by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This afternoon, I took part in an interesting presentation at the Newhall public library in Santa Clarita, sponsored by the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society and the Historical Society of Southern California, on the Jenkins brothers, Charles and William.
A quartet of speakers, including me, SCVHS president Dr. Alan Pollack, Louis DiDonato, and Wayne Sherman, talked to a group of about 40 persons about the remarkable history of these two men.
The catalyst for the presentation was the discovery of a diary kept by Charles Jenkins from January through September 1865 when he had the distinction of being the only Los Angeles-area resident to see combat for the Union Army during the Civil War.
As detailed here on this blog in a ten-part series at the beginning of this year and now in print in a two-part series of the fully transcribed diary in the Southern California Quarterly, the journal of the Historical Society of Southern California, the document gives a rare glimpse into the life of a soldier in the field.
After my brief introduction explaining how the diary came to light after over 60 years buried in a box in the possession of the HSSC, Louis DiDonato, who published a biography of Jenkins in the Southern California Quarterly a decade ago (without anyone knowing the diary was in the possession of the Society), gave a great overview of Jenkins’ life.
Louis was followed by Wayne Sherman, whose chance encounter with Jenkins memorabilia in a Solvang antique store twenty years ago, led to his amassing quite a collection of material relating to Jenkins and Californians who participated in the war. Wayne provided an excellent discussion about how he came across these rare artifacts, including photographs, certificates and more, and about how he became Charles Jenkins in reenactments.
Then, we switched over to talking about Charles’ fascinating older brother, William. I talked about William’s involvement in one of the most controversial incidents of 1850s frontier Los Angeles. As a deputized constable serving a civil writ of attachment on a debt of $50 upon Antonio Ruiz, Jenkins got embroiled in a dispute with Ruiz and the latter’s live-in girlfriend, Maria Candelaria Pollorena. As the fight became physical and Ruiz grabbed Jenkins from behind, William whipped out a pocket pistol, reached over his shoulder and fired, mortally wounding Ruiz.
In the frenzied atmosphere that followed, while Jenkins was jailed, a mob of enraged Spanish-speaking and French citizens gathered on a hill overlooking Los Angeles and threatened to storm the jail and lynch William, while town leaders formed a defense committee in response. In a brief skirmish, the city marshal was wounded, but tensions soon calmed. Jenkins was tried on manslaughter charges and acquitted, as was the ringleader, Fernando Carriaga, of the hilltop mob.
A year-and-a-half later, that same marshal, William Getman, who was also the newly elected sheriff (the only time in Los Angeles history that the town marshal was also the county sheriff–albeit very briefly), responded to a report of an insane man holed up in a building. Getman, only a few weeks into his tenure as sheriff, courageously but foolishly engaged the man without much backup, and was instantly shot and killed. His few deputies responded, including William Jenkins, who was on the roof of the structure, and killed the assailant.
The other topic I discussed was Jenkins’ role in a strange incident involving Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. In June 1846, Governor Pío Pico granted the island to William Workman, whose home is here at the Homestead. Workman then turned Alcatraz over to his son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple. After the American conquest of Mexican California, Congress passed a land claims act, requiring all owners of property granted under Spain and Mexico to file a claim before a commission. Temple didn’t file a claim because he thought he had sold the island to the U.S. under an I.O.U. of $5,000 from John C. Frémont, who claimed authority in California after the conquest. However, Frémont announced he would.
Temple then responded by asserting his ownership, half of which he sold to future California governor John G. Downey. Downey then sold half of his interest to William Jenkins, who also wound up being Temple’s estate administrator for a time in the 1880s. Jenkins and Temple’s son, John, then hatched a scheme to claim compensation for the island by hiring an attorney and giving him original documents about the island’s grant to Workman. Mysteriously, some of the documents vanished and the claim didn’t go anywhere.
It didn’t actually matter, because Frémont was court-martialed for many reasons, including his “purchase” of Alcatraz and because President Millard Fillmore declared the island a federal military possession. Alcatraz remains a federal property as a national park.
After my talk, Alan Pollack gave a very fine summary of the Castaic Range War, involving William Jenkins and a man who challenged Jenkins’ claim of land near Lake Castaic, north of Santa Clarita. Gunbattles, duels, court cases, and so on drove the feud for years with Jenkins losing the legal side. As Alan observed, though, while there were up to twenty deaths associated with the Range War, Jenkins and his adversary, Chormicle, both died natural deaths (or, as Alan aptly expressed it, “with their boots off”).
It was an excellent afternoon of local history from several vantage points and elements. The Jenkins road show continues on Saturday, 17 September at 10 a.m. at the Drum Barracks historic site in Wilmington and then on Wednesday, 9 November at 5 p.m. at Chapman University’s library, which has an excellent war letters collection.
For more information on these events, check the HSSC website here.