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"John Marsh Not Only Witnessed California’s Formative Period – He Helped Create It"

John Marsh was one of the most impactful American and California pioneers that most people have never heard of. Marsh was born on June 5, 1799, in South Danvers, Mass.  He eventually became a teacher, Indian agent, justice of the peace, frontier doctor, merchant, husband, father, rancher, and influential advocate for California statehood. His timeline includes many American and Californian firsts.


Marsh was the son of a farmer but wanted more in life. He persuaded his father to let him attend several boarding schools to study religion. After graduation he was accepted into Harvard.


During his sophomore year, Marsh became the first and only person to be expelled (for protesting) and readmitted to Harvard. His readmittance was based on the condition that he refrain from participating in student disturbances.

​On his return to Harvard, Marsh knew that he wanted more than the sedentary life of a minister and changed from religion to medicine. Along with the anatomy courses he added to his studies, he gained medical skills studying with a doctor in Boston.


After graduating as valedictorian from Harvard in 1823, Marsh was offered a post as the first schoolmaster at Fort St. Anthony (renamed Fort Snelling in 1825), a raw frontier post in the Michigan Territory (now known as Minnesota). He accepted the post believing he could save enough money over the next two years to return to medical school. He was the first Harvard graduate to go to the frontier.


Marsh was appointed Indian sub-agent for Indian Affairs. He was a good linguist and was soon speaking the Sioux language fluently. He fell in love with the Sioux people and in particular, Marguerite Decouteaux, a beautiful French-Sioux woman. He took Marguerite as his common-law wife, and she bore him a son named Charles in 1826. Marsh taught her to read and write and together they wrote the first Sioux dictionary.


In 1824, he was appointed justice of the peace by Territorial Governor Lewis Cass. He also continued his medical studies under Dr. Purcell at Fort Snelling but did not complete them, as his mentor passed away.


Eventually, Marsh settled along the Mississippi River in Prairie du Chien, Wisc. with his family and opened a store stocked with guns, rifles, ammunition and merchandise. He learned of an impending attack by the Fox and Sauk on the Sioux and sent Marguerite to warn the Sioux. His warning became known and Marsh was blamed for the Sioux massacre of the Fox and Sauk. For the safety of his family, Marsh was forced to relocate his wife and son to New Salem, Ill., while he returned to the Prairie du Chien. 


In 1831, Marguerite attempted to walk to Prairie du Chien while pregnant and she and the baby girl died after the birth. Devastated, Marsh entrusted a family in New Salem to raise Charles until Marsh settled out west and could send for him.


Before he left, it was discovered that Marsh was illegally selling firearms to the Sioux and a warrant was issued for his arrest. With authorities closing in, he joined a party of fur trappers and made his way to Missouri. From there he traversed the Santa Fe Trail and made his way to the pueblo of Los Angeles in the Mexican province of Alta California.

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Santa Fe Trail

Courtesy of the Santa Fe Trail Association. Artwork by Doug Holdread


In 1836, when Marsh finally arrived in Alta California, he had exhausted all his funds. Penniless, and seeing a need for a doctor in the pueblo, Marsh presented himself as a physician and surgeon to the ayuntamiento. 


As his Harvard BA degree was in Latin and could not be translated, after two weeks Marsh was finally granted permission by the Mexican authorities to practice medicine. He was credited as the first doctor to practice Western medicine in California.


He was paid for his services with tallow and hides, the only currency used at the time. Less than a year later, Marsh tired of his poor surroundings, sold his tallow and hides to a Boston trader for $500 and headed north in search of ranch land.


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Wanting to own a cattle ranch, Marsh tucked his $500 of gold earnings into his belt and made his way north. As Mexican law required that any foreigner wishing to be a landowner had to first be baptized Catholic, Marsh decided to be baptized. After his baptism, Marsh purchased Rancho Los Meganos from Jose Noriega in 1837 for $500, with this purchase he became the first American settler to own land in what would become Contra Costa County. This began his life as a rancher and farmer and the first to plant wheat, grapes and figs in Contra Costa.


The land grant encompassed an area four leagues long and three leagues wide, from the Mount Diablo foothills to the banks of the San Joaquin River. By 1848, Marsh had acquired 17,000 acres of land and by 1851 his rancho spanned over 50,000 acres (when California became a state, Marsh claimed his land, but it ended up in a major court battle, as most Mexican land-grant claims did. In 1868, 12 years after Marsh's death, the courts cut his rancho down to 13,316 acres).

As gold-seekers flooded California in search of riches, Marsh established the first shipping port along the San Joaquin River, not far from the convergence of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers. On the land around the pier, Marsh built a residence for his mayordomo, rodeo grounds, and both a slaughter and smoke house. Daily shipments of beeves, smoked hams, grain, vegetables and grapes left Marsh's Landing on their way to the gold mines and San Francisco.

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Marsh’s home became the first terminus of the historic California Trail. Needing American neighbors to make California a state, Marsh wrote letters to newspapers back east extolling California’s virtues. They inspired the first trans-Sierra emigrants, the Bidwell-Bartleson party, to head west from Missouri, arriving at Marsh’s adobe on November 4, 1841.

Throughout the Mexican war with the Californians, Marsh spoke to the ranks of Americans trying to convince them not to fight for the Mexicans. At the Battle of Cahuenga, when Marsh saw Americans in southern California had joined the ranks of the Californians, he finally was able to convince all the Americans on both sides not to fight. Cornered and with a lack of supplies and men, Mexican Governor Micheltorena finally surrendered and was deported to Mexico.


Marsh then lobbied for California's statehood; he wrote “A call to foreigners” that rallied men to stage the Bear Flag Revolt. But before their plan could fully mature, James Polk became president and vowed to annex California into the Union.

When he learned of this, Marsh wrote a letter to his old friend Lewis Cass, now a U.S. senator, of the resources of the west coast – the fertile lands and rivers and the mild climate. But most of all, if the U.S. didn't take possession of California, he feared it would be lost to the British. Marsh's letter was copied and recopied in newspapers throughout the United States. It was this letter which prompted President Polk to move forward with taking California from Mexico.


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After the end of the Mexican American War, Marsh began to search for his son, Charles. But, this search proved fruitless. In 1851, Marsh was introduced to Abigail Smith Tuck, whom he married two weeks later. A year later, their daughter Alice Francis was born.


Marsh began building a Stone House for Abby to replace the original adobe on his ranch. It was the first stone house in California and the architectural bridge between the earlier adobes and the later wood-frame houses. Construction began in 1853 and was completed in 1856. Unfortunately, Abby died in 1855, a year before the house was completed.


One stormy night, in the middle of 1856, a knock came at Marsh’s door. It was his son Charles. The two were finally reunited after two decades apart.


Marsh lived in the house for only three weeks before he was murdered. On September 24, 1856, Marsh was travelling from his ranch to Martinez for an appointment. On the road near Pacheco, he was accosted by three vaqueros about disputed wages. They robbed and murdered him and left him in a ditch. After his driverless carriage arrived in Martinez, his body was later discovered in that ditch on the side of the road. 



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