The Hatfields and McCoys had nothing on William Jenkins and William Chormicle. Starting in 1890, a violent range war between factions of these two men ripped apart the lives of many inhabitants of Castaic. A futile dispute over land claims would last nearly a quarter of a century, resulting in the murders of more than 20 people.
William W. Jenkins
William Wirt Jenkins, a pioneer of the Santa Clarita Valley, led a colorful life straight out of the pages of the Wild West. Jenkins grew up in Ohio and arrived in the California gold fields with his family in 1851. There, on the American River, Jenkins became skillful with a pistol to hold off claim jumpers.
William W. Jenkins.
Two years later, Jenkins drifted to the rough-and-tumble pueblo of Los Angeles, then one of the most violent towns in America. It was a place seething with racial hatred and mistrust between the native Californians and Anglo immigrants, many of whom had come out West during the California Gold Rush.
Shortly thereafter, his prowess with a pistol having gained the attention of Mayor Ygnacio Del Valle, Jenkins was recruited into the Los Angeles Rangers, a volunteer vigilante police force that was commissioned with cleaning up the mean streets of Los Angeles. Fellow Rangers included Major Horace Bell, a newspaperman who later recounted his escapades as author of "Reminiscences of a Ranger," the first book to be published in Los Angeles; and Cyrus Lyon, who with brother Sanford emigrated to Los Angeles from Macias, Maine, and eventually settled in the Santa Clarita Valley to run the stagecoach stop known as Lyons Station.
This ragtag group of gunfighters embarked on a "shoot first, ask questions later" campaign which effectively tamed the pueblo's criminal element within two years.
By 1856, at the age of 21, Jenkins had become a deputy constable for the pueblo. His first brush with notoriety came when he was sent to repossess a guitar belonging to a Mexican man named Antonio Ruiz. In the process of the repossession, somehow Ruiz ended up dead at the end of one of Jenkins' gun barrels. Jenkins, claiming Ruiz had tried to escape, shot him in the back. Jenkins was tossed in jail and charged with murder.
This was not good enough for a mob of some 200 Mexicans who attempted to break Jenkins out of jail for a lynching. It was the first race riot in Los Angeles history. They did not succeed, and Jenkins ultimately went free when a jury of white men acquitted him after deliberating for five minutes.
Ranger Bill Jenkins' Lazy Z Ranch in Castaic. Today it's the Stonegate subdivision.
Click image to enlarge.
Jenkins and the Lazy Z Ranch
Jenkins eventually migrated up to the Rancho San Francisco where the fledgling oil business was just taking off in adjacent Pico Canyon. Along with Sanford Lyon and Henry Clay Wiley, Jenkins sunk the first oil well in Pico Canyon in 1869 using the spring-pole method of drilling.
In 1872, Jenkins made the fateful decision to lay claim to a large section of land along Castaic Creek upon which he built the Lazy Z ranch six years later. He married Olive Rhodes of Illinois and had two daughters. In the ensuing years, the Lazy Z became well known for breeding and training top-flight racehorses.
All was well at the Lazy Z until William C. Chormicle showed up in 1890.
Chormicle, a crusty 50-year-old gentleman with a proclivity for guns similar to that of Jenkins, purchased 1,600 acres of land in the Castaic area which had already been claimed by Jenkins for the Lazy Z Ranch. Chormicle had a large ranch in Santa Paula where he spent most of his time, leaving his wife and several of his sons to run the operations in Castaic.
Genesis of the Dispute
The root of the dispute actually lay in an ambiguity in the law which resulted in overlapping land grants in the Castaic area being given to two railroad companies.
According to a Los Angeles Times article on March 6, 1890, the Castaic lands were part of a body of more than 1 million acres in Ventura and Los Angeles counties which were granted both to the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad and to the Southern Pacific Railroad.
The lands were originally granted to the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad by an act of Congress in 1866. In 1871, the same general area was granted to the Southern Pacific Railroad but specifically excluded the lands previously granted to the Atlantic and Pacific.
The Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, however, was never completed. Thus in July 1886, the land granted to the defunct railroad was, by an act of Congress, forfeited. It reverted to the United States government and was restored to the public domain, which allowed it to be homesteaded.
In spite of the previous exclusions in 1871, the Southern Pacific company continued to claim the lands that had reverted to the government. The land dispute was brought to the Secretary of the Interior Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II (in office March 6, 1885 - Jan. 10, 1888), who decided in the Gordon case of 1887 that the Southern Pacific had no right to any of these lands.
When Lamar was succeeded by William Freeman Vilas as Secretary of the Interior (in office Jan. 16, 1888 - March 6, 1889), the Southern Pacific again tried to reclaim the lands but was again rebuffed.
Not willing to give up, the Southern Pacific then brought suit against a settler, Wesley Coble, to eject him from a tract of his land. In July 1888, Judge Hutton of the Los Angeles County Superior Court decided the railway company had no right to the lands. The Southern Pacific apparently appealed but systematically delayed and postponed the case to prevent the Supreme Court from reviewing the appeal.
It was in this setting that Chormicle appeared on the scene in 1890. Jenkins had settled on land which ended up in the dispute between the government and the Southern Pacific. Chormicle claimed the same land based on a "permit" from the Southern Pacific Railroad.
The Murder of Dolores Cook and George Walton
With Jenkins and Chormicle claiming the same land, the Castaic Range War officially began Feb. 28, 1890, when two men allied with Jenkins were shot dead by Chormicle and an accomplice as they were hauling lumber onto the disputed land to erect a cabin.
Three days earlier, 25-year-old George Walton had hauled some lumber to a section of land on which he had filed for a homestead. The same section was claimed by Chormicle. Walton had been in the area only three months, having previously lived in San Diego.
According to an account by neighbor William H. George to the Los Angeles Times, and court testimony by eyewitness Jose Olme, Walton passed by a shanty occupied by Chormicle, who took exception to Walton's actions and had the lumber moved and thrown over a fence below the shanty. Hard feelings developed between the two men, and Walton decided to move the lumber back to his homestead location to build the sides of his house with the assistance of Dolores Cook and his brother-in-law, Olme. The men got a wagon and a buggy, but before they could load the lumber, Chormicle and William A. Gardner arrived on the scene.
Walton and Chormicle proceeded to have an altercation during which Walton struck Chormicle in the face. The fight was broken up by Cook and Olme, and Chormicle returned to the home of Juan Leiva with Gardner. Walton and his men proceeded to load the wagon with lumber, and passing by Leiva's shanty, they unloaded the lumber at the homestead site.
Dolores Cook (detail at right from photo above), seen on the Cordova Ranch four years before his death. Dolores is standing in front of the pillar in front of the door.
Joseph Olme, the only eyewitness to the 1890 killing, is next to him at far left in this 1886 photograph. The others, from left, are Dolores' wife Francis Olme in the doorway;
their sons Fred and Theodore (seated); Virginia Cordova standing behind them; an elderly Cordova (probably the patriarch Jesus) at right; and Mrs. Urtasun at far right. Today the Cordova Ranch
is mostly under the manmade Castaic Lake. Click images to enlarge.
They went back and loaded the wagon a second time and started off with Walton's wagon in the lead. Olme accompanied Walton on the wagon, with Cook driving the buggy. As the wagon passed Leiva's shanty, Chormicle and Gardner appeared at the windows and opened fire with rifles and pistols. Walton was killed instantly, and Cook would die from gunshot wounds three hours later at Jenkins' house.
Olme jumped from the wagon and ran to Cook's buggy while dodging bullets from Chormicle and Gardner. As he approached the horse that was pulling Cook's buggy, it started to run. Olme grabbed the harness and ran alongside the horse, shielding himself from further gunshots as he passed by Leiva's shanty and escaped to Jenkins' house unscathed.
Leon Worden notes (2014), "Cook was a Fernandeño Indian of Tataviam, Kitanemuk and Tongva descent, and Castaic was his ancestral territory. Upon his death, Cook left a widow and four children. Cook is the late Charlie Cooke's great-grandfather. Charlie Cooke (1935-2013) was chief of the Southern Chumash and a respected elder within the Fernandeno-Tataviam Band of Mission Indians. (The "e" was added to the surname by Charlie's grandparents.) Dolores Cook is also gr-gr-grandfather to the current chief, Ted Garcia, who was passed the title from Charlie in December 2008."
According to W.H. George, Chormicle "has always stood well, and up to the other day he has taken but little interest in the quarrels." Gardner "lives with his father on their ranch nearby, and has always borne an excellent reputation. He is a single man and has never to my knowledge been in trouble before. Why he should have been drawn into this by Chormicle is a mystery to everybody. They were not particularly good friends before, and I can't understand it." Cook "was part Spanish, and stood well in the community. He had taken no part in the quarrel, and was simply assisting Walton to haul his lumber to his land."
As soon as they were finished shooting, Chormicle and Gardner raced out of the shanty to their horses and fled into the canyon. The news of the shooting spread quickly through the neighborhood, and within a short time the constables at Newhall were notified and began tracking the suspects.
About one week later, Sheriff W.H. Riley of Ventura County received word of where the men were and that they wanted to give themselves up. Riley met up with the fugitives in Piru Canyon and brought them to Ventura. The men said they had meant to give themselves up in Castaic but saw a crowd of Jenkins' faction gathering, and fearing for their lives, they took off across the mountain range to Ventura.
The Trial of Chormicle and Gardner
In late March 1890, Chormicle and Gardner stood trial for the murder of Walton and Cook. Their defense lawyers, J.L. Murphy Esq. and Alex Campbell Esq., claimed the defendants were justified in the killing, alleging that Walton and Cook were the aggressors, and that Chormicle had to kill them in defense of his own property.
The preliminary examination concluded March 26 with the defendants being charged with the murder of Cook and Walton and held without bail. The trial began two days later in Department 1 of the Superior Court. The list of witnesses numbered more than 100 persons - practically the entire Castaic neighborhood.
William Chormicle and wife Lavina. One thing that didn't come out (or at least wasn't reported) when Chormicle was tried for the murder of Dolores Cook, a Native American, who was
said by the only eyewitness to have been unarmed, is that Chormicle's parents were killed and Chormicle himself was shot with an arrow through the neck by Native Americans when they crossed the plains to California (see
Click image to enlarge.
The prosecution's case left no doubt that Chormicle and Gardner did indeed fire the shots that killed Walton and Cook. It was left to the defense to prove justifiable homicide or self-defense. They called several character witnesses who attested to the "very fine reputation" of both defendants. The Los Angeles Times on June 8, 1890 reported: "Little by little the connection of W.W. Jenkins with the troubles in the valley has been made more apparent, and the defense now openly say that before the close they will show a conspiracy on the part of the men who lost their lives and Jenkins to kill W.C. Chormicle and W.A. Gardner"
William B. Rose testified about a prior quarrel between Jenkins and Chormicle during which Jenkins abusively accused Chormicle of driving his cattle off a section of land both men claimed. Jenkins was accompanied by Walton at the time, and both allegedly expressed their willingness to fight Chormicle for the land.
Chormicle himself was placed on the witness stand and gave his side of the story of the killings. He claimed he had come out of Leiva's house with his rifle and pistol to stop the men from hauling the lumber. He said he fired at them after they had drawn pistols on him. He further claimed that only he, not Gardner, had done the shooting, and that no one had fired from inside the house.
Several witnesses, including John Powell of Newhall, testified that the deceased Cook had a bad reputation for "peace and quiet," was a loyal friend of Jenkins, and claimed to carry a pistol intended for Chormicle. Other witnesses for the prosecution, including W.J. Biscailuz, Pedro Lopez and Geronimo Lopez, attested to Cook's good reputation.
Testimony in the case concluded June 14, 1890. Closing arguments took place the next day. Mr. Gordon for the prosecution claimed the killing was murder in the first degree, and that both defendants were equally guilty. He said the evidence conclusively proved that both Chormicle and Gardner shot down Dolores Cook and George Walton from ambush behind the windows of the Leiva's cabin.
According to the Times, Mr. Murphy for the defense stated: "By right the two defendants should not be where they are, but W.W. Jenkins, Jose Olme and Thomas Riley are the real defendants who should be on trial." He argued that the testimony disclosed a conspiracy on the part of Jenkins and his crowd to have the Chormicle land or kill to secure it, and that it was their intent that Chormicle and Gardner should be the ones shot that fatal morning in February, instead of Cook and Walton."
The case went to the jury June 17. The courtroom was reported to be crowded with spectators, with quite a number of ladies in attendance. Chormicle sat with his family while Gardner sat at his counsel's table. Their demeanor was described as being that of quiet confidence of their ultimate release.
The morning started with Alex Campbell Esq. speaking for the defense. His testimony was reported as "clear and logical, at times startlingly eloquent." When he finished his defense of Chormicle and Gardner, "the audience broke out into an uncontrollable burst of applause." Judge Cheney, unable to restrain the crowd, had the courtroom cleared.
Mr. McComas for the prosecution gave an equally compelling argument. As reported in the Times: "He deprecated the interjection of W.W. Jenkins into the case, saying no matter how big a scoundrel he might be, still he was not connected sufficiently with the case, by the evidence, to justify the prominence given him by the defense. He said Jenkins was not on trial, and that the defendants were not justified in the killing."
In essence, the court's instructions to the jury were that "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, they must acquit the defendants."
The 18-day trial had been one of the longest in county history to that time. The jury took just 20 minutes to make its decision. Dr. Nesbit of Pomona, the jury foreman, read the verdicts. Both Chormicle and Gardner were found not guilty of the murder of Dolores Cook. A second case for the murder of George Walton was dismissed the next day. There are descendants of Dolores Cook today who believe justice was denied.
The Range War
The trial was over, but the Jenkins-Chormicle feud was just beginning. For the next 25 years, Jenkins, Chormicle and their henchmen picked up their guns over every issue in the Castaic area involving roads, mining, grazing and water. More than 20 people are said to have lost their lives in the ensuing feud and range war.
The feud was thought to have ended in October 1904 when Chormicle was finally awarded the contested land. A patent issued by United States Land Office awarded Chormicle 1,600 acres of real estate previously claimed by Jenkins. The Los Angeles Times quoted attorney J.L. Murphy: "The case has cost far more than the land is worth, but it was a fight for principle with the settlers that could not be given up when once undertaken." But it didn't end there.
The violence continued in spite of the settlement. At one point, President Theodore Roosevelt felt compelled to send newly appointed U.S. Forest Ranger Robert Emmett Clark to Castaic in an attempt to intimidate the warring factions into stopping the fighting. This quieted things down until Clark left in 1913, after which the war resumed.
Shortly after Clark left, Jenkins was shot in the chest at his ranch house by a Chormicle partisan. He survived the attack.
The Duel With Billy Rose
Things came to a head March 8, 1913, when Chromicle ally William Lewis "Billy" Rose shot Jenkins in a pistol duel in Castaic Canyon.
As with the Chormicles, Jenkins had a running feud with the Rose family over disputed land. The families were described as being in "a state of armed neutrality" for a number of years, and numerous murderous threats had been made.
Rose accused Jenkins of offering large sums of money to have him killed. Jenkins said Rose never had any right to the land he claimed, based on a grazing permit.
Rose was brought to court on a charge of assault with intent to commit murder. His attorney, H.H. Appel, argued that his client was justified in drawing on Jenkins, "considering the reputation the latter bears in Castaic Canyon as a 'gun fighter.'"
After surviving his wounds, Jenkins appeared in court and testified: "I tried to get out my own gun, but the pesky thing worked slow. I fired two shots and think I would have got Rose, but just then came another bullet which cut my arm." Jenkins further claimed that as he rode up the canyon, Rose suddenly appeared ahead of him and called on him to stop. Then came a zip of bullets. The entire affair lasted five minutes.
Ironically, neither of the principals in the Castaic Range War were killed in the battles. Both died of natural causes. Jenkins perished quietly at age 81 on Oct. 19, 1916, from a cerebral embolism. It was previously thought that Chormicle was shot to death in 1916, an act for which Jenkins was suspected. However, a recent review of Chormicle's death certificate shows he actually died from chronic kidney disease on March 25, 1919. He is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale.
Neither Jenkins nor Chormicle died with his boots on.