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Willie Boy: How A Manhunt Became Myth

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.”.

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.

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.


 

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.

 

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.

Story continues below

 

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.

 

“Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here,” Universal Pictures, 1969. This scene was filmed in The Pipes above Pioneertown, CA.

 

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.

Reading through the many “non-fiction” accounts of the Willie Boy story, one wonders what inspired and influenced them. Most were seeking a good yarn, a piece of Western lore. As with Westerns in the golden era of John Wayne, Willie Boy was the story of another stereotyped “bad Indian.” Talking to Native Americans, you get a different side of the story.

“The posse never got him, you know,” Chemehuevi elder Alberta Van Fleet would tell Sandos and Burgess years later. Though it sounds absurd, it’s not much of a stretch: The body they found was bloated and unidentifiable—and they didn’t get a coroner to examine it on site. The Chemehuevi/Cahuilla tracker Segundo Chino had told his relatives that Willie had gotten away but that posse members had “threatened Chino, telling him not to divulge the fact that they never found Willie’s body.”[26]

Even white men knew Willie’s physical prowess. After all, he had just traversed 600 miles on foot during the posse chase. What they wouldn’t know was that Willie Boy was a Chemehuevi runner, a spiritual man trained to travel long distances in the desert.[27] As a child, he may have been influenced by the Ghost Dance, a nineteenth-century Native American religious movement led by the prophet Wovoka, who encouraged tribal people to remain separate from encroaching American influences and keep to spiritual principles.[28]

Chemehuevi elders Mary Lou Brown and Alberta Van Fleet, Cahuilla elder Katherine Siva Saubel, Willie’s mother, Mary Snyder and many others have long maintained that Willie Boy fled on foot after the Ruby Mountain posse ambushpossibly first to Twentynine Palms and then into the open desert. These stories suggest that Willie Boy made his way across the Mojave Desert where he came to live among the Southern Paiute of Pahrump of Nevada, until tuberculosis took his life sometime between 1927 and 1935.[29] Given the lack of conclusive evidence on Willie Boy’s body, this Indian version of the story is just as likely to be true as Ben de Crevecoeur’s—but just as hard to substantiate. In any case, they invite us to think beyond Lawton’s version and know that Willie probably got away.

 

Willie Boy's Saloon
Willie Boy's Saloon in Morongo Valley on State Highway 62. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

 

 

The author would like to thank the Mesa Refuge and the University of California’s Human Rights Center for providing the space and time to think about this piece, and the University of California, Riverside’s Archive. Interest in writing this piece was spurred by conversations with members of the Native American Land Conservancy, who the author would like to thank for their friendship and support.

 

NOTES:

[1] Harry Lawton quoted in Sandos, James A., and Larry E. Burgess. The Hunt for Willie Boy: Indian-Hating and Popular Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994. 37.

[2]  Sandos and Burgess. 85.

[3] The Riverside coroner’s official examination of Carlota’s body and subsequent report determined that she had been shot from a long range, making the posse’s claims that Willie had shot her at close range unconvincing.

[4] The “gravesite” where author Harry Lawton believed he found the bones is located within Bighorn Mountain Wilderness, and was commemorated in 1966 with a bronze plaque by Riverside and San Bernardino Sheriff’s associations. For years a picnic table stood nearby, along with a primitive outhouse for visitors. The access area is now closed off to vehicular traffic as a protected wilderness area. Attesting to the ongoing popularity of the 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 wilderness leading to the “gravesite.”

[5] Horace Parker to Harry Lawton, April 20, 1957. Harry W. Lawton collection on Willie Boy (MS.152). Special Collections & University Archives, UCR Library, University of California, Riverside.

[6] Trafzer. 196.

[7] Lawton, Harry. “Myth Destroyed: Reporter Finds Willie’s Bones.” Riverside Press Enterprise, June 5, 1958.

[8] Lawton describes in his book how a Los Angeles Examiner reporter dug up “the charred skull of Willie Boy” and other items from the funeral pyre a few days after the posse located Willie Boy’s burnt remains. Some of these “relics” ended up on public display in storefronts. The skull was said to hang in a minor posse member’s barn. However, no physical evidence, including Willie Boy’s bones, seems to exist today.

[9] Letter, undated [after June 5, 1958]. Harry W. Lawton collection on Willie Boy (MS.152). Special Collections & University Archives, UCR Library, University of California, Riverside.

[10] DeLaney Hoffman, Elizabeth (editor); Sandos and Burgess, “The Continuing Hunt for Willy Boy, 1909 – 2009,” American Indians and Popular Culture. Praeger 2012 (Santa Barbara): 75.

[11] Lawton, Harry. Willie Boy: A Desert Manhunt. Balboa Island, CA: Paisano Press, 1960. 9. Note that the line-up of posse members changed during the course of the manhunt.

[12] Kiernan, Edmund. “Review.” California Historical Society Quarterly 39, no. 4 (1960): 371-374.

[13] Letters. Harry W. Lawton collection on Willie Boy (MS.152). Special Collections & University Archives, UCR Library, University of California, Riverside.

[14] Vane, Sylvia. “Harry W. Lawton.” Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 26, no. 1 (2006): 7-10.

[15] Plimpton, George. “The Story Behind a Nonfiction Novel.” New York Times, January 16, 1966. https://www.nytimes.com/books/97/12/28/home/capote-interview.html.

[16] The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court without money changing hands, though Lawton had initially sued for $25,000.

[17] Ben de Crevecoeur, the Riverside County Constable who helped coordinate the posse, claimed that Willie Boy drank in a San Bernardino Daily Sun article titled, “Temperance Lesson in Blood, Drink Fest Is Cause of All the Trouble Brought on by Fugitive Indian.” The supplier, an unidentified “white youth,” said he inadvertently provided the whiskey to Willie Boy. No one corroborated this account until ten years after de Crevecoeur’s death, making it more convenient story than historical fact.

[18] “Letters.” Desert Magazine. February and March 1942.

[19] Man’s Conquest. Vol 8.2. June 1963.

[20] Letter: Harry Lawton to Abraham Polonsky. Feb. 18, 1970. Harry W. Lawton collection on Willie Boy (MS.152). Special Collections & University Archives, UCR Library, University of California, Riverside.

[21] Letter: Lackey, Lionel to Harry Lawton. Harry W. Lawton collection on Willie Boy (MS.152). Special Collections & University Archives, UCR Library, University of California, Riverside.

[22]The first stage production on the subject came together just four days after Willie Boy was claimed to have been found dead. “Willie-boy,” was produced by the Hollingsworth troupe and played in Riverside for three days only, starting on October 19, 1909.

[23] Letter from Jack B. Tenney. Harry W. Lawton collection on Willie Boy (MS.152). Special Collections & University Archives, UCR Library, University of California, Riverside.

[24] Lionel Lackey operetta. Harry W. Lawton collection on Willie Boy (MS.152). Special Collections & University Archives, UCR Library, University of California, Riverside.

[25] For centuries, the Oasis of Mara was the traditional semi-permanent encampment of the Serrano people until the village was apparently abandoned during the mid-nineteenth century. Sometime after 1860, Chemehuevi families began to occupy the oasis after fleeing the Colorado River region during the Chemehuevi-Mojave War of the same period.

[26] Trafzer.188.

[27] Nabokov, Peter. Indian Running: Native American History and Tradition. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Ancient City Press, 2001.

[28] Sandos and Burgess. 95-101.

[29] Trafzer.199. Some accounts suggest Willie Boy died in a sanatorium in Arizona.

 

 

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