Meeting Geronimo

by | Jul 30, 2021

This story is a special feature by guest writer, Kathleen Martin. If you’d like to contribute a personal story about southern new mexico people, places or events, please email .

For 7 years I worked as a volunteer docent at the Depot Museum in Columbus. I chose to work at the Museum because of my own family history in the borderlands. My grandfather, William Edward Jones, had been a foot soldier in General Pershing’s Punitive Expedition army.

My beloved grandfather was an adventurous soul. Dropping out of high school in his native Massachusetts, he traveled west, joined Annie Oakley’s Wild West Show and, ultimately somehow, ended up in General Pershing’s Army. I like to think that if a sense of adventure can be inherited that I, and my cousin Steve Jones, have inherited it. After all, we grew up hearing Grampa Willy’s tales of his time in Columbus.

In my days at the Museum I came to realize that many visitors also had a personal tie to the history of the borderlands. A significant number of visitors had an ancestral link especially to the history of the raid on Columbus by the Mexican revolutionary, General Pancho Villa and his army. These Mexican and American visitors alike spoke proudly of their family heritage despite the raid having occurred more than 100 years ago. One of my great pleasures in working at the Museum was hearing the visitors’ family stories rooted in their own history of the region. Working at the Museum made history come alive for me. I felt that by working at the Museum I was reaching back into the past, almost touching it.

One wind-swept, unseasonably hot spring day I stood behind the Museum counter waiting to greet visitors. There were none. The Museum is an old, drafty building. The ever present winds of the borderlands blow fine grained dust into its every crevice. I stood there, the sweat that crept down my face a magnet for the desert dust. I stared at the dusty windows and Museum displays, wondering if honoring family history was really worth it.

Movement at the museum entrance. I look up. An elderly man walks thru the Museum door. He is short and slight but wiry. His black hair reaches to his shoulders. His eyes are very dark, his complexion deeply tanned. He wears a manta cloth shirt and pants, tied at the waist with a rope belt. His sandals are well-worn leather and rope. To me he looks like someone from those sepia-toned photographs of the earliest inhabitants in the Southwest. Or the campesino farmers I know from rural Yucatan.

I welcome him. He smiles and speaks to me in a halting combination of English and Spanish. Although neither language seems to be his first, I do understand that he is telling me that he is Geronimo’s grandson. He selects two postcards of Geronimo examining them with prideful attention. He pulls coins from his pants pocket with weathered hands and carefully counts out the right amount of coins to pay for the postcards. I think of paying for the postcards myself since Geronimo’s grandson seems so poor. But I don’t because to do so would seem patronizing to this smiling, dignified old man. Staying in the Museum only long enough to pay for the postcards, he leaves. I am so mesmerized by his presence that I can’t think of a way to have him stay and tell me more of his story.

Was he really Geronimo’s grandson? I don’t know. I only know that he believed he was. When people tell stories about their pasts, they can embellish history. My own father was fond of saying “truth has nothing to do with a good story”. Or people can collapse time so that epochs become blended. Perhaps he was Geronimo’s great grandson or some other category of descendant relative. But he seemed authentic to me. And I felt that day that Geronimo and his past had reached out to me. History really does live.

Kathleen Martin lives in Deming. She is originally from Florida and is a cultural anthropologist. She enjoys hiking and local history.