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The Great Castaic Range War

SCV History: Event was the most enduring feud in SoCal

Posted: February 20, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: February 20, 2011 1:55 a.m.

William Willoby Jenkins (aka William Wirt Jenkins) 1833-1919.

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When the law of the land failed to deliver justice in the late 19th century, the remedy was often sought with a gun.

The Great Castaic Range War started when neighboring ranchers laid claim to the same tract of land. The bloody conflict was the most enduring feud in southern Californian history, lasting more than a quarter of a century. It claimed at least eight lives, some of them innocent bystanders. Several sources claim as many as 21 lives were lost in the dispute.

In 1872, William Willoby Jenkins staked a large claim along Castaic Creek. Six years later, he established a ranch he named the Lazy Z. It was located near the present-day intersection of Lake Hughes Road and Castaic Road.

Killing starts
The killing started in 1890. William C. Chormicle had purchased 1,600 acres from the railroad, the same land that W.W. Jenkins was already ranching. The altercation started when three of Jenkins’s men tried to move lumber onto the disputed land in order to build a cabin. “Old Man” Chormicle and William A. Gardner opened fire, killing two of the work party.

The third man, 20-year old Jose Olme, narrowly escaped by grabbing the harness of a fleeing horse. He ran behind the frightened animal, using it as a shield from the flying bullets.

The gunmen immediately fled the scene and went into hiding. Ten days later, they were flushed out of Piru Canyon, and surrendered to local sheriffs. They pleaded self-defense while protecting their property rights.

Trial
The trial lasted 18 days in June 1890, and was one of the longest trials ever conducted in Los Angeles County at the time. One side described a cowardly ambush; the other a face-to-face, armed encounter. The defense argued an underlying feud was the real cause of the problems.

After 20 minutes of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict. They found the defendants Chormicle and Gardner not guilty of any crime. The outcome appears to have demonstrated support for the more popular families involved in the dispute, rather than adhering to the strict letter of the law. The acquittal infuriated W.W. Jenkins, so the feud was on in earnest.

Jenkins-Chormicle
The violent, long-running Jenkins-Chormicle feud was a colorful and cruel saga of barn burnings, ambushes and running gun battles on horseback. Jenkins and Chormicle picked up their weapons over every road-building, mining claim, grazing rights and water issue. On one tragic occasion, a girl was accidentally killed in the crossfire.

While this sounds likes lawless anarchy to us today, these early settlers viewed their own actions differently, and perhaps with some justification. Given no other alternative, they were striving to bring order to a situation where the law was unclear or inadequate. The railways and the Federal Government were embroiled in their own dispute over the ownership of this same parcel of land, so the feuding factions could be viewed as victims of a situation outside their control.

There is no doubt that the principle players, Jenkins and Chormicle, were two ornery, rough-and-tumble, gun-toting, card-playing men in the tradition of the old Wild West. To put their life and times into historical perspective, they met in the same decade as the famed 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

To add another dimension to his colorful character, W.W. Jenkins was not averse to a little swindling. In 1895, Jenkins learned that swampland could be purchased cheaply under a special government program, provided the land was surveyed by boat.

No swamp
Castaic had no swamp, so Jenkins tried to circumvent the law by mounting a boat on wheels and having it pulled by a horse. He attempted to claim most of the land between his Lazy Z ranch and the current site of Six Flags Magic Mountain.

However, Chormicle and some other ranchers exposed the scheme. Jenkins was furious when his attempt to swindle the government was thwarted.

Nonetheless, Jenkins had a propensity for successful business dealings. He established a pioneer oil well in Pico Canyon in 1869.

Lazy Z
His Lazy Z ranch became well known for breeding and training excellent race horses. 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.

“Old Man” Chormicle was a similar character in the vein of the old Wild West. Chormicle revealed the depth of the feuding sides’ hatred for each other in a lawsuit over grazing rights. Asked whether he had threatened to kill a 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.”

Robert Emmett Clark
Forest Ranger Robert Emmett Clark met Jenkins in 1905, and described him as “a great knife thrower, (who) always wore a vest with a throwing knife in a holster under it. He generally rode in a buggy and let his six-shooter lie on the seat beside him.”

Clark also reported, “Old Man Chormicle was an uncomplicated fellow. He wore two six-guns and usually carried a rifle in case any argument started at long range.”

During his term of service, Clark was credited with ending the feud, for which he was rewarded with a brace of pistols from Theodore Roosevelt. However, the feud was only in abatement — not ended.

 Shootings resume
After Clark’s departure, the shootings resumed in 1913, when a man working for Chormicle shot Jenkins in the chest in the doorway of his Lazy Z ranch house. Jenkins, then 80, miraculously survived.

After Jenkins recovered from his wounds, Chormicle was shot to death in 1916. The locals were convinced that Jenkins was to blame. However, the feud was still not over.

Sometime later, Jenkins was shot again by a Chormicle ally while trying to drive his assailant’s cattle off “his land.” Again, Jenkins survived his wounds.

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.

Final conflict
The final conflict occurred in 1916 when Jenkins was herding cattle into Charlie Canyon near Castaic. Jenkins drove his cattle toward Rose’s cattle camp. They met face to face. Firearms were drawn, shots rang out, and Jenkins rolled from his saddle hitting the ground with a heavy thud.

Reports of the encounter vary. Local lore said Jenkins was killed in the exchange, but it seems the 83-year-old Jenkins survived yet again.

An obituary reports Jenkins dying of a sudden illness while visiting relatives in Los Angeles in October 1919. If so, he would have been 86, and reportedly the survivor of seven separate gun shot wounds.  

Ironically, much of the land disputed with so much violence and bloodshed now lies submerged at the bottom of the reservoir behind Castaic Dam.

Peter C. Gray is a freelance writer and amateur historian living in Agua Dulce.

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