The True Story of Geronimo’s Cadillac, The Song & The Facts – Author Chris Edwards

A million tales in the world of American folklore have been spun from an extraordinary, almost magical photograph: reportedly taken on June 5, 1905 short stories, songs, oil paintings all were spun from that photo. The best known song is a 1972 song  by Michael Martin Murphey, “Geronimo’s Cadillac,” also covered by Hoyt Axton, Cher, and others.

Geronimo ‘s Cadillac Actually A Locomobile Model C (2ndLifeMediaAlamogordoTownNews History Lesson 2021)

In the familiar photo,  which is in truth a relic from a racist chapter of this country’s history as related to Native Americans. But it’s more than that. The photograph was taken in 1905 at the “Oklahoma’s Gala Day” exhibition hosted by the Miller brothers’ 101 Ranch, located southwest of Ponca City, Oklahoma. To gin up interest in its exhibition, the 101 Ranch paid Geronimo to appear. The 101 Ranch staged the scene in the car for the press with the approval of the president, as the great Native American leader was actually incarcerated at the time.

What should we make of Geronimo in the picture from 1905, dressed in a top hat and vest, sitting behind the steering wheel, with another man dressed in Native American Head dress and clothing? Was this meant to be a  humorous curiosity, an Indian dressed up in a suit and sitting in a fancy car? Or was it meant as further humiliation, an aging warrior and medicine man turned into a side show? Geronimo was still in captivity during these years. History tells different tales it most point to him being forced by circumstances and the federal government to parade his defeat and satisfy romantic curiosity about Indians?

The photo specifically is of the Apache warrior Geronimo who sits behind the wheel of an early touring car. He’s dressed entirely in the white man’s clothing, including an elegant top hat, and joining him in the cockpit are three more Native Americans, including the man at Geronimo’s left, Edward Le Clair Sr., wearing a Ponca chief’s ceremonial headdress.

 “The two images together—Geronimo and a Cadillac—just struck me as a song title,” Murphey told Rolling Stone Magazine in 1987. “It was every irony I could ever think of about our culture in two words.”

Like all skilled songwriters, authors, and poets Murphey weaves together fact and legend in telling his story—one of the legends being that Geronimo’s automobile is a Cadillac. In truth, the car in the photo is a 1904 Locomobile Model C.

he Locomobile Company of America was a pioneering American automobile manufacturer founded in 1899, and known for its dedication to precision before the assembly-line era. It was one of the earliest car manufacturers in the advent of the automobile age.

The 1904 internal combustion Locomobile Touring Car had a tonneau and space for five passengers, and sold for $4500, quite a change from the low-priced steam buggies. The front-mounted, vertical, water-cooled straight-4 engine produced 16 hp (12 kW). A three-speed sliding transmission was used, as on the Système Panhard cars with which it competed. The angle steel-framed car weighed 2,200 lb (1,000 kg).

However, Murphey nailed the important part of the story: Despite its whimsical composition, the photo does not depict a happy scene. Far from it. At this moment, Geronimo was a prisoner of the U.S. Army at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he had lived for years after his surrender to territorial authorities in 1886. He was allowed to leave the fort only when he was trotted out and put on display at exhibitions and wild west shows. At the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt he attended the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and he rode in Roosevelt’s 1905 inaugural parade.

On the day the photo was taken with the Locomobile, Geronimo was one of the attractions at an exhibition for reporters and photographers at the Miller brothers’ 101 Ranch near Ponca City, Oklahoma. He never owned or drove an automobile. In February of 1909, after falling from a horse and contracting pneumonia, Geronimo died at Fort Sill at the age of 79.

The lyrics of the song tell a real story that is sad in tone and the story weaved…

They put Geronimo in jail down South

Where he couldn’t look a gift horse in a mouth

Sergeant, Sergeant don’t you feel

There’s something wrong with your automobile

Warden, Warden, listen to me

Be brave and set Geronimo free

Governor, Governor, ‘ain’t it strange

You never see a car on the Indian range

Oh boys take me back

I wanna ride in Geronimo’s Cadillac

Oh boys I wanna see it for real

I wanna ride in Geronimo’s automobile

Take me, take me, take me back

I wanna ride in Geronimo’s [Cadillac]

Warden, Warden, don’t you know

The prisoners ‘aint got no place to go

It took ol’Geronimo by storm

They took the badges from his uniform

Jesus told me and I believe it’s true

The redmen are in the sunset too

They stole their land and they won’t give it back

And they sent Geronimo a Cadillac

Oh boys take me back

I wanna ride in Geronimo’s Cadillac

Oh boys I wanna see it for real

I wanna ride in Geronimo’s automobile

Take me, take me, take me back

I wanna ride in Geronimo’s [Cadillac]

They put Geronimo in jail down South

Where he couldn’t look a gift horse in a mouth

Sergeant, Sergeant don’t you feel

There’s something wrong with your automobile

Warden, Warden, listen to me

Be brave and set Geronimo free

Governor, Governor, ‘aint it strange

You never see a car on the Indian range

Oh boys take me back

I wanna ride in Geronimo’s Cadillac

Oh boys I wanna see it for real

I wanna ride in Geronimo’s automobile

Take me, take me, take me back

I wanna ride in Geronimo’s Cadillac

Specific to the song. It was released July 31, 1972 as a single which edited the track’s original 4:39 length to 3:21 “Geronimo’s Cadillac” reached number 37 on the Hot 100 in Billboard magazine. The track also charted in Canada with a peak of number 30 on the Top Singles chart in RPM magazine. “Geronimo’s Cadillac” afforded Murphey his sole Hot 100 charting until “Wildfire” on Epic Records reached number 3 in 1975. The success of “Wildfire” caused A&M to re-issue “Geronimo’s Cadillac” with a new B-side: “Blessing in Disguise” a track from Murphey’s 1973 album Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir, replacing “Boy From the Country.” However this re-issue of “Geronimo’s Cadillac” did not chart, failing to deflect interest from Epic’s follow-up single release to “Wildfire”: “Carolina in the Pines”, which fell just short of the top 20.

While the image and song is interesting and engaging today it is also a reminder of a past that we must learn from. We as a people must be better, respect diversity and respect the values, beliefs, and heritage of the first peoples of America – the Native American people and their contributions and their culture to the tapestry of America.

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