Monday, March 7, 2011

Iconic Monday: Camillus Fly Documents the Surrender of Geronimo

Geronimo (third from left) negotiates in a scene probably arranged by Camillus Fly
 I'm tempted to call Camillus Fly the Zelig of the Old West, a first-hand witness and bit-player to events that became legend and then myth. Perhaps he had an innate sense for being at the right place at the right time, or perhaps it was luck, or fate, if you believe in that sort of thing. There was the day in 1881 when the gunfight broke out in the vacant lot next to the boardinghouse he ran in Tombstone, Arizona--a dirty little corner of earth known as the O.K. Corral. And there was the day seven years later when he set up his camera in a ravine just south of the Arizona border and documented the tense negotiations that would lead to the surrender of the Apache warrior Geronimo. It happened 125 years ago, in March 1886. Though Fly is largely forgotten, his picture is an icon.

Fly was raised in California, but soon after his marriage to Mary E. Goodrich the couple moved to Tombstone, a silver boom town, to open a boarding house at 312 Fremont Street. Fly and his wife were photographers, and they opened up a portrait studio in the back of the boarding house. On October 26, 1981, Fly was on hand when the gunplay between the Earps and the Clantons broke out next door. At one point Ike Clanton fled the fighting and took refuge in the boarding house. After the smoke cleared, it was Fly who disarmed Billy Clanton as he lay dying just outside. For some reason, Fly didn't photograph the scene—one story has it that the Earps used threats to stop him from doing so.

In March of 1886 Fly accompanied General George Crook, an aggressive Indian fighter, on what was perhaps his most famous mission. Geronimo had been leading a small band of Apaches who terrorized the Southwest, but he sensed the time of resistance was over. He'd sent word to Crook that he was willing to surrender. He chose the site for the occasion--a place Mexicans called Canyon de los Embudos (Canyon of the Funnels) that would allow the Apaches to escape at the first sign of treachery from the soldiers. Geronimo arrived with 115 warriors; Crook, as Geronimo had demanded, came with a small band of officers, interpreters, and Indian scouts. And a photographer who had somehow talked his way into the group.

Geronimo and Crook negotiated for three days. On March 25 and 26, Fly set up his camera to make a number of images. The photo above shows Geronimo, third from the left, in a scene that Fly almost certainly arranged—one gets the feeling that all participants understood the history that was unfolding. At the end of the negotiations, Geronimo left Crook with these words: "Once I moved about like the wind. Now I surrender to you and that is all."

But it wasn't. Two days later Geronimo fled with 38 followers, launching another five months of war before being captured. In the meantime, Fly's image of the Apaches and soldiers seated in a semi-circle spread across the country in the pages of Harper's Weekly. Fly would later take his pictures on tour around Arizona—by that time his marriage had ended, largely because of his heavy drinking. He had a photo studio in Phoenix, then returned to Tombstone. He was elected sheriff of Cochise County in 1895, later became a rancher, and died in 1901. His wife continued to run the Tombstone photo gallery and in 1905 published Fly's images of Geronimo's surrender under the title: "Scenes in Geronimo's Camp: The Apache Outlaw and Murderer."

From a modern perspective, there are any number of ways to view Fly's images of the meeting in Canyon de los Embudos. My own philosophy on these matters comes from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a movie made by John Ford, who also made My Darling Clementine, which was about the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. "This is the West, sir," says one of the film's characters, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

1 comment:

  1. Greetings,

    My name is Katie Wornek and I am a researcher for a television show called American RIde ( We are interested in using the image of Geronimo negotiating his surrender found on your blog in an upcoming episode. Do you know if the image has an active copyright and, if so, do you know I can obtain the rights to use the image?

    Thank you for your help. Rather than commenting back, please email me at