WONDER VALLEY — The twists and turns in the story, and the telling of the tale, of the manhunt for Willie Boy, drew a crowd to the Wonder Valley Community Center here Saturday, Aug. 31.
College of the Desert Professor Ruth Nolan, a self-confessed desert rat, brought the story of Willie, the subject of a 1909 manhunt that started in Banning and made its way into the hi-desert, including Twentynine Palms, before ending on Ruby Mountain in the area of what is now Landers, to the community center.
“I think there is a huge interest in the story of Willie Boy,” Nolan said, pointing to attendance at her lecture as evidence of that interest.
She said her interest in the story has become, over the years, an interest in how the story of the manhunt has evolved over the years.
The story, which began with the murder of Mike Boniface and ended with a standoff between Willie Boy and members of a posse sent to bring him to justice, she said, is marked by contradictory versions of the events.
Did Mike’s daughter, 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.
She talked about how the story of the manhunt became national news, in part because is began at a time when members of the national press were in Riverside covering a visit by William McKinley.
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.
“This story got a lot more attention because the president was in the area,” she said. “I’ve actually heard this described as the O.J. Simpson of its time.”
She talked about how the story has evolved depending on who has told the tale.
“It’s a living story,” she said. “It’s a continuum.”
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 because they were too closely related.
An argument about that in late September 1909 reportedly led to Carlota’s father’s death and the sudden departure of Willie Boy and Carlota from Banning.
“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 led them through the Morongo Grade, through Pipes Canyon and up to the Bullion Mountains, some 150 miles, all on foot, in less than two weeks.
“He was a spirit runner,” she said.
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 which 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 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.