Pioneer's Life a Gold Mine for Historians

Times Staff Writer

John Marsh was one of those Yankee chameleons who made the years before California statehood so interesting for historians -- and so profitable for himself.

His adherents and critics have staked many a claim: that he was the first to compile a Sioux dictionary; that he was the first Harvard man in the Far West; that his glowing letters about California brought the first wagon train of settlers here long before the Gold Rush; and that he was, if only for a year, the first Yankee-trained physician in Los Angeles.

Marsh inspired a 1930 biography by George D. Lyman and piqued the interest of modern historian Kathleen Mero, who works for the John Marsh Historic Trust in Contra Costa County in Northern California.

"He was an educated man from a blueblood family, the last person you'd expect to be dealing with all the rough and tumble [of] ... the frontier," Mero said in an interview. "He was hungry for the wilderness, never satisfied, always kept going west."

Until he got to Mexican-governed California. "I have at last found the Far West and intend to end my ramblings here," he wrote to friends back East.

Some Contra Costa County residents want to turn Marsh's mansion into a history center or the centerpiece of a proposed state park dedicated to California pioneers. The 3,600-acre site, owned by the state, is all that remains of his 50,000-acre holdings.

Born in Danvers, Mass., in 1799, Marsh earned a degree from Harvard in general education and worked as a teacher. For a while, he was an assistant Indian agent for the Winnebago near the Illinois-Wisconsin border, Mero says.

In 1826, Marguerite Deconteaux, a woman of French Canadian and Sioux descent, bore him a son. Charles had two webbed toes, a genetic characteristic in the Marsh family.

Around that time, Marsh got to know Abraham Lincoln in New Salem, Ill. The future president carved a pocketknife for Marsh's son, Mero says.

Sometime between 1828 and 1832, Marsh informally studied medicine for two years under an Army physician in Wisconsin. But after Deconteaux died in 1831, a heartbroken Marsh left the area, Mero says. In his biography, "John Marsh, Pioneer," Lyman had attributed the move to bad debts and accusations of gun-running.

"Lyman did not do a good job summing up Marsh's personality," Mero says. "He ... repeats claims from the journals of others without really looking into it. But of course, he didn't have the databases we have today."

Marsh dropped off his 6-year-old son with a friend and moved to Independence, Mo., according to Lyman and Mero. He opened a general store and made several friends before continuing west.

On Feb. 4, 1836, Marsh arrived in Los Angeles and proclaimed himself a doctor, Lyman wrote. He presented Mexican officials with his Harvard diploma and showed them his saddlebags filled with medical and agricultural books. His credentials earned him a license to practice medicine, as well as a supply of quinine and brandy for "fevers, ague and chills."

As the only licensed doctor in town, Marsh, 37, was in demand. But his pay came mostly in cowhides worth 50 cents each, Mero says, adding up to about $40 a month. He also became a naturalized Mexican citizen and a baptized Catholic, which allowed him to own land.

But after a year, Lyman writes, Marsh tired of his office smelling like a stockyard. He sold his hides for $500 in gold to the captain of the first trading vessel he found anchored in the harbor.

On horseback, he headed north to Yerba Buena (now San Francisco) and ventured about 50 miles east into the hostile wilderness in search of fortune and agricultural paradise.

"Danger meant isolation and, hence, solitude, and he knew no fear," Lyman wrote.

In late 1837, Marsh bought a chunk of land that he named Rancho Los Meganos, a coined word meaning "Sand Dunes." It would eventually include 50,000 acres in what is now Contra Costa County and the northern San Joaquin Valley.

At the foot of Mount Diablo, a tribe of Bolgones Indians helped him build a small adobe that would be his home and the area's first hospital. He increased his fees, charging one housewife 50 head of cattle for tending her child. The outraged woman -- who was also Marsh's laundress -- deducted 25 head for washing two of his shirts, Lyman wrote.

Marsh, who stood 6-foot-2 and weighed more than 200 pounds, wrote hefty letters to friends in Missouri, praising California's climate and landscape and giving them directions to his rancho. Many of his letters were published in Missouri newspapers.

Encouraged by the letters, more than 30 Missourians set out for California. Several were Marsh's friends. They signed with Capt. John Bartleson's expedition, joining the first wagon train to cross the Sierra.

After nearly six months, on Nov. 4, 1841, they reached Marsh's rancho. He offered them brandy and bade them goodnight, telling them to help themselves to beef for breakfast, according to Lyman, whose source was the journal of settler John Bidwell.

Marsh awoke to find that his guests had slaughtered the better of his two oxen. Furious, he sent a letter to the Mexican military commandant in San Jose, who ordered the visitors arrested for having no passports. But when the group showed officials Marsh's letter of invitation, Lyman wrote, Marsh was ordered to post bond to ensure their good behavior.

In 1846, during the Mexican American War, Marsh was still a Yankee at heart. But he believed the way to take control of California was through westward expansion, not bloodshed. He waited out the war at his rancho and kept writing his letters.

Gold would lend a hand as prospectors headed west.

In 1848, Marsh found gold on the hoof, selling some of his 6,000 head of cattle at a juicy profit to feed the miners. He also found a fortune in real gold along the Yuba River, before the '49ers overran the area. He headed home, where he buried $40,000 in gold somewhere near his house, Lyman wrote.

By 1851, Marsh was the richest and most eligible cattle baron in the San Joaquin Valley. He married a schoolteacher, Abigail Smith Tuck, who bore him a daughter, Alice.

Wanting a house to match his wealth, he and his wife began building a Gothic Revival-style mansion with a 65-foot tower. He spent $20,000 on his Stone House, finishing it in 1856. But it seemed empty: His wife had died the previous year.

Before the Stone House was finished, a stranger knocked on Marsh's adobe hut, identifying himself as Marsh's son, Charles. Marsh thought he had died years before but asked the traveler to take off his right shoe and sock, Lyman wrote. When Marsh saw the webbed toes, he knew it was Charles, and wept.

In the fall of 1856, Marsh set out on horseback to pay bills in San Francisco. Three vaqueros waylaid him, taking his valuables. Then one slit his throat.

Charles Marsh spent years tracking down his father's killer. In 1868, Felipe Moreno was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

In 1891, Gov. Henry Markham pardoned Moreno. No sooner was he free than someone dug a huge hole near Marsh's mansion, Lyman wrote; Moreno later appeared at his old haunts with an "unlimited amount of money."

Some believed that Moreno had figured out where Marsh had hidden his gold. But Mero disputes that.

"I think Marsh had his gold [about $5,000 from a recent cattle roundup] on him when he was killed," she said, "because he was carrying all these bills that had to be paid in San Francisco, where he was headed."

To this day, Mero says, a rumor persists of hidden gold and buried treasure.

Marsh's murder site, in the town of Martinez, is a state historical landmark.

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