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Willie Boy: How A Manhunt Became Myth

Willie Boy
Willie Boy atop a mountain
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This saga of the last Western manhunt begins, not in 1909—when it happened—but in the 1950s. Harry Lawton, a newspaperman for the Riverside Press-Enterprise, delved into an old case that he’d heard about around town: the story of Willie Boy, what he later called “the last Western Manhunt.” The years of storytelling preceding him made the true story hard to locate. In a letter to a friend, he commented that the story appears to be “so legendized that the truth becomes impossible to ferret out.”[1]

For the Riverside and San Bernardino County residents who remembered the event, the Willie Boy manhunt evoked both local pride and shame, though the event was hardly covered nationally (The New York Times, for example, published the Willie Boy story in a quarter column next to “Golf Ball Hurts Actress.”)[2] In brief, the story goes like this.

Willy Boy Portrait
Photograph of Willie Boy in a San Bernardino county jail suit in1906. Willie had served a ninety-jail term for “disturbing the peace.” Authors Sandos and Burgess point out in their 1994 The Hunt For Willie Boy that “such a charge, especially against an Indian, could have been for petty reason.”. | Photograph of Willie Boy in a San Bernardino county jail suit in1906. Willie had served a ninety-jail term for “disturbing the peace.” Authors Sandos and Burgess point out in their 1994 The Hunt For Willie Boy that “such a charge, especially against an In

Willie Boy, a Chemehuevi, had fallen in love with Carlota, a Chemehuevi from the Oasis of Mara in Twentynine Palms (where the popular 29 Palms Inn is today). While at the oasis, the couple soon ran off but were eventually found and separated by their families because their union was considered inappropriate. While Carlota stayed at the oasis with her relatives, Willie Boy was sent to Banning to stay with a Serrano family and soon became known as a hardworking cowboy at the Gilman Ranch. When Carlota’s family moved to Banning to work the fruit harvest, Carlota and Willie reunited, against the wishes of Carlota’s father William Mike.

Mike, known as “Old Mike Boniface” to white men, was a spiritual leader and medicine man. On the night of September 26, 1909, when Willie Boy approached him to ask for Carlota’s hand in marriage, Mike likely refused because they were related within the last six generations, breaking with traditional Chemehuevi custom. Details are murky, but after their confrontation, Mike was dead from a bullet through his left eye—either by accident during a scuffle or from a fit of anger on Willie Boy’s part.

Willy Boy Barn
Barn at Gilman Ranch, Banning, CA. The Mike family was said to have been sleeping outdoors under a large cottonwood tree when William Mike was killed on September 26, 1909. Photo: Kim Stringfellow. | Barn at Gilman Ranch, Banning, CA. The Mike family was said to have been sleeping outdoors under a large cottonwood tree when William Mike was killed on September 26, 1909. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Mike’s wife Maria did not report the death until morning, giving the couple an ample head start into the hills above the Morongo Indian Reservation. After deciding that Willie killed William Mike, the local sheriffs organized a small posse that included two Indian trackers, and they left that afternoon. During the course of the two-week chase, Carlota died of a gunshot wound during a posse encounter—most likely from a posse member, though the posse initially claimed that Willie had shot her.[3] The chase ended when posse members were convinced they found Willie dead at Ruby Mountain, near Landers, CA, which has been disputed by Native Americans and contemporary historians.[4] In all, the pursuers and their quarry covered an estimated 600 miles on horse and foot across the San Bernardino Mountains into the Mojave Desert.

Willy Boy Legend Site
Attesting to the ongoing popularity of the Willie Boy legend and site, the concrete fencepost pilings have been pulled out of the earth and steel cables cut so ATVs can illegally access the area and surrounding Bighorn Mountain Wilderness leading to the "gravesite." Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Before the ink was dry on the final days of the event, the story’s outline had blossomed into fables that moralized and lore that glorified. Riverside boosters were relieved that the incident was finally over so that President Taft, who had visited during the chase, wouldn’t see the region as lawless. Temperance organizations drew on stereotypes of Native Americans to claim that Willie’s actions had been driven by drink and immoral whites who provided alcohol to Indians. Posse members and posers were looking to exchange their side of the story for cash.

By the time Harry Lawton began his own research, more than forty years of mythmaking had elapsed, but this did not dissuade him from trying to find the facts. He wanted to determine exactly what happened and just who Willie Boy was.

Lawton began fact-ferreting by conducting interviews with relevant individuals (who were now of advanced age) sifting through old newspapers and corresponding with anthropologists like Lowell Bean and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Finally, he reviewed far later accounts of the events, most of which were published in popular magazines.

His three years of research, partially documented in his correspondence now held at UC Riverside’s archives, show how he swayed between being overly skeptical to being absolutely positive about facts in the Willie Boy case. Correspondence between Lawton and his friend and editor Horace “Doc” Parker shows spitballing about the exact chain of events. One exchange concerned Willie Boy’s corpse. Where did Willie Boy’s possessions go? If he shot himself, where is the rifle now? If he had been dead for a week, why hadn’t the buzzards and coyotes gotten to the body?[5] As UC Riverside historian Clifford Trafzer noted later, why were no close-up photographs of Willie Boy taken, as was common practice with other captured outlaws?[6]

Willie Boy Display
Willie Boy interpretive display at the Malki Museum, Morongo Reservation, Banning, CA. Willie Boy is shown at the lower left-hand corner of the display. Photo: Kim Stringfellow. | Kim Stringfellow
Willie caption
Willie Boy interpretive display at the Malki Museum, Morongo Reservation, Banning, CA. Willie Boy is shown at the lower left-hand corner of the display. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Rather than keep his skepticism, Lawton became giddy when he thought he found human bones and a button, presumed to be from Willie’s shirt, at Ruby Mountain. In 1958, he published a feature story in the Riverside Press Enterprise about this adventure.[7] Like relic-seekers before him,[8] Lawton was excited to have something authentic that could be added to a “desperado collection of Western Americana.”[9] Others challenged Lawton’s claims to authenticity: “cow bones,” a Morongo tribal elder told him.[10] Still, by the time Lawton wrote his 1960 Willie Boy: A Desert Manhunt, he was convinced that he had the story right.

In the foreword to the novel, Harry Lawton calls his method for writing the book “reconstructional,” in that it attempts to capture “the same tone of immediacy and vitality that has been felt by those who have heard [posse members] Ben de Crevecouer [sic], Charlie Reche [San Bernardino County Deputy Sheriff] and Joe Toutain [constable] relate the tale in their own words” without deviating from hard fact.[11] He wanted to show how the men took their role seriously and his book secured “their final chance for Western glory.”

A reviewer called it “written like a novel in the way first made popular by Lytton Stratchey,” an early twentieth-century British writer known for creating psychological portraits of his subjects.[12] Lawton also sought to get inside the heads of his main characters—though he drew the line at attempting to psychologize Willie Boy in his supposed final moments. While Lawton never claimed Strachey as an influence, he did mention Edwin Corle, Western writer and author of Fig Tree John, in a letter to Horace Parker.[14] Fig Tree was published twenty-five years before Willie Boy, and fictionalizes a real Fig Tree John who had lived near the Salton Sea in its early years (around 1905). While the novel clearly drew inspiration from the real Fig Tree John, Corle did not claim it as fact: Fig Tree was Cahuilla, not Apache as in the novel; and Fig Tree’s wife was not brutally murdered as in the novel. However, certain aspects—Fig Tree’s willingness to trade with white proprietors near his home in Mecca, for example—were accurate.

Conflicting storylines
Conflicting storylines: These two adjacent interpretive panels on exhibit at the Gilman Ranch Museum in Banning, CA illustrate how the Willie Boy saga remains to this day controversial. Photo: Kim Stringfellow. | Kim Stringfellow

Lawton later characterized his work as a “nonfiction novel,” retroactively applying the term that Truman Capote used to describe his 1965 novel In Cold Blood, to his 1960 Willie Boy. Coincidentally, the cinematic versions of both of these books star actor Robert Blake, who became widely known as the lead character in the popular 1970s television series, Baretta. There are certainly more parallels: Both Lawton and Capote were influenced by and interested in journalism—Lawton had been a journalist for the Riverside Press-Enterprise,[15] while Capote claimed that narrative reportage inspired his work.[15] Like Capote’s “nonfiction novel,” Willie Boy later faced questions about its veracity from fact-checking critics, most prominently, authors Sandos and Burgess questioned the accuracy of facts in the novel.

In their scholarly book—and later, defending against claims of defamation from Lawton[16]—Sandos and Burgess dispute the possibility of true historical accuracy given the sources Lawton used. They examine newspaper stories of the day, and discredit many of them as yellow journalism that dramatized events to sell papers rather than sticking to the facts. They argue that common stereotypes about Native Americans—particularly about Native American drunkenness[17] and propensity to uprising—colored the way that people at the time interpreted and viewed the so-called “facts” of the case. These stereotypes were not only demonstrably false, but often encouraged what Sandos and Burgess call “Indian-hating.” In other words, racism.

It was not only Lawton who failed to check facts: They critique other accounts on the same grounds such as the 1941 James Carling Desert Magazine article that suspiciously claims to have a copy of a message written in the sand from Carlota before she was shot, and were bold enough to translate it for the captive readers as: “My heart is almost gone; I will be dead soon.”

November 1941 story
James L. Carling's November 1941 story in Desert Magazine is filled with historical inaccuracies including a purported "message" written in the sand by Carlota just before she supposedly was murdered by Willie Boy. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
Illustrated map
James L. Carling's November 1941 story in Desert Magazine is filled with historical inaccuracies including a purported "message" written in the sand by Carlota just before she supposedly was murdered by Willie Boy. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Though the Chemehuevi language did not have a written form at the time and Carlota was illiterate, this message is presented as self-evident and without significant explanation in the article. Delving into the story deeper, Sandos and Burgess find that Randolph Madison suggested this. Madison, a Virginian journalist who covered the story for the Los Angeles Record, didn’t join the chase until long after Carlota’s body was found. The only confirmed “messages” were physical tracks that Willie and Carlota left behind. The 1941 Desert Magazine article, like many others, contains numerous inaccuracies—Carlota’s age is listed as a young fifteen rather than the factual sixteen, and her name is listed as Isoleta. This was a common inaccuracy: Her age was often cited to be as young as fourteen, and she was called Isoleta, Lolita, Lola, Neeta, and Mabel in various accounts.[18]

Sandos and Burgess claim that their book tells the Willie Boy story in a way that rejects the version only told through white sources. To prepare their account, they conducted oral history interviews with Native American relatives of Willie and Carlota, and analyzed newspaper articles and popular accounts as historical documents rather than accepting them simply as historical facts. This strategy—using many methods to attempt to understand what happened—was to help them get closer to the truth.

Though the veracity of his account was disputed later, Lawton’s novel was enough of a success to be awarded the James D. Phelan prize for nonfiction. Publications like Man’s Conquest published articles detailing the manhunt next to other tales of true adventure (other articles in the issue included “Stud Slave of the Amazon,” “The Town that Sex Built,” and “Stag Parties, U.S.A.”),[19] and the book soon drew the attention of Hollywood agents. The nonfiction novel became the 1969 film, “Tell Them Willie Boy is Here,” directed by the formerly-blacklisted Abraham Polonsky, and starring Robert Redford as Sheriff Cooper, Katharine Ross as Carlota, and the previously mentioned Robert Blake as Willie Boy.

wb_slides7
Lobby card for "Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here," Universal Pictures, 1969. Part of the Ernie Kester Collection.

The film took a different tack on the events. It told a story that was at once archetypal and mythic—a battle between two men: Willie Boy and ‘Coop,’ a fictional composite character who leads the posse. Willie Boy, an Indian despoiled by the alcohol of the civilized whites, is a classic outlaw in the style of James Dean. Coop is a reluctant lawman who has the tools to defeat Willie but would rather leave the Indians to settle the case. The film builds during the prolonged chase—lawman and civilization against the somewhat-noble savage—and the viewer is meant to feel conflicted while watching the Old West end as Coop kills Willie in a shoot-out deep within The Pipes.

Many viewers did feel conflicted. Lawton wrote in a letter to Polonsky, “A friend of mine in New York wrote to say that the picture disturbed him because he viewed it as a genre western and yet it kept tearing down those things that would make it ideally fit into such a form.”[20] Other fans wrote that Polonsky’s version was “a tragedy of man’s struggle against insuperable odds” in contrast to Lawton’s strictly historical account.[21] The film’s popularity led to the novel’s republication in the style of a pulp Western with a title that reflects the film’s own.

1970 pulp western
The 1970 pulp Western paperback edition of Harry Lawton's 1960 book. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Lawton’s collected correspondence additionally reveals how the story affected readers and viewers. While most simply wrote fan mail admiring the book and the film, others included art inspired by the story.[22]

Two musical contributions stand out: Jack B. Tenney, songwriter of “The Mexicali Rose” and famed anti-communist who led the charge for the University of California’s loyalty oath, wrote a song to commemorate Willie Boy’s story that featured variations on the following chorus:

Willie Boy! Willie Boy!

Oh you shouldn’t oughta done it Willie Boy!

Love came to Willie and it made him act silly

And that was the end of Willie Boy.[23]

Lionel Lackey, an English professor and composer, proposed making Willie Boy into an opera. His eventual operetta follows the movie almost scene by scene. The operetta ends dramatically—on the penultimate page, the judge complains that they don’t bring Willie’s body back to Riverside: “But we’ve got nothing to show.”[24]

The saga of Willie Boy is far from over in the minds of contemporary artists and lives on in newly envisioned forms. In 2009, Ron House marked the centennial of the event by producing a play that presented multiple narratives of the Willie Boy story, entitled “Swift Fox: The Untold Story of Willie Boy.” Lewis deSoto, a visual artist and educator of Cahuilla descent, installed a permanent, site-specific art exhibit installation along the Oasis of Mara[25] nature trail at the Twentynine Palms National Park Visitor Center in 2016 that tells the fictionalized story from Carlota’s point of view.

wb_slides9
A panel from Lewis de Soto's 2016 "Carlota," a permanent, site specific art installation along the Oasis of Mara nature trail at the Twenty-nine Palms National Park Visitor Center. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
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