacket. These he would then dutifully clip of again to feed the needs of the tourists who flocked to see him.

The story lives on

Visitors to Fort Pickens are still fascinated by the legend of the Old West, although most of them are surprised to learn of Geronimo’s historical presence on the sunny coast of Florida.

Among the attractions at Fort Pickens is an exhibit focusing on his imprisonment there, as well as on the day to day lives of those captured with the Native American hero and moved across country while the U.S. government pondered their future. Guests can roam through the historic fort from 8 a.m. to sunset daily and can enter the Fort Pickens Area from 5 a.m.-8 p.m. daily. The Geronimo exhibit is on the southern side of the fort and is part of the self-guiding walking tour, which lasts 30-45 minutes. The walking tour and Apaches of Fort Pickens brochure are accessible at the Fort Pickens Discovery Center.

Currently, there are no hands-on or A/V elements to the Apache exhibit.

Visitors should be aware that rangers at Fort Pickens are allowed flexibility when it comes to which of the many stories associated with the fort’s history they will focus on, and not every ranger chooses the story of Geronimo and his band on a given day.

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