WONDER VALLEY — The twists and turns in the story of the manhunt for Willie Boy drew a crowd to the community center Saturday, Aug. 31.
College of the Desert Professor Ruth Nolan, a self-confessed desert rat, told the story of Willie Boy, who was chased in a 1909 manhunt that started in Banning and wound into the Hi-Desert, including Twentynine Palms, before ending on Ruby Mountain in what is now Landers.
“I think there is a huge interest in the story of Willie Boy,” Nolan said, pointing to attendance at her lecture as evidence.
Just how that story is told has evolved over the years. It is marked by contradictory versions.
The barest facts are these: Willie Boy was a Chemehuevi Indian who wanted to marry a fellow tribe member named Carlota. On Sept. 26, 1909, in Banning, he approached Carlota’s father, Mike Boniface. Mike was shot and killed and Willie Boy ran away with Carlota.
A posse pursued them over some 600 miles. After a shootout, the posse found Carlota, dead of a gunshot wound, and claimed that Willie Boy had shot her.
At Ruby Mountain, posse members said they had found Willie Boy, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. They took a photograph of themselves with a corpse they said was his.
Questions about the truth of the manhunt abound. Did Carlota go with Willie Boy willingly or was she kidnapped? Was she murdered by Willie Boy or killed accidentally by a member of the posse? Did Willie Boy take his own life on Ruby Mountain or did he slip away and end up in Pahrump, Nevada, where he died of tuberculosis in the 1930s?
Nolan talked about how the story of the manhunt became national news, partly because members of the national press were in nearby Riverside covering a visit by the president.
Coverage in the press, she said, reflected a national hatred for and fear of native people. Willie Boy was portrayed as a crazed Indian who murdered Carlota’s father and kidnapped, repeatedly raped and then murdered the girl.
“I’ve actually heard this described as the O.J. Simpson of its time,” she said.
For her, at the heart is the story of the forbidden love of Willie Boy for Carlota, sometimes called Isoleta, who were told they could not marry.
“This comes across as a Shakespearean story,” Nolan said. “It also reveals some sad truths and dark realities about life for native people in California.”
At the time, she said, the governor set a bounty for people to kill native residents.
Chased by the posse, Willie Boy ran through the Morongo Grade, through Pipes Canyon and up to the Bullion Mountains, some 150 miles, all on foot, in less than two weeks.
Contemporary researchers, including Nolan, say Willie Boy was a spirit runner — a Native American who used a certain kind of spiritual running and was inspired by the Ghost Dancers.
Near the end, he managed to pin the posse down and force them to run back to Banning.
“To his credit, he didn’t kill any of the members of the posse,” she said.
It was a woman, Indian Agent Clara True, who organized a second posse that went back to Ruby Mountain and reported finding Willie Boy’s dead body.
“She helped to bring the story to a resolution,” Nolan said, but she added that many people have come to believe that posse members made up the story to cover their inability to bring Willie Boy to justice.
The posse members said he committed suicide when they had him surrounded. However, modern critics point to the photo they took — the body looks larger than descriptions of Willie Boy, and it’s too far away to see a face. The posse said they burned the body where they found it.
Some of Willie Boy’s descendants say he escaped and the posse faked his death to cover up their failure. “The posse never got him, you know. He got away to Nevada,” a descendant of William Mike told researchers Jim Sandos and Larry Burgess.
Nolan says the story has evolved over more than century depending on who is telling the tale. Whenever, however he died, Willie Boy’s importance to Western and Indian history is alive today.
“It’s a living story,” she said. “It’s a continuum.”