For Lassen - a history of John Marsh
One of the most colorful and enigmatic pioneers of Contra Costa was the man who called himself Doctor John Marsh. He was a moody and tempermental man of many contradictions: he was an introspective scholar who lived a life of exciting action, a friend of the Indians who was uncivil to the Spaniards, and a misanthropic recluse who invited hundreds to come and live in his country. He read and studied for pleasure and yet gold was his God. He represented the intellectual traditions of New England but he could hold his own with any frontiersman in a fight; he spoke several languages including many Indian dialects, but he preferred to be alone and speak to no one. He was all this and more, and like many conformists before and after him, he was disliked and misunderstood by the majority, and loved by a few.
Marsh was born in Danvers, Massachusetts in 1800 (Record give both 1799 and 1800 as his birthdate.). He was brought up in the Calvinist tradition and studied to be a minister. He was a graduate of Phillips Academy and of Harvard, from which he graduated in 1823. In his senior year at Harvard he decided to become a doctor, so he took some courses in anatomy and medicine. Not having money to enroll in medical school, he took a job teaching at Fort Snelling located in the wilds of Minnesota, determined to save all his money and return to medical school. For two years, in addition to teaching, he studied medicine under the tutalage of Doctor Purcell, the post surgeon. However, Doctor Purcell died before Marsh could finish his studies.
Marsh remained on the frontier for nine years until 1832. During this period he had many adventures and occupations. He became an Indian agent, a close friend of the Sioux Indians, and ran a store for a short while before leaving the area. He kept up his scholarly work and wrote a dictionary and grammar of the Sioux language. He helped instigate the Black Hawk war and risked his life many times in conflicts with the Fox and Sauk tribes. He became a close friend of Governor Cass and was appointed Justice of Peace which meant that he was the only judge in the area.
In 1825, at Prarie du Chien, Wisconsin, he fell in love with Marguerite Decouteaux, a pretty French – Indian girl who became his common-law wife. She bore him a son, Charles. In 1832 tragedy entered his life when his wife, again pregnant, died. This tragic event left a strong impression upon his life and character, partly because he felt that if he had been more careful she would have lived. He became a bitter and cynical misanthrope who disregarded the rights of others and demanded the solitude to think and read his beloved books. Partly because of her death, and partly because a warrant was issued for his arrest (he was accused and was guilty of selling guns to the Indians), he decided to leave the area. He left Charles, who was then nine years old, with friends in Illinois, and spent a year trapping in the Rockies.
In 1833 he established himself as a general merchant in Independence, Missouri, but by 1835 he had gone bankrupt. Still apprehensive about the warrant, he decided to go to South America. He joined a caravan down the Santa Fe trail, was captured by a band of Comanche Indians, saved the chief’s life, and became their medicine man. After a few months, he escaped and decided to go to Alta California.
In February 1836, he entered El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora, La Reina de Los Angeles (The Pueblo of Our Lady, the Queen of the Angels) which was the capital of California. Marsh presented his Harvard Diploma to the Ayuntamiento who in turn gave him a license to practice medicine. The diploma was written in Latin, and the good governor and other officials, presumably unable to read Latin, accepted Marsh’s word that it was a medical certificate. However, Marsh was a complete hypocrite because he had received some medical training at Harvard and Fort Snelling, and his qualifications were high in a land where meical assistance was practically unknown and unavailable.
He practiced for nearly a year in the Los Angeles area, saved his money and headed north hoping to buy a ranch. This was rather difficult for a non-Californian to do. Before a foreigner could acquire land in California he had to be baptized as a Catholic, but the man who had once studied for the Calvinist pulpit and who had descended from seven generations of New England puritans, did not let this deter him. His religion meant little to him, while wealth meant a great deal. In December 1837, after becoming baptized as a Roman Catholic, he purchased the beautiful Rancho Los Medanos (Meganos) from a Spaniard named Jose Noriega for five hundred dollars.
There were two ranches called Los Medanos (the Sand Banks). Medanos is sometimes spelled Meganos, which also means sand banks. Later writers usually refer to the ranch purchased by Marsh as Los Meganos to distinguish it from the other Los Medanos.
This romantic and remote rancho extended from the shadow of Mount Diablo to the San Joaquin River, nine miles away, and consisted of 17,000 acres. Thus, Marsh became the first American to live in the Contra Costa area, and was the only American living in this region for nearly ten years.
Continuing his medical practice, Marsh built up a substantial practice and stocked his ranch with his earnings. His system of charging fees was very simple and quite unique: he charged one cow for every mile he had to travel to care for the sick. At this time cow hides were selling for $2.00 each. Despite his exorbitant fees, his services were increasingly in demand, partly because he was quite successful as a doctor, and partly because he was the only in the San Joaquin area.
He was uncivil and discourteous to the Spanish, and heartily, with one or two exceptions, disliked by them, but he was kind and helpful to the Indians, as he had been to the Indians of the Middle West. He even called his estate the Farm of Pulpones (evidently a corruption of Bolbones or Bolgones) after the Indian tribe which lived near Mount Diablo. He taught the Indians simple crafts and gave them medical care without charge.
In return for his kindness the natives built Marsh an adobe house on the banks of Marsh Creek opposite their village. With their help he planted a vineyard and an orchard, and sowed a field of wheat. For some time he lived with one of the Indian women, which brought down more censure upon his head. The Indians remained loyal until his death when they mourned the passing of a true friend.
The adobe home was a crude affair with four rooms, one which contained a fireplace and a wall of books. Night after night, sometimes until daylight, this man who had rejected the civilized amenities, read everything he could find. He voraciously studied books on a multitude of subjects, read old newspapers and magazines, and re-read his cherished Latin and Greek books.
In 1844 he became a naturalized Mexican citizen, but was dissatisfied with Mexican rule. Desirous of seeing California become part of the United States, he began writing letters to friends in the Middle West asking them to come to California. These letters were highly instrumental in starting a flood tide of wagon trains to California. One of the first wagon trains, led by Bidwell and Bartleson, arrived at Los Meganos in 1841. Marsh gave them a big welcome and a sumptious feed, and told them they could kill some of the steers for meat. The next morning, his ire was aroused when he found that they had killed, perhaps inadvertently, some of his valuable oxen. He immediately became uncivil, especially towards Bidwell whom he thought was responsible for the misdeed, and asked him to leave the premises. He also charged them for the food and services they had received.
Even though Marsh wanted the solitude to read and supervise his ranch, his life was far from uneventful. When he was not practicing medicine (and he often rode ninety miles to treat a patient), he and his vaqueros were fighting robbers and thieves, or feuding with the Spanish neighbors.
He sent for his son, but word came back that Charles was dead.
When gold was discovered he went to the Sierras, and dug up $40,000 worth of gold in a short while. However, he wanted more money than this, so he returned to his ranch, built a wharf and began to ship meat to the miners. He sold cattle for thirty to forty dollars per head, chickens for three and four dollars each, eggs for four dollars per dozen, and grapes at eighty-seven cents per pound. In a short while he had extended his ranch to 50,000 acres which was valued at one half million dollars, and owned about 6,000 cattle. He also had about 500 hogs, droves of fine horses and sheep and hundreds of chickens.
In 1851 he met an attractive, intelligent and well educated girl, Abigail Smith Tuck, who was a teacher – principal of a select school for young ladies at Santa Clara. They were perfectly mated, and their marriage, as had his prior one, started a new and happy life for him. Their only bone of contention was a religious one: she was a devout Baptist and she worried about his lack of interest in religion. They continued to live in the adobe, but he began to plan to plan a new home for his bride; this home was to be the show place of California and was to be built of the finest stone – not adobe. While this house was under construction, a daughter , Alice, was born. Some time after this wife sickened and died without seeing her new home. As when his first wife died, the doctor’s misfortunes began to increase; he had more trouble with thieves, squatters, and feuding, but there was one bright spot on this period of life. His son, Charles, whom he had thought was dead, turned up at Los Meganos. This event, a story in itself, reads like a fairy tale. This reunion did much to revive his spirits.
In 1856 the news tone home was completed. Shortly after, on his way to Martinez, Marsh was murdered by three young Californians, who was not only his enemies, but thought that he had a large sum of money on him. Charles spent ten years looking for his father’s murderers, and was able to capture two of them. One, Jose “Chino” Olivas, was released on a technicality, but the other, Felipe “Nino” Morena, was sent to prison for life. However, he was pardoned after twenty-five years.
Thus ends the strange story of one of the most unhappy and mysterious men of California, and all that remains today is the legend of the living man and deserted stone house which stands as a monument to him. This old “Stone House” sits in the open fields about four miles southeast of Brentwood, and is as cold and forbidding as was it’s master.
-Short History of Contra Costa county by Harold E. Davis