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The Jenkins-Chormicle Feud

W.W. Jenkins

The great feud of the Castaic Hills was the most enduring range war in Southern California, so deadly that even a peacemaker appointed by Theodore Roosevelt - the president who won the Nobel Peace Prize - couldn't settle it. It was triggered by a land dispute, and it didn't end until it had claimed as many as 21 lives. Graves of its possible victims were unearthed as recently as three years ago.

The violent, long-running Jenkins-Chormicle feud, which started in 1890 over a boundary dispute, is a colorful and cruel saga - part fact, part myth - of barn burnings, ambushes and gun battles on horseback. It lasted more than two decades. Jenkins and Chormicle were two ornery, rough-and-tumble, card-playing patriarchs. One was shot to death in the feud. The other, in spite of the seven bullets in him, died peacefully in bed.

William Wirt Jenkins was 16 when he moved from Ohio to Los Angeles with his family in 1851. His widowed mother had married an Englishman, George Dalton, brother of Henry Dalton, who owned Rancho Azusa. Five years later, Jenkins had become a deputy constable in the not-so-heavenly City of Angels, which was at the time a tinderbox of racial hatred and mistrust. One day Jenkins was sent to repossess a guitar belonging to Antonio Ruiz, a popular family man. A scuffle broke out, and Jenkins shot Ruiz dead.

Jenkins was jailed to await trial for murder, and the same day a crowd of about 200 Mexicans swarmed the jail to lynch him. In a standoff, the sheriff was wounded but the crowd dispersed. It took a white jury five minutes to find Jenkins not guilty, and almost immediately, he was mustered into the Los Angeles Rangers, a haphazard volunteer vigilante police force that took off to find the men who had shot the sheriff. They rounded up the mob's leader and eventually let him go.

Jenkins was skilled with guns, horses, cards and a knife. He always wore a vest that covered his sheathed knife. A crafty poker player, he won his best hand - a $1,000-plus pot - on a pair of deuces. But his big grubstake came when he heard that San Francisco's streets were overrun by millions of rats. He rounded up 100 cats, shipped them north and sold them for almost $100 each.

With his money, he followed fellow former rangers Cyrus and Stanford Lyon to Newhall. The Lyons had already built a stagecoach stop for weary travelers; later it would become a colony of 20 families of teetotalers and finally a cemetery, where a marker stands near the site of the old stagecoach stop.

In Pico Canyon, near Newhall, Jenkins made his first big money as a director of an oil company, along with a friend: future California Sen. Stephen White. But then he turned his attention to land. In 1872, he staked a claim on a vast section of Castaic Creek and later built a ranch he called the Lazy Z, near the intersection of what is now Lake Hughes and Castaic roads. He married an Illinois woman named Olive Rhodes, who had once been held in the arms of Abraham Lincoln. They had two daughters. His ranch soon became well known for breeding and training the region's best race horses.

Old W.W. Jenkins (the two W's stand for William Willoby, but he was known by both Bill and Wert) was a famous lawman in Southern California. He was a captain in the shoot-first-ask-questions-later California Rangers. Jenkins earned a reputation for being quite the pistol fighter. He carried several bullet holes in him, including one from an arrest of a Mexican in early Los Angeles. Jenkins shot back, killing the man and had the dubious honor of starting one of L.A.'s first race riots.

Long before there was a Castaic Lake and Dam, there was a Castaic Lake and Dam. W.W. Jenkins, aka, The Baron of Castaic, had a large contingent of Chinese workers who built a large, earthen structure to hold back water for both agriculture and gold mining. I've yet to find an accurate date for this dam, but it seems to be between 1870 and 1880. Jenkins owned a huge chunk of property - nearly 10,000 acres. He was also one of the major participants in the Castaic Range War at the turn of the century.

By 1890, Jenkins had an unwelcome neighbor: William C. "Old Man" Chormicle. He wore two six-guns, swore like a sailor and carried a rifle that he would one day use to pierce one man's heart and another's liver. Jenkins had already feuded briefly with the new settlers who were coming into the area, but he and Chormicle set the scene for nearly two decades of gunfire and conflict.

Chormicle said he had bought 1,600 acres from the railroads - the same land that Jenkins ranched. Jenkins said his claim took precedence, and sent out three of his men to tear down Chormicle's shack and put up a ranch house. Unarmed, the three men drove two wagonloads of lumber to Chormicle's shack. Chormicle and a friend opened fire on both wagons. Two of the men fell, fatally wounded. The third, Jose Olme, dropped to the ground and grabbed a horse's harness. He used the two fleeing horses as a shield, running alongside as bullets flew. A good distance away, both horses dropped dead and Olme hid in the nearby rocks.

Ten days later, Chormicle and his friend turned themselves in. They both pleaded self-defense over property rights and were acquitted. That the law had sided with Chormicle infuriated Jenkins, and the feud was on in earnest. Jenkins and Chormicle picked up their guns over every road-building, mining claim and grazing and water issue. Women and children were off limits, though one girl was accidentally killed in a cross-fire.

Chormicle revealed the depth of the men's hatred in a lawsuit over grazing rights. Asked whether he had threatened to kill a particular man, Chormicle replied: "I don't think it was like threatening to kill him. I told him that if he interfered with the girl driving the cattle, I would take some of the boys down with a rope and hang him."

In 1895, the federal government was virtually giving away swampland. The condition: You had to survey it by boat. Jenkins was angling to get more land by any means, so he set out to claim land between his ranch and the area where Magic Mountain now stands. To "prove" it was swamp - which it wasn't - Jenkins mounted a boat on wheels and had it pulled by a big, black horse. Several ranchers, Chormicle included, saw this and exposed the scheme. Jenkins was furious when his attempt to swindle the government out of the land was thwarted.

A decade later, President Teddy Roosevelt appointed Robert Emmett Clark a U.S. forest ranger. Clark's first assignment was to intimidate the combatants into laying down their arms. It worked - but only until 1913, when Clark left Castaic. After Clark's departure, a man working for Chormicle blasted Jenkins in the chest in the doorway of his Lazy Z ranch house. Jenkins, by then almost 80, survived. In 1916, not long after Jenkins recovered from his wounds, Chormicle was shot to death; the locals blamed Jenkins.

Some time later, Jenkins went to drive cattle off what he said was his land, and a Chormicle ally who was herding the cattle shot the old man. Again he survived. Finally, in 1919, Jenkins - 84 years old and carrying around seven bullets - died of an illness while visiting friends in Los Angeles, where his body was cremated.

The shot that eventually quelled all the gun play was fired by William (Billy) Rose. He was the brother of local legend, Annie Rose Briggs, who spent much of her life searching for the Lost Padres gold mine. Billy's father, William B. Rose, gave testimony in support of Chormicle's good character in the 1890 murder trail. It was partly Rose-family land that Jenkins had tried to swindle with his horse-drawn boat stunt in 1895.

Uncle Billy Rose, as he was known in his later years, a rugged and colorful loner who lived in the mountains above Castaic. Rose ran cattle in the hills and lived in a small and isolated cabin. Twice he had run-ins with bears. Once, in the middle of the night, he heard a bruin tearing through his beehives. Rose walked up to it and shot it between the eyes. Another bear, weighing in at nearly a half-ton, tried to break into his cabin. Rose shot that one dead in his front door. The beast was so huge, he couldn't move him. Rose had to wait until morning and ride into town to get help to move it. Rose was also the brother-in-law to local legend, Annie Briggs. It was Rose who rediscovered the fabled Lost Padre Mine. He and Annie worked it for years, pulling out some serious money in gold, silver and quartz.

But what Billy was most famous for was ending the famed Great Castaic Range War of the late 19th and early 20th century. Reports vary that between 23 and 40 men were killed in this boundary dispute. Prior to World War I, Rose ran up against his rival patriarch and fabled lawman and pistol fighter, W.W. Jenkins. On a lonely road, the two drew iron and Rose shot Jenkins, nearly fatally. Rose hid out in a cave for nearly a year. Jenkins, up in years, never was the same.

In 1998, almost 80 years later, human remains in pine boxes - an infant and four adult men, buried in Jenkins' long-forgotten family cemetery - were unearthed by workers building a housing development in Castaic. They were perhaps the last victims of the range war. Ironically, much of the land disputed so long and so bloodily now lies 100 feet below the waters backed up behind Castaic Dam.

Cecilia Rasmussen. Castaic Range War Left Up to 21 Dead. Los Angeles Times-Metro. Sunday, April 15, 2001.

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