Forget the Dodge City War and Wyatt Earp’s Vendetta Ride. Forget 1892’s Johnson County War in Wyoming or Arizona’s Sheep War. Forget the legendary Hatfield-McCoy feud that ran from 1880 to 1891, claiming nearly two dozen lives.

America’s biggest range war was right here, in Castaic. It ran from 1887 to 1916 and claimed the lives of between 21 and 40 people.

Two patriarchs were behind the feud.

William “Wirt” Jenkins was a colorful lawman, rancher, entrepreneur and conman. In 1850, he was part of the Newhall contingent of lawmen, The California Rangers, hired to clean up Los Angeles by shooting, hanging, bludgeoning or driving out anyone they suspected of being trouble. Jenkins looked like the old character actor, Gabby Hayes and was married to a gorgeous young wife, Olive Rhodes. Earlier, Jenkins earned the nickname “Baron of Alcatraz” for unsuccessfully trying to homestead the island. He made a tidy sum, selling cats to rat-infested San Francisco. Wirt was Castaic’s Judge Roy Bean, a vigilante who dressed fashionably, carried two guns, rifle and brace of throwing knives in his vest. His Lazy Z Ranch sat at the present-day Stonebridge development.

Wirt’s nemesis?

William Chormicle, a rough-and-tumble frontiersman whose parents had been killed by Indians. As a boy, he survived an arrow lodged in his neck. We’re spoiled by Westerns. Cowboys rarely rode around with fast-draw holsters. It got in work’s way. But Chormicle, like Jenkins, always carried two holstered pistols and high-powered rifle. Chormicle’s ranch would be underneath Castaic Lake today.

Some say their feud began with a trio of Jenkins’ men illegally building a line shack on Chormicle’s property. Two of Jenkins’ men were killed. Most strangely, it was “Judge” Jenkins who presided over the initial inquest. The trial was moved to L.A. Ancestors claim people were so terrified of Chormicle, they wouldn’t testify against him. He and his men were acquitted.

But the hatred began earlier.

Jenkins was always trying to control northern Santa Clarita. He discovered a technicality that federal swampland could be purchased for pennies — if surveyed by boat. Old Wirt did just that. Except he tied the boat to a team of horses to survey the “swamps” by present-day Magic Mountain. Chormicle and other ranches snitched on him.

In the rugged hills of Castaic, life became a quiet hell for decades, with surprise raids, gunfights and assassinations. That’s where the anomaly of numbers arises — some murders couldn’t be directly attributed to the feud.

Not even women were safe. One innocent girl was killed in a crossfire. Another, running a cattle drive, was threatened with lynching (as was anyone who would dare threaten to lynch her). For years, Bouquet Canyon was called “Hangman’s Canyon” because one of the cowboys was captured and lynched there.

After at least 22 murders, in 1905, Theodore Roosevelt sent a special forest ranger, Robert Clark, to negotiate an end to the range war. Clark was given a special holster and pearl-handled revolvers by the president, who vacationed here in the SCV. Clark didn’t settle it. The patriarchs just died.

It’s hard to imagine how tough these two patriarchs were. After ordering the burning of Chormicle’s foreman’s home (with his family in it), Jenkins was shot, point blank, on his porch, by Chormicle.

He survived.

In 1916, Wirt met a young cowboy, Billie Rose, on a lonely dirt road. Unkind words were exchanged and Rose shot him several times. Thinking the rancher dead, Rose hid in a Elizabeth Lake cave for six months.

But Jenkins was simply too tough to die from something as venial as seven bullets. He died in L.A. at the age of 84 in 1919 from an illness. Possibly lead poisoning?


Some reports hold he was shot to death in the feud. A death certificate reportedly showed he died of kidney failure on March 25, 1919. He would have been 79.

However, a report from the 1920s tells of an old-timer named William Chormicle living in a shack in Castaic’s wilderness. From inside his home, he shot a 600-pound bear, who died and blocked his only air and entrance — his front door. Chormicle took three days to whittle his way through the thick walls with a hunting knife and make it back to civilization.