The Wild West had pretty much been tamed by the early part of the 20th century. In the areas around Palm Springs, relationships between the white settlers and the local bands of Native Americans were, at their worst, neutral.
But then came the matter of Willie Boy. After he killed a man in 1909, lawmen were able to relive the days of yore as they formed posses to find the fugitive. The dramatic manhunt received press coverage across the country—and convinced some Easterners that the West was still living in savage times.
Willie Boy was a Paiute-Chemehuevi Indian, born in Twentynine Palms. He was raised by two aunts after his parents drowned in a desert thunderstorm. He fell in love with Mabel, the 16-year-old daughter of Chemehuevi Indian Mike Boniface, and the couple ran away. (Some accounts called her Lolita, Carlota, Isoleta or Neeta, but her death certificate, or “Record of Funeral,” clearly says Mabel.)
Boniface, 60, known as “Old Mike,” brought her back at gunpoint, admonishing Willie Boy that because the young couple had a distant blood relationship, they were forbidden to marry.
Late in the summer of 1909, the Bonifaces went to the Gilman Ranch near Banning to help with the fruit harvest. Willie Boy also went and got employment there. He was apparently a good worker, even though four years before, he had been jailed in San Bernardino for drunkenness and disorderly conduct.
Late on Saturday night, Sept. 25, 1909, two boys returned to the Gilman Ranch from San Bernardino with a bottle of whiskey almost three-quarters full. Apparently, sometime during the night, it rolled down to Willie Boy’s bunk; he discovered his bonanza in the morning. On Sunday, Sept. 26, apparently emboldened by the booze, Willie Boy shot Mike Boniface in the eye. He then grabbed Mabel, a rifle and some cartridges, and set out across the desert.
Accounts of the murder vary. One version had Willie Boy killing Old Mike while he slept; another reported a struggle over the rifle. The accusation that Willie Boy committed the murder, however, was never challenged.
Outraged, a posse led by the Riverside County sheriff quickly gave chase. This posse, and those which would follow, contained several Native American guides, including Yaqui John Hyde and Cahuilla tribesmen Henry Pablo, Segundo Chino and Willie Pablo.
Despite the warm trail, Willie Boy and Mabel slipped away from the pursuers. The posse camped near Whitewater, unsure whether Willie Boy went south into Palm Springs, or north toward his home turf at Twentynine Palms. In the morning, the posse discovered fresh tracks that indicated Willie Boy had circled their camp while they slept.
The posse later followed the tracks through the Morongo Basin into the Mojave Desert, where they found indications that Mabel had been pushed and dragged over the sand. They finally came across her still-warm body in the desert—a gunshot wound in her back.
Willie Boy was now on his own. The first posse ended with them bringing Mabel’s body back.
Mabel’s death ignited the flames of journalists. Trying to outdo each other, they reported rumors and untruths, calling Willie Boy a “red-skin lady killer.” Stories circulated about him being responsible for almost every death and crime that occurred anywhere within hundreds of miles.
Other posses were formed, some led by the San Bernardino County sheriff. “Leadership” appeared to be determined by ego and politics rather than effectiveness.
Willie Boy circled through the desert, at one point slipping past posse members to visit his home in Twentynine Palms. Receiving no help, he went back into the desert, knowing where to find springs and waterholes.
On Oct. 7, on Ruby Mountain (in San Bernardino County), Willie Boy doubled behind his pursuers and laid a trap. As the posse approached, he started shooting. He killed three horses and seriously wounded lawman Charlie Reche.
In the middle of the manhunt, President William Howard Taft was on a cross-country speaking tour, and was at Riverside’s Mission Inn on Oct. 12, 1909. There, reporter E.A. Fowler of the New York Sun picked up on the Willie Boy story, realizing that it made for far better copy than boring speeches—especially when the pursuit stories left an implied threat that the president of the United States could potentially be scalped. Rumors ran rampant, with stories about imminent “Indian uprisings.” Scores of reporters descended upon the scene to feed upon the frenzy. Sensing a scoop, the Los Angeles Record sent a young reporter to join what would be the last posse.
Randolph W. Madison, 22, joined a group led by Riverside County Sheriff Frank Wilson. They went first to Ruby Mountain, the site of the ambush and Willie Boy’s last known location. Some members of the ambushed party had said they heard a shot as they were leaving. It turned out to be a suicide shot: Wilson and his group found Willie Boy’s decomposing body on Friday, Oct. 15, 1909. He had one shoe off, having used his toes to pull the trigger aimed at his chest.
Willie Boy had put fear into many, eluding more than 75 pursuers in five organized posses. Some Native Americans had fled their villages, especially after some white settlers become incensed by the shooting of Reche. Indians fighting other Indians was one thing—but they should never shoot a white man.
While most newspapers reported more fantasy than fact, Madison got his scoop, and his stories were picked up across the country. He even wrote a story told from Willie Boy’s perspective. Madison presumed that the posse’s relentless pursuit made Mabel’s death inevitable; he speculated that Willie Boy shot Mabel rather than leave her to the enemy. Madison’s story ran in the Eastern press but was not printed anywhere in Southern California. Many Westerners vilified and ostracized the reporter for his story from the murderer’s point of view.
For various reasons, the legend of Willie Boy grew. Years later, a plaque was placed on the site of the suicide, saying in eulogy, “Willie Boy, 1881-1909, The West’s Last Famous Manhunt.” A 1969 Hollywood movie, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, featuring Robert Redford and Robert Blake, immortalized the murder and pursuit.
Some Native Americans created their own fantasized versions of the Willie Boy story, told and retold in different versions. At the Morongo Reservation’s Malki Museum, I was told that many Cahuilla do not believe the “official” version of his death, instead believing that Willie Boy lived long after the manhunt and died an old man.
To a public thirsty for stories from the old Wild West, Willie Boy became a symbol: He was the last wild Indian.
Sources for this article include Willie Boy: A Desert Manhunt by Harry Lawton (Malki Museum Press, 1960); The Hunt for Willie Boy by James Sandos and Larry E. Burgess (University of Oklahoma Press, 1994); The Chemehuevi Indians of Southern California by Ronald Dean Miller and Peggy Jeanne Miller (Malki Museum Press, 1967).