John Marsh (pioneer)
John Marsh in 1852
Danvers, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
|Occupation||Medical Doctor, Rancher|
|Known for||Early California pioneer|
|Spouse(s)||Abigail Smith Tuck|
“Doctor” John Marsh was born in 1799 in South Danvers, Massachusetts and died in Pacheco, California in 1856. He was an early pioneer and settler in California, and although he did not have a medical degree, is often regarded as the first person to practice medicine in California.
Marsh migrated west, living in the Michigan Territory, where he opened a school, the first in what is now Minnesota. Marsh then became an Indian agent for the Sioux Agency at Fort Snelling, and took a French/Indian mistress named Marguerite, who bore him a son named Charles.
Marsh resumed his study of medicine, with a Dr. Purcell of Fort Snelling, but never received a certificate because of his mentor's death. He lived in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, where he got involved in the Black Hawk War between the Sioux and their rivals, the Fox and Sauk, and was blamed for a massacre of the Fox and Sauk by the Sioux. As a result, he was forced to flee to New Salem, Illinois, taking his mistress and small child with him. Leaving them there, he returned to Prairie du Chien. His mistress, pregnant again and abandoned by her lover, tried to walk for several hundred miles to rejoin him. The journey exhausted her and she and the child died in childbirth. Marsh then gave his small son to a Painter family in New Salem to be raised, and once again became involved in Indian affairs. He was discovered selling guns illegally to some of the Indians and had to flee the territory, this time settling in Independence, Missouri, where he became a merchant. He visited his son once more, then his business failed and in 1836 he emigrated, in the employ of the American Fur Company to Santa Fe, New Mexico and thence to Southern California via the Santa Fe Trail.
In southern California, Marsh found that he was the only person who had any knowledge of western medicine. He presented his Harvard degree to the local Mexican Government of Alta California. The degree was written in Latin, which none of the local authorities could read, so they took his word and granted him permission to practice medicine. Marsh was quite successful in his new profession, but his prices were very high, sometimes as much as a head of cattle to deliver a baby. Nevertheless he is credited as being the first person to practice medicine in Los Angeles.
Eventually he made enemies in Southern California and moved north in 1836, first to Mission San Jose (now in the city of Fremont, California). In 1838 he acquired the Rancho Los Meganos, a Mexican land grant, from Jose Noriega on what is now called Marsh Creek on the western edge of the town of Brentwood and just to the east of what is now Clayton, California (acquisition of the rancho seems to indicate that Marsh had become a naturalized Mexican citizen). The price was said to be $300 in cowhides. He thus became the first non-Hispanic white settler in what is now Contra Costa County.
Marsh prospered there, but once again engaged in sharp business practices. He began to practice medicine, and again charged very high prices. There is some evidence that he cared for some of the survivors of the Donner Party while living near Mount Diablo. Marsh acquired tens of thousands of head of cattle and lived the life of a wealthy ranchero. In addition, he paid very low wages to his workers, and many of them hated him. However, in 1841, when the first American emigrant party, the Bartleson-Bidwell Party, came to California from Missouri, Marsh invited them to be his guests, and thus the California Trail terminated in Brentwood.
Marsh worked behind the scenes to promote American statehood, at the urging of U.S. consul Thomas O. Larkin, and in March 1845 wrote a letter signed by himself and 23 other expatriates, announcing a clandestine meeting for the Fourth of July. This letter has been designated the “Call To Foreigners” by modern historians. While Marsh does not take credit as the author it is universally agreed that it is his work. The meeting’s purpose was to, “promote the union and harmony and best interests of all the foreigners resident in California...”
During this period he began a search for his son, Charles, which proved to be fruitless. In 1851, the Reverend William W. Smith introduced Marsh to Abigail "Abby" Smith Tuck, a schoolteacher from New England, who also served as principal at a girls school in San Jose. After a brief two-week courtship, they were married. Soon after the wedding, the couple moved into the old adobe. On 12 March 1852, she gave birth to a daughter they named Alice.
John Marsh House
Marsh soon began construction of a magnificent home built entirely of stone quarried from the nearby hills. Abby chose the location of the home next to Marsh Creek, with a fine view of the surrounding valley and Mount Diablo, a few miles south of the present city of Brentwood, California. Designed by San Francisco architect Thomas Boyd, the 7,000 square feet (650 m2) Gothic-Revival style home incorporated a 65 feet (20 m) tower and exterior porch supported by octagon pillars. The entire cost of the home did not exceed $20,000. Abby died in 1855, however, before the Stone House was completed. Marsh ultimately moved into the new house about three weeks before he was murdered.
His son and daughter inherited the ranch and stone house in which they lived, but who apparently let the property fall into disrepair and decay, and eventually became renters. They were visited in May, 1862 by William Henry Brewer and the California Geological Survey. The mansion, undergoing stabilization since 2006, still stands as part of Cowell Ranch/John Marsh Property State Historic Park which is preparing to apply for status as a National Historic Monument. The park includes 3,659 acres (1,481 ha) of natural habitat. The Mansion is on the list of National Historic Places, and funds are being sought for restoration. It is not open to the public.
Marsh was active in California politics. On 24 September 1856, he began a journey from his land in eastern Contra Costa County to San Francisco for a personal or political appointment. On the road between Pacheco and Martinez, he was ambushed and murdered by three of his vaquero employees over a dispute about their wages. A California Historical Landmark (#722) plaque still marks the site of the murder.
According to local tradition, shortly before his death, a young man approached his door seeking shelter from a harsh storm. It was his son Charles, who had journeyed to California in search of his father. They enjoyed a happy, although short-lived reunion. Charles tracked down his father’s murderer, Felipe Moreno, and brought him to justice.
An elementary school in Antioch, California bears Marsh's name.
- George D. Lyman (1930). John Marsh, pioneer: The life story of a trail-blazer on six frontiers. Scribner's & Sons.
- "Find-A-Grave Memorial:John Marsh" Retrieved July 4, 2013.
- William H. Brewer (1966). Francis P. Farquhar, ed. Up and Down California, The Journal of William H. Brewer, 3rd edition. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. pp. 271–273. ISBN 978-0-520-23865-7.
- Nolte, Carl. San Francisco Chronicle. "CONTRA COSTA COUNTY / Remembering colorful but unpopular pioneer / Slain 150 years ago, man, his home are focus of coming park." September 24, 2006. Retrieved July 4, 2013.
- Kathleen J. Mero. "A Few Words about John Marsh, a California Founding Father". Retrieved June 12, 2010.
- California Department of Parks and Recreation. "Cowell Ranch/John Marsh Property State Historic Park."
- Erwin G. Gudde, William Bright (1949). California Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. p. 228.
- John Marsh Trust
- Cowell Ranch/John Marsh Property State Historic Park
- San Francisco Chronicle article on John Marsh
- Guide to the Marsh Family Papers at The Bancroft Library
- John Marsh at utah.gov
- John Marsh House