America’s Bloodiest Range War, 1890 – 1916

Following the establishment of Mission San Fernando Rey de España in 1797, Spanish officials realized that they would require more land for agriculture and livestock.  They looked to the Santa Clarita Valley to establish their estancia.  Using this land necessitated the removal of the Tataviam Tribe; the Indians were removed to the Mission, where they became slave laborers to Franciscan Catholics.  Estancia ed San Francisco Xavier was organized in 1804 at the confluence of the Castaic Creek and Santa Clara River.

Following the Mexican War of Independence in 1821, Mexican officials secularized the missions.  In 1834, Lieutenant Antonio del Valle was given the task of making an inventory of the property of Mission San Fernando.  This land was supposed to be returned to the Tataviam Indians, but Governor Juan Alvarado instead deeded it to his friend, Del Valle on 22 January 1839.

Del Valle and his family occupied the land.  When on his deathbed in 1841, Del Valle wrote a letter to his estranged son Ygnacio appointing him as heir of Estancia San Francisco, which included 48,612 acres of land.  Del Valle’s second wife, Jacoba Feliz, contested the will and the matter was resolved by splitting the land between Ygnacio and his stepmother.

On 2 March 1842, while resting under a tree, Francisco Lopez, the uncle of Antonio’s second wife, discovered flakes of gold just beneath the sod.  Lopez was a mineralogist trained at the University of Mexico, so there may be some question about his having “stumbled” upon the gold.  Lopez’ discovery sparked a gold rush, but on a much smaller scale than the one that occurred in 1849.  In any case, a minor effort what exerted to create a small (but profitable) gold mine on the property.  Ygnacio del Valle destroyed the mine to prevent the United States from gaining access to it during the Mexican-American War. 

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which settled the Mexican-American War, endorsed legitimate land titles held by former citizens of Spain and Mexico.  Jacoba Feliz sued for control of Rancho San Francisco and prevailed in the United States Court in 1857.  Ygnacio was awarded the western-most portion of the estancia (14,000 acres), and Feliz (remarried) controlled 21,307 acres.  In her will, Jacoba’s divided her land among her six children, each designated to receive 4,684 acres of land.

In the 1850s and 1860s, California was beset by excessive rains and equally excessive droughts.  The environment challenged the people’s ability to produce food; flooding damaged buildings and made them uninhabitable.  Many ranchers were forced to mortgage their property to sustain them during these natural calamities.  Jacoba mortgaged her land to William Wolfskill [Note 1], who sold a portion of it to Ygnacio in exchange for settling Jacoba’s debt to Wolfskill.

In 1862, Del Valle was forced to sell much of his land to oil speculators.  No oil was found at Rancho San Francisco and the property was eventually purchased by Henry Newhall.  Newhall granted a right of way to the Southern Pacific Railroad and sold them a portion of the land near present-day Newhall, California.  When Newhall died in 1882, his heirs formed the Newhall Land and Farming Company.

Castaic is first mentioned on old boundary maps of Rancho San Francisco, shown as a canyon property leading to Castac Lake, characterized as “wet and briny.”  Early English language publications show the word as Casteque.  The first settlers to occupy Castaic was a family named Cordova.  The spelling of the name was changed to Castaic in 1890 and the Castaic range became the backdrop to the United States’ largest range war. 

W. W. Jenkins

In 1851, 16-year-old William Willoby Jenkins (whom everyone called “Wirt”) traveled with his family from Ohio to a small settlement along the American River.  It was in this frontier environment that William learned how to defend his family’s land claims; he’d become a gunman because he never hesitated to use one defending what he believed was his.  In time, William stumbled into the rough and tumble town called Los Angeles, California, where he earned the additional reputation as a gambler.  At the time, Los Angeles was one of the most violent towns in the United States [Note 2] — seething with racial hatred between Anglo settlers, Mexicans, and native Americans.

Jenkins’ proficiency with the gun prompted Mayor Ygnacio del Valle to recruit Jenkins into the California Rangers, a volunteer vigilante police force that was charged to rid Los Angeles from its violent denizens.  Jenkins was one of several notable gunmen, which included Horace Bell [Note 3] and Cyrus Lyon, who along with brother Sanford, established a stagecoach rest known as Lyon’s Station in San Clarita Valley.  The California Rangers developed a reputation for “shooting first, asking question later.”  It was a workable strategy because within two years, most of the more dangerous characters vacated Los Angeles — either by moving away or being planted by a local undertaker.

In 1856, Jenkins worked as a deputy constable in Los Angeles.  He was sent to repossess a guitar that was in the possession of Señor Antonio Ruiz.  Ruiz gave up the guitar when Jenkins shot him.  Local Mexicans, around 200 of them, thought that Jenkins should be hanged for shooting an un-armed man and the incident evolved into one of Los Angeles’ worst (and first) race riots.  Ultimately, Jenkins was acquitted of murder by an all white jury after deliberating on the merits of the case for five minutes.  Jenkins, upon release from jail, decided it was time to move on. 

The Lazy J

William Jenkins eventually found his way to Rancho San Francisco where a fledgling oil business was taking shape near Pico Canyon.  With Sanford Lyon and Henry Clay Wiley, Jenkins sunk the first oil well in Pico Canyon in 1869.  In 1872, Jenkins laid claim to a large section of land along Castaic Creek.  It was there that he founded a ranch he called The Lazy Z. 

Jenkins married Olive Rhodes from Illinois and they had two daughters.  Jenkins was hard-working and industrious.  Within a few years, he was known for his racehorses; he also made a considerable amount of money raising cats during a severe rat infestation in Ventura County.

By every account, William C. Chormicle (1840-1913), whom everyone referred to as “Old Man Chormicle,” was an uncomplicated man.  As a youth, while traveling from Missouri with his parents, the wagon train was attacked by Indians.  Both his parents and a younger sister were slaughtered, and although he survived, he too was left for dead with an arrow through his neck.  How he managed to survive, or under what circumstances, isn’t known.  What we do know about Chormicle is that he had an unhappy childhood, and that he never went anywhere without his two six-shooters and a rifle.  The rifle was for settling arguments at long range.  

In 1890, Chormicle settled on land adjacent to Castaic Creek — land he had purchased from the Southern Pacific Railroad, which amounted to 1,600 acres.  Part of this land was claimed by Jenkins [Note 4].  Chormicle had only just begun to construct his cabin when Jenkins sent three of his ranch hands to muscle Chormicle off the land.  Two of these men, George Walton and Dolores Cook [Note 5], were killed.  Walton was killed instantly when two bullets entered his heart, and Cook died four hours later with two or more bullets in his liver.  Jose Olme escaped on horseback.    

After the shooting, Chormicle and his friend Bill Gardner surrendered to the county sheriff and told him what happened.  Both men, charged with two counts of murder, entered a not guilty plea by  reason of self-defense and claiming the right to protect their property from squatters.

William Chormicle

During the trial, witnesses claimed that William Chormicle and Bill Gardner were up-standing men, neither of whom had any interest in public quarrels.  There were over 100 witnesses lined up to offer what they knew of the shooting of Walton and Cook — none of whom actually saw the shooting take place.  The prosecution had no problem with proving the murder because both men admitted to it.  But it was up to the defense to show that the shootings were justified.  

As the trial progressed, the connection between land issues, violence, and William Jenkins became plainer.  Chormicle and Gardner were represented by lawyers J. L. Murphy and Alex Campbell.  Witness William B. Rose testified that he observed an argument between Jenkins and Chormicle during which Jenkins threatened him.  Chormicle testified that he alone had done the shooting, that Gardner, while present, did none of it.  Another witness, John Powell of Newhall, testified that Dolores Cook had a reputation for disturbing the peace, that he was a loyal friend of Jenkins, and who said that Cook carried a pistol so he could use it on Chormicle.

In Judge Cheney’s instructions to the jury, he said, “If Dolores Cook, George Walton, and Jose Olme went upon Chormicle’s land, he being in possession, with the intent to commit a felony, by dispossessing him of the land by force, and with intent to kill him or do great bodily harm, then you must acquit the defendants.”

The trial, lasting for 18 days in June 1890 was one of California’s longest murder trials up to that time; jury deliberation, however, was about average.  Within twenty minutes, both Chormicle and Gardner were found “not guilty” of murder.  William Jenkins was infuriated.

Over the next thirty years Jenkins and Chormicle remained at each other’s throats over land ownership and land use — from grazing rights, water rights, rights of way, and mining.  It was a feud that resulted in the wholesale destruction of property, between 21-40 men killed by gunfire, arson, or lynching, and one female killed in a cross fire.  

By this time, however, William Jenkins was known as a very dishonest man.  In 1895, having learned that swampland could be purchased cheaply under a special government subsidy program, Jenkins boarded a boat to survey the land between his ranch (presently known as Stonebridge, a housing development) and where Magic Mountain now sits.  But since Castaic didn’t have a swamp, Jenkins mounted a boat on the back of a wagon and had it pulled across the land he was interested in.  Several ranchers, including Chormicle, exposed Jenkins’ fraud and his “grant” was denied.

In 1904, William Chormicle was finally acknowledged as the legal owner of the contested land.  The United States Land Office awarded Chormicle a 1,600 acre grant previously claimed by Jenkins.  One might suppose that this determination and award would have settled the issue once and for all, but it didn’t.  By this time, the Castaic Range War was well known in Washington circles.  In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned a young man as a Forest Ranger to go to Los Angeles and Ventura counties and put an end the ongoing bloodshed.  The man he appointed was Robert  Emmet Clark, who remained in Castaic until 1913. 

R. E. Clark

Robert Emmet Clark (1876-1956) was four years old when his parents moved to California from Fair Play, Wisconsin.  As a young man, Bob Clark learned how to manage a six reign stagecoach over treacherous California routes, and it was said that he met a few prominent men while driving a stage.  By 1904, twenty-two men had been killed in the Jenkins-Chormicle feud.  For nine years, the killing stopped, but when Clark left the Forest Service, the feud resumed [Note 6].

In 1913, Jenkins was shot in the chest at his Lazy Z home by a man who worked for Chormicle; Jenkins survived the shooting and the feud continued when Jenkins sent some of his men over to the Gardner home to burn it down.  Gardner, who was single, lived with his parents.  They all perished in the blaze.  Some historians have said that Chormicle arranged for the lynching of David Jenkins, said to have been William Jenkins’ son, in retribution for the Gardner murders.  Others, however, claim that William Jenkins had no sons.  Someone named David Jenkins was lynched, however.  Today, Bouquet Canyon is still known as the Dead Man’s Canyon. 

William Lewis “Billy” Rose was a landowner on the Castaic Range.  Like Chormicle, Jenkins disputed Rose’s legal title to his land; the Rose family, having received numerous threats to their lives, never went anywhere without being well-armed.  On 8 March 1913, Billy Rose confronted Jenkins and accused him of offering large sums of money to have Billy killed.  Jenkins called Rose a squatter with no right to the land.  Both men went for their guns and Jenkins was again shot.  Rose went to trial, arguing self-defense.  Rose’s attorney, Mr. H. H. Appel, argued that the shooting was justifiable “considering the reputation of [Jenkins] as a gunfighter.”

It took the death of Wirt Jenkins to end the 25-year feud.  Jenkins died at the age of 81 on 19 October 1916 from a cerebral embolism.  He had managed to survive seven (7) gunshot wounds.  With his death, peace returned to the Castaic Range.  Old Man Chormicle died on 25 March 1919 from chronic kidney disease.  Much of the fought-over land today lies below the reservoir called Castaic Lake.

Sources:

  1. Engstrand, I. W.  William Wolfskill, 1798-1866: Frontier Trapper to California Ranchero.  Clark Publishers, 1965.
  2. Pollock, A.  Jenkins-Chormicle Feud Revisited.  Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, 2014
  3. Rasmussen, C.  “Castaic Range War Left Up to 21 Dead,” The Los Angeles Times, 2001.
  4. Gray, P. C.  “The Great Castaic Range War,” The Santa Clara Valley Signal, 2011.

Endnotes:

[1] William Wolfskill (1798-1866) was a pioneer, rancher, and agronomist in Los Angeles beginning in the 1830s.  Most of his early wealth came from fur trapping in New Mexico.  He was highly influential in the development of California agriculture, became the state’s largest producer of wine, and in his lifetime, became one of the wealthiest men in California through sheep herding and cultivating citrus.  He is best known for developing the Valencia Orange.

[2] And remains so today.

[3] Horace Bell (1830-1918) was a California Ranger, filibuster, soldier, lawyer, journalist, newspaper publisher, and the author of two notable history books about California.  He was born in Indiana and made his way to California during the 1849 Gold Rush.  Bell was a founding member of the California Rangers, joined the Walker Filibusters in Nicaragua, fought in the Mexican Army during the reform war, and served as a Union scout during the American Civil War.  Returning to California, he invested in land and focused on ending political corruption in California’s fledgeling government.

[4] The genesis of the land dispute lay in the ambiguity of the law that resulted in overlapping land grants.  According to an article in the Los Angeles Times on 16 March 1890, the Castaic lands were part of more than one million acres in Ventura and Los Angeles counties that were granted to two railroad companies in 1866 and 1871, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, and the Southern Pacific Railroad, respectively.  In 1866, after the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad went out of business, Congress rescinded the land grant and the property was restored to the public domain.  It was at this time that Chormicle appeared claiming 1,600 acres of land sold to him by the Southern Pacific and upon which Jenkins claimed ownership.

[5] Dolores Cook was an Indian; whether that had anything to do with Chormicle shooting him is unknown.

[6] Bob Clark is said to have formed several notable friendships, such as with Wyatt Earp, Tom Mix, Buck Jones, and Will Rogers.  Clark later served eleven years as Ventura County Sheriff, with a later appointment as United States Marshal for the Southern District of California, from which he retired in 1948.  After retirement, Clark lived the remainder of his days in Santa Paula, California.  He and his wife had six children, and were the grandparents of twenty-six children.  Robert Emmet Clark, Jr., served in the U. S. Marine Corps during World War II, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1956.  Another of his sons, William, served as a state judge; William’s son went on to serve as Chief of Police in Oxnard, California.    

About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
This entry was posted in California, Gunfights and such, History, Pioneers, Range War. Bookmark the permalink.

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