Geronimo's Cadillac and Other Automotive Tales of the Old West

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Nov 03, 2016

It was the passing of an era, sunset on the trail, and the photograph says it all. The legendary warrior Geronimo, in the 20th century, and behind the wheel of a car. The Apache chief, who surrendered to federal forces in 1886, appears to have adapted well to modern times.

Geronimo driving a Locomobile in 1905.

Actually, the photo is somewhat deceiving, since Geronimo was a prisoner at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, when it was taken in 1905. He was allowed out for special events, such as the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair (which he attended at the behest of President Teddy Roosevelt), but he wasn’t a free man. Geronimo died in 1909 without ever owning a car.

Twilight on the trail, or so long to the old Cayuse.

The symbolism of the Old West meeting the Industrial Age attracted the attention of singer songwriter Michael Martin Murphey, who wrote the hit song “Geronimo’s Cadillac” after seeing the photograph. The fact that the car is actually a 1904 Model C Locomobile (made in Bridgeport, Connecticut) didn’t hurt the song’s prospects—a bunch of people covered it. "They stole his land, now they won't give it back/And they sent Geronimo a Cadillac." Alas, no.

The Wild West, of course, rode on horseback, but it adapted fairly well to motorized transportation, and the best visual evidence we have is from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows. This fanciful extravaganza played before the Crowned Heads of Europe (where the fact that Buffalo Bill never actually rode with the Pony Express was unlikely to cause much consternation). It lasted from 1883 to bankruptcy in 1917, so there was plenty of overlap with the automobile.

Buffalo Bill Cody at the wheel of his White steam car in 1908. Note right-hand drive, still common at the time.

“Buffalo Bill” Cody himself favored the well-built steam cars made by White, as illustrated by this 1908 photo—with him at the wheel.

Buffalo Bill made money any way he could, including with motorized hunting parties near his beloved town of Cody.

And here's Buffalo Bill sending off a troop of paying customers, including millionaire Charley Gates, on a 1913 hunting trip in one of his steamers. Cody was a benefactor and developer of his namesake town of Cody, Wyoming, and these hunting trips in the Absaroka Mountains west of town were part of the draw. Well-heeled Easterners were lured to the TE dude ranch.

Buffalo Bill was famous for fighting Native Americans, but later he employed them in his Wild West shows. (Detroit Public Library)

This photo is also from the Wild West show, and shows a large group of Native performers around a pair of vintage automobiles.

Annie Oakley kept shooting, long after the horses had gone back to the barn.

Annie Oakley was an on-again, off-again Wild West star, and indeed the “peerless rifle and wing shooter” of legend. Here she is giving an exhibition, circa 1913, with a parking lot of automobiles of that era in the background.

Here's T.R. in his handsome Victoria, making history in Hartford circa 1902.

Teddy Roosevelt, who invited Geronimo to see the World's Fair, was also the first President to ride in a car--"a handsome Victoria automobile"--during a Hartford, Connecticut parade in 1902.

Dr. Bumstead's Medicine Show traveled by car.

Medicine shows are most frequently portrayed as being horse-drawn, but it wasn't the automobile that killed them. According to a colorful history:

By the time of the first World War, all but a few of the traveling medicine shows had ceased traveling the circuits.  A few continued for another decade, substituting automobiles and trailers for the iconic horses and medicine wagons.  Their end came not through legislation and abolition so much as from being co-opted, subsumed and replaced by other mediums for sales and entertainment. 

Finally, let me note that automobiling in the Old West could be quite an adventure. The first transcontinental car race was in 1905, from New York to Portland, Oregon, and it started out smoothly--until the travelers (driving a pair of Curved Dash Oldsmobiles) reached the West and the Cascade mountain range. "For the next 1,000 miles, there was mud and rain, more mud and more rain....The spoked wheels were so packed with mud they appeared solid." Herds of animals, including wild horses, blocked the way across the prairies as the racers followed the Oregon Trail. Wagon ruts traced the way, and actual prairie schooners were still following them at that time. 

Alice Ramsey at the wheel, an intrepid traveler driving from New York to San Francisco in 1908.

When Alice Ramsey set out to become the first woman to drive coast-to-coast in 1908, she had a rough time of it—the roads were mostly muddy tracks (a reason for the high wheels on early cars). Accompanying Ms. Ramsey were Margaret Atwood, Nettie Powell and Hermine James, but Ramsey did all the driving.

Ramsey’s account:

Near Ogallala, Nebraska, we were halted by a nondescript sheriff’s posse on horseback. They were looking for two murderers and at first didn’t believe us when we explained that we were only trying to drive from New York to San Francisco. It was not until the lawmen were convinced that no firearms or suspects were concealed in the Maxwell that they allowed us to go on.

In Utah, the Maxwell hit a prairie dog hole “with such force that a tie bolt came out of the tie rod connecting the front wheels." Down went the whole front of the car, breaking the spring seat over the front axle. The party repaired to a local ranch, where a replacement was made on a handy forge. People had to be resourceful back then.

By the way, I'm writing a book for Lyons Press on some of these larger-than-life Western legends, digging for the truth of their tall tales. Stay tuned. 

Here's "Geronimo's Cadillac" in all its video glory:

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