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Courtesy of the Leonis Adobe Museum

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When Calabasas was the Wild West

Long before the Kardashians and Justin Bieber made it famous, Calabasas was a lawless land of ruthless homesteaders

In 1890, a man named J.W. Foster, using the pen name Foot Hill Settler, penned three essays for the Los Angeles Herald. In the essays he told of the goings on in the rural settlement of Calabasas, “a picturesque and fertile region” 30 miles northwest of Downtown Los Angeles. Mr. Isaac “Judge” Ijams, “the genial postmaster and station keeper,” had just harvested a good crop of barley and wheat, and having “faith in these foothills as a fruit growing district,” had planted a variety of fruit trees. His “prepossessing” teenage daughter Nettie worked as the area’s postmistress and as head of the “committee of socialization.” She was planning a picnic basket dinner behind the new schoolhouse for July 4. Mike Lorden, the owner of the new general store, was “determined that the Calabasas boys shall not go dry on these hot summer days, so he has put up a sideboard in a little back room, where the boys can get beverages to suit the taste.”

This Mayberry-esque narrative hid a darker reality. "They had a terrible fight down on the ranch where the boys are at work a few days ago," Judge Ijams, who would serve a long stint as Justice of the Peace, wrote that same year, describing the everyday violence that gripped the big valley. "One man got his nose bit off, one ear, and his eye pulled out, besides his cheek mutilated—all about a seat at a table." Within 10 years, the comely Nettie would be dead of illness. Mike Lorden would also be dead, murdered during a botched robbery attempt at his store.

The "wars of Calabasas" began with the arrival of Miguel Leonis, known variously as El Basco Grand, the Big Basque, and the King of Calabasas. Born in France in 1822, the handsome and shrewd Leonis had but one goal—"to one day be a ranchero, owner of many acres of land." His dream became a reality in 1860, when he married the widowed Maria del Espiritu Santo in a Native American ceremony. Espiritu, as she was called, was the daughter of Odon, a member of the Chumash tribe who owned one-third of the 1,100-acre Rancho El Escorpion in the western San Fernando Valley. In 1871, Leonis bought the rancho from Odon, while he treated his wife as little more than a "faithful housekeeper."

Over the next two decades, Leonis would ruthlessly acquire more and more land in the Calabasas area, just past the western edge of the San Fernando Valley, becoming the wealthy ranchero he had always dreamed of being. Since most of the area was empty government land open to homesteading, Leonis would simply build a shack on a desired plot and send a retainer to live there and claim it. Leonis would then claim the land for himself, since he had paid for the squatter’s shack in the first place.

With the arrival of more settlers in the late 1870s and 1880s, Leonis (who never had an official title to his land) resorted to diverse tactics to drive off the new homesteaders. According to Calabasas historian Catherine Mulholland, between 1856 and his death in 1889, Leonis was in no less than 30 lawsuits over real estate issues.

Leonis was known to wine and dine officials of the court to sway the outcome of these suits. When legal tactics didn’t work, which was often the case since Leonis did not own much of the land he claimed, the Big Basque resorted to more primitive means to scare homesteaders off "his" land. A settler named Mrs. Mountain recalled the elegantly turned-out Leonis galloping towards her on his big black horse, rounding up his long horned cattle to chase her into her nearby shack. A woman named Mrs. Strausbinger would never forget how Leonis would chase her with a butcher knife whenever she dared go outside. Fires would mysteriously start on homesteaders’ fields, and new neighbors would be roughed up by Leonis employees.

Between 1890 and 1900, there would be seven murders, dozens of assaults and countless acts of violence in Calabasas.

These new settlers came from France, Spain, Mexico, Germany, the East Coast, and Midwest in search of their piece of the American pie. The Homestead Act, signed into law in 1862, had opened up thousands of acres of land in the West to the public at large. Each homesteader was promised 160 free acres of unclaimed federal land. In order to officially own the land, the homesteader was required to live on the property for five years and improve it with farms and fields. By the 1880s, much of the most desirable land in Southern California had already been claimed, and pioneers began settling further into the San Fernando Valley. However, a lack of government regulation, confusion over the rules, and fights over the most fertile land meant that borders were poorly defined and individual ownership was constantly contested.

One new settler who was unafraid of Miguel Leonis—or anyone else for that matter—was a former showgirl from San Francisco named Anna Leffingwell. The glamorous Leffingwell arrived in Calabasas in 1885, and soon married a homesteader with 160 acres. "Her silk skirts and ladylike appearance cast an unusual shadow upon the hills," historian Laura B. Gaye wrote, and the small satchel she always carried was rumored to hold a pistol. Her husband soon died, and Leffingwell shacked up with the homesteader next door, who also died mysteriously.

Eventually, Leffingwell owned 400 acres, which she protected with a fury that terrified her neighbors. She would keep any cow that dared stray on her land, and if the owner came to claim it she would scare him away with her shotgun. Taking a page from Leonis, she would simply send people to squat on land that she wanted. Always crafty, she would limp down the road so that people would give her a ride, even though she walked briskly on her own property. According to Mulholland, her constant fights with the King of Calabasas reached their peak in 1888:

In February 1888, she…tangled with Miguel Leonis and brought a battery and property damage suit against him, demanding $5000 in compensation for his driving his cattle across her property and destroying her fences. She also testified that after she had asked him to desist, he called her "bad names" and pushed her over. Then, she recounted, one of his employees…had kicked at her prostrate body and mistreated her.

The Leonis Adobe Museum today.

She was still battling with Leonis in court in 1889 when he was crushed to death by a wagon loaded with wood. Espiritu stayed at the family adobe (now the Leonis Adobe Museum) with her son, Juan, and mounted a 16-year legal campaign to win a rightful share of the estate, which her husband had cruelly left to relatives in France. She finally prevailed, but died only seven months later, almost all of the estate depleted due to legal fees.

While tough-minded characters like Leonis and Leffingwell thrived in rough and tumble Calabasas, for many it was a dusty, exhausting life full of backbreaking work and isolation. Until 1893, the nearest post office was Colegrove (now part of Hollywood). It was hard to get teachers out to the one-room schoolhouse. Much of the land was unsuitable for farming, and the well water turned everything the unappealing color of rust. During droughts the area suffered enormously, and boredom permeates many pioneers’ letters. "Well I suppose I will have to begin on my hobby, the chickens and turkeys," Edith Ijams wrote dejectedly to her daughter. "They are all dying again. Oh! I do feel so blue sometimes that I would like to turn my back on Calabasas forever."

calabasas post office Courtesy of the Calabasas-Las Virgenes Historical Society

With the death of Leonis, one would think that Calabasas would have calmed down—but in reality, the drama was just beginning as the arrival of more and more homesteaders and laborers led to more and more disputes. Between 1890 and 1900, there would be seven murders, dozens of assaults, and countless acts of violence in Calabasas. The 1892 murder of Charles Gannon became a sensation in all of Los Angeles, and helped kick off gleefully exploitative press coverage of "the most lawless locality in the county" that would last for a decade. According to Mulholland:

Charles Gannon was a young man, who after only a month in California, found employment on Ann Leffingwell’s ranch. Soon after, he set eyes on land already claimed by an older man, L. Fletcher, who had been on this claim for four years and built himself a little shanty where he lived when he was not off on teamster jobs. During Fletcher’s absence on a family visit to Hollister, young Gannon moved in, tore down the shanty and began to erect his own. When Fletcher returned, he tried to convince the young man to move on, and failing that, sought out neighbors who agreed to go as a body to parley with this young interloper. On the appointed evening, as the group approached the site to meet Gannon and Fletcher, they heard shots and found Gannon dead on the stoop of his cabin.

Amazingly, Fletcher got off when it was decided Gannon had died because of "his erroneous belief that he had a right to the land simply because it was government property." The killing of Mike Lorden also made the press, as did the murder of Ramon Veldez, who was stabbed to death at Colon’s Dance Hall, where itinerant workers held raucous parties. When Veldez’s murderers were found not guilty, the local press intoned, "Another Calabasas killing that will go unavenged."

Courtesy of the Leonis Adobe Museum

And where was the law in all this Wild West drama? During the 1890s, the Constable of Calabasas was a man named Harvey Branscomb, "who had made a reputation for himself by proceeding in a most vigorous manner…his prisoners generally looked as though they had gone through a war or monkeyed with the business end of a mule." Branscomb’s fee was based on how many violations he reported, and many believed that he and his "posse" spent a good deal of time stirring up trouble in order to make more money.

Branscomb was involved in many land feuds himself, including one that a reporter referred to as a "farce comedy." At the trial, which hinged on Branscomb’s accusation that a cut fence had caused him to lose several horses, Branscomb rambled on for so long that the defense attorney objected. In response, Branscomb shouted, "I’m here to tell the whole truth, and I’m going to tell it." According to Mulholland, the courtroom descended into chaos and Branscomb and his neighbor shouted back and forth:

Branscomb: (after trying and failing to introduce a map or chart into evidence) That fence was cut several times, and this time I was watching for him.

N.M. Richardson: (shouting) Yes, I cut the fence, and I’ll do it as often as I want to go through. He ain’t got the right to fence in government property, and that’s a regular road, anyway. The last time I went through I saw him laying up with a Winchester waiting for me, but he was too cowardly to come out and…

Branscomb: I think you’re a liar!

The judge eventually dismissed the suit, fed up with the petty feuding of these two neighbors. But this fight, as trivial as it may seem, underlined the very serious problems that occurred when the government left homesteaders largely to their own devices. In one of his essays for the Los Angeles Herald, J.W. Foster echoed the sentiments of many settlers, who were unsure if they even owned their land, let alone what its boundaries were:

We are sorely puzzled to find out why our government does not take hold at once and straighten out these land matters in the west end of this county. This is fine dairy country, and is also good for wheat barley, and from the present outlook will make a fine fruit county. It is a generally well-watered country, and water can be secured by digging at a depth of from ten to sixty feet. If the land could be put on the market so that the settlers could secure a title to their homes, it would be a great blessing to the people, and a large benefit to the city of Los Angeles.

calabasas golf Ricardo Dearatanha/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

By the late 1890s, the responsible citizens of Calabasas had had enough of their town’s reputation as a dangerous backwater. Branscomb was voted out of office in 1898, and many homesteaders finally received official deeds to their land. In 1902, Harry C. Carr reported that the restless "Judge Isaac Ijams was retiring as Justice of the Peace, after declaring it had become so peaceful that there was nothing to do, and that a Justice of the Peace was now nothing more than ‘an ornament’."

And so the Wild West days of Calabasas slowly faded into memory. Today, Calabasas is best known as the home of upscale strip malls and the made-for-reality-TV drama of the Kardashians. If only the cameras had been around in the days of Leonis and Leffingwell—now that would have been some good TV.

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler

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