New book by Robert Utley claims Apache warrior was neither simply a merciless killer – nor a noble hero

Who was Geronimo? For white Americans, he was the most feared and hated Indian warrior of his time – the epitome of the merciless savage bent on slaughering them and their families.

Later, as the US came to terms with its harsh treatment of Native Americans, the Apache leader would emerge as a different figure: the noble hero fighting to defend his land, people and way of life.

A new book strips away both simple perceptions. The figure who emerges is a complex one: a spiritual warrior, who converted to Christianity before he died, with a deep and abiding hatred of Mexicans rather than Americans, and who was capable of great brutality.

Geronimo is the latest book by Robert Utley, one of the greatest contemporary writers on the American west and author of an acclaimed 1993 biography of the Sioux chief Sitting Bull.

The new book captures a life full of drama and surprise. Those who associate Geronimo with prowess in fighting may be shocked to learn that his birth name was Goyahkla: One Who Yawns – hardly a moniker that presages a career defined by guerrilla warfare.

But then the Geronimo who emerges from the book is full of contradictions. He was a man who prized family life, yet showed no remorse in killing other people's families. He was seen as a leader of the Apaches, yet had many Apache enemies and was feared by other Native American tribes.

Geronimo was tireless in resisting the Mexican and US forces, but on his frequent breakouts from the reservation his major achievement was often to run rings around his enemy without actually fighting. Indeed, in the last two years of his freedom, as the US army chased him through the desert mountains of the Mexican province of Sonora, he never actually engaged with his pursuers.

"He ran the US army ragged in Sonora's Sierra Madre and never even fought a skirmish, much less a battle," Utley said. "This awareness led to my conclusion that Geronimo's true greatness as a fighting Apache was not in fighting a war but in avoiding war."

For those who seek to admire Geronimo as a defender of his way of life, accounts of his brutality will be difficult reading. A review of the book on the Daily Beast website even suggested that Geronimo might have been something like the Osama bin Laden of his day. Certainly he grew up in a culture that celebrated the raiding and murder of non-Apaches – whether whites or Mexicans or other tribes.

"Raid seems inadequate to describe what happened when a town, ranch, freight train or traveller was victimised," Utley writes. "Besides plunder, raiders butchered people, often in the most brutal fashion. Thirty years of such barbaric slaughter, often involving torture and mutilation, form a major characteristic of Geronimo's persona."

But Utley is equally unflinching when describing tragedies that befell Geronimo, who lost his first wife, mother and three children to a brutal massacre by Mexicans. "I had lost all," Geronimo wrote in his own autobiography. In agony, he vowed revenge on all Mexicans and nursed a virulent hatred of them for the rest of his life.

But he did not spend much of his later life fighting for his people or trying to preserve his lifestyle. Surrendering in 1886, he spent the next 23 years in US custody of one sort or another, under guard even as an old man who had cashed in on his notoriety to earn a living as something akin to a circus attraction. While a prisoner in Arizona, Geronimo carved his name on walking sticks to sell as dollar souvenirs to tourists.

At his last home, in Oklahoma, he appeared regularly in wild west shows and even attended the massive Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904 in St Louis. He dressed up in Apache clothing, donned a traditional bonnet, posed for photographs and sold handicrafts.

In 1903, Geronimo was baptised into the Dutch Reformed Church, bringing many other Apaches with him and attending weekly services until he died – though a fondness for drinking and gambling disturbed church officials. He died of pneumonia in 1909 after falling from his horse and lying injured on the ground throughout a freezing night.

Such an ignominious end sums up a life marked by triumphs as much as defeats, acts of generosity as much as acts of cruelty. He was both brutal and brutalised – a loving family man responsible for the murder of many families. He was deeply committed to his native religion, but turned later to Jesus.

So, villain or hero? "The legend is easier to believe than the complex and contradictory character Geronimo really was," Utley said.

© Guardian News and Media 2012