He became a legend of the untamed American frontier. He was naturally gifted hunter, (who, the story goes, as a boy swallowed the heart of his first kill in order to ensure a life of success on the chase), a fierce warrior, and a revered leader. Adaptability and ingenuity defined Geronimo’s way of life. He belonged to the smallest band within the Chiricahua tribe, the Bedonkohe, who were surrounded by enemies, not just Mexicans, but also other tribes, including the Navajo and Comanches. Raiding their neighbors was also a part of the Apache life. In response the Mexican government put a bounty on Apache scalps, offering as much as $25 for a child’s scalp. But this did little to deter Geronimo and his people. At the age of 17 Geronimo had already led four successful raiding operations. Soon, Geronimo fell in love with a woman named Alope and the two married and had three children together. Then tragedy struck. While he was away Mexican soldiers attacked his camp. Word of the massacre soon reached the Apache men. Geronimo returned home, where he found his mother, wife and all three children dead. The murders devastated Geronimo. In the tradition of the Apache, he set fire to his family’s belongings and then, in a show of grief, headed into the wilderness to bereave the deaths. There, it’s said, alone and crying, a voice came to Geronimo that promised him: “No gun will ever kill you. I will take the bullets from the guns of the Mexicans … and I will guide your arrows.” Geronimo rounded up a force of 200 men and hunted down the Mexican soldiers who killed his family. On it went like this for 10 years, as Geronimo exacted revenge against the Mexican government.

Beginning in the 1850s, the face of his enemy changed. Following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the U.S. took over large tracts of territory from Mexico, including areas belonging to the Apache. Spurred by the discovery of gold in the Southwest, settlers and miners streamed into their lands. Naturally, tensions mounted. The Apaches stepped up their attacks, which included ambushes on stagecoaches and wagon trains. Geronimo’s father-in-law, Cochise, called a halt to his decade-long war with the Americans and agreed to the establishment of a reservation for his people on a prized piece of Apache property. But within just a few years, Cochise died, and the federal government reneged on its agreement, moving the Chiricahua north so that settlers could move into their former lands. This act only further incensed Geronimo, setting off a new round of fighting. Geronimo proved to be as elusive as he was aggressive. However, authorities finally caught up with him in 1877 and sent him to the San Carlos Apache reservation. For four long years he struggled with his new reservation life, finally escaping in September 1881.

Out on his own again, Geronimo and a small band of Chiricahua followers eluded American troops. Over the next five years they engaged in what proved to be the last of the Indian wars against the U.S. With his followers in tow, Geronimo shot across the Southwest. As he did, the seemingly mystical leader was transformed into a legend as newspapers closely followed the Army’s pursuit of him. (At one point nearly a quarter of the Army’s forces—5,000 troops—were trying to hunt him down.) Finally, in the summer of 1886, he surrendered, the last Chiricahua to do so. He first went to a prison in Florida, then a prison camp in Alabama, and finally to Fort Sill in Oklahoma. In total, he spent 27 years as a prisoner of war.

In 1905 he published his autobiography, and that same year he received a private audience with President Theodore Roosevelt, unsuccessfully pressing the American leader to let his people return to Arizona. His death came four years later. While riding home in February 1909, he was thrown from his horse. He survived a night out in the cold, but when a friend found him the next day, Geronimo’s health was rapidly deteriorating. He passed away six days later, with his nephew at his side. “I should never have surrendered,” Geronimo said on his deathbed. “I should have fought until I was the last man alive.”