John Marsh (pioneer)

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John Marsh
John Marsh, Pioneer, 1852.jpg
John Marsh in 1852
Born 1799
Danvers, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
Died 1856
Pacheco, California
Alma mater Harvard
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.[1]

Early life[edit]

Marsh graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover in 1819. He attended Harvard University from 1819 to 1823 and received a bachelor’s degree. Colbruno writes that Marsh was dismissed from Harvard for participating in a student uprising. He was readmitted in 1821, after promising not to engage in any further disturbances. He originally planned to study for the ministry, but changed his major to medicine after his readmission.[2] He then studied medicine with a Boston doctor.[3]

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 Decouteaux, who bore him a son named Charles.[2][3]

Marsh resumed his study of medicine, with a Dr. Purcell, post doctor for Fort Snelling, but never received a certificate because of his mentor died before Marsh finished his studies.[2] 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.[1] 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.[4]

In California[edit]

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.[4]

Eventually he made enemies in southern California and moved north in 1836, to Mission San Jose (now in the city of Fremont, California). One source reports that he sold his medical practice for $500 and converted to the Roman Catholic religion before leaving southern California.[5][6] 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).[citation needed] 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.[7]

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.[8]

John Marsh left a very unfavorable impression on John Bidwell, who reportedly said, "John Marsh is the meanest man I ever met. " However, Marsh was apparently enrage after finding that Bartleson-Bidwell Party had eaten one of his prize oxen.[9]

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..."[8]

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 on June 24, 1851. Soon after the wedding, the couple moved into the old adobe. On 12 March 1852, she gave birth to a daughter they named Alice Frances.[10]

John Marsh House[edit]

John Marsh house (ca 1870)

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 octagonal pillars. The entire cost of the home did not exceed $20,000. Abby died in 1855, however, before the Stone House was completed.[7] 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.[4] The mansion, undergoing stabilization since 2006, still stands as part of the Marsh Creek State Park, formerly known as 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.[11] The mansion is on the list of National Historic Places, and funds are being sought for restoration. It is not open to the public, as of January 2015.


Plaque marking the site of his murder

Marsh was active in California politics. On September 24, 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.[3] Two of the killers were found ten years later and brought to trial. One man turned state's evidence and was released without trial. The other was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, though he was pardoned 25 years later. The third man was never caught.[10] A California Historical Landmark (#722) plaque still marks the site of the murder.

Both John and Abigail Marsh are buried in Mountain View Cemetery, in Oakland, California.[3]


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.

Alice Marsh was entrusted to the care of a Mrs. Thompson at Marsh’s Landing, not far from present day Antioch, California. As a young woman, Alice Marsh moved to Oakland, where she married John Camron, one of the builders of Mt. Diablo toll road. Camron lost her fortune in some bad real estate transactions. The couple divorced, and Alice never remarried.[10]

Marsh Creek, a stream in Contra Costa County, is named for John Marsh.[12]

An elementary school in Antioch, California bears Marsh's name.

The California State Route 4 around the cities of Oakley, California and Brentwood, California has been named John Marsh Heritage Highway in honor of Dr. Marsh.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b George D. Lyman (1930). John Marsh, pioneer: The life story of a trail-blazer on six frontiers. Scribner's & Sons. 
  2. ^ a b c [ Colbruno, Michael "Lives of the Dead: Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland."] December 12, 2009. Retrieved January 26, 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d "Find-A-Grave Memorial:John Marsh" Retrieved July 4, 2013.
  4. ^ a b c 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. 
  5. ^ Osborne, Thomas J. Pacific Eldorado: A History of Greater California. 2013. John Wiley & Sons. Retrieved February 4, 2015.
  6. ^ id=INjbmuwIlxAC&pg=PA33&lpg=PA33&dq=%22John+Marsh%22+California+Catholic+convert&source=bl&ots=Mpuzpn6pf4&sig=_k6juCfHluhsrOojJJIrc7xXUbg&hl=en&sa=X&ei=KoLSVPukC4TgggTpyYP4Cw&ved=0CCsQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=%22John%20Marsh%22%20California%20Catholic%20convert&f=false " California: Las Vegas,Reno, Baja California. 1999. ISBN 3-88618-143-X. p. 33.
  7. ^ a b 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.[1]
  8. ^ a b Kathleen J. Mero. "A Few Words about John Marsh, a California Founding Father". Retrieved June 12, 2010. 
  9. ^ Weinstein, Dave. "Saving the house that Marsh built." San Francisco Chronicle. December 7, 2002 Retrieved January 25, 2015.
  10. ^ a b c Mero, William. "Love, Life and Death on the California Frontier: A Woman's Life in Old Contra Costa." . Retrieved January 25, 2015.
  11. ^ California Department of Parks and Recreation. "Cowell Ranch/John Marsh Property State Historic Park."
  12. ^ Erwin G. Gudde, William Bright (1949). California Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. p. 228. 

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