Historic John Marsh House
Heritage Day Event, October 20, 2018
The historic John Marsh house in eastern Contra Costa County, within the current Brentwood city limits, featured in the early history of California. I attended a heritage day event, with speakers, booths full of historical information and artifacts, and fascinating speakers. Other than these special events, the property is not, as of this writing, open to the public.
The speakers were Bill Mero, a historian (he calls himself an amateur, but he sure has a professional level of knowing how and where to search for information!), and Todd Myers, a local filmmaker.
There was also Tim Karlberg, dressed up as, and speaking as if he were actually John Marsh himself. The history he brought forth was in great detail about the man's life and times. It turns out, John Marsh was quite the character, having lived a very colorful life.
Built in 1856, the house is still standing, but is undergoing structural stabilization and other repairs. You can look inside, but not enter. The area is a State Historic Park (not yet open save for special events such as the one I attended). The repairs are being done by a non-profit trust, so progress is slow as funds become available; largely from donations and grants. These have made much of the work possible so far, but the State Park system is also heavily invested in this project.
Marsh was the first Anglo-American settler in Contra Costa County. The house itself is huge; 7,000 square feet and three stories tall, with a four story watchtower, from which he could keep an eye on his expansive ranch and watch for any cattle rustlers.
While the house was being built, Marsh lived in an adobe house with his wife, Abby. Sadly, she passed away before the house was finished.
John Marsh, a Man of Many Talents
Marsh lived a full and colorful life. A short capsule of some of the things he did illustrates this very well:
- Born 1799, Salem, MA
- Graduated Harvard, 1823
- Indian agent
- Studied medicine
- Befriended the Sioux, and made the 1st dictionary of the Sioux language
- General store owner
- Practiced medicine
- Became landowner of a huge rancho
These are only a few highlights; of course, there are many more details behind each of these events, over the span of many years.
A Huge Landholding
The area of the original rancho was immense. It sprawled across Contra Costa County from the foot of Mount Diablo east to the San Juaquin River, and north to south from nearly Sacramento to Livermore!
Errors in the History
Bill Mero, having done thorough research on the life and times of Marsh, pointed out that the former pre-eminent biography of Marsh by one George Lyman, and written in 1930, is deeply flawed.
It would seem that Lyman relied heavily upon others doing his research for him, and chose to disregard historical evidence that disagreed with his own perspective. Mero, on the other hand, went in person to all the various locations that featured in the life of Mr. Marsh, and dug through the archives himself, taking both copious notes and photocopies of documents when available.
Lyman asserts that Marsh was 'on the run' for various reasons every time he moved locations. The historical evidence fails to back this up. On the other hand, Lyman does acknowledge his status as a pioneer and intellectual, and lauds him for that.
Marsh vs. Murrietta
Filmmaker Todd Myers spoke at length, to the delight of the audience, on the history of Joaquin Murrietta. The man is remembered as a bandit of the old west/early California. However, Myers sought to deviate from the traditional Hollywood renditions of the man, and tell his story from the perspective of the Mexican people, who had been seriously disrupted and displaced by the upheaval in land ownership, and transfer of a large swath of territory once belonging to Mexico, into the hands of the United States, in the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
As it turns out, Myers, having done massive research of his own, found a very different man than "just a bandit" as Hollywood portrays. He was, in fact, a good and peacable man, opposed to war and violence, until external circumstances forced he and his people into untenable situations.
From there, it became a matter of some revenge and some form of honor, to attempt to exact justice. This was the wild, wild west, after all, and mostly people took the law into their own hands.
After his brother was unjustifiably lynched for stealing a mule (which he had actually purchased, and for which he had a receipt), that was the tipping point for Murrietta.
He and Marsh actually had a close and friendly relationship, and were "on the same page," to use today's vernacular.
However, Murrietta became famous (infamous!) for his robberies, and many groups all over the state began to copy what he was doing, often with far more violent means. Sightings of the bandit were reported everywhere at once! "He's like a fox," it was said. It seems he was able to teleport to so many far-flung locations. The copycats often claimed their deeds in his name.
Interestingly, there is a connection here to the Zorro stories and later TV series. "El zoro," in Spanish, means fox. For the stories, they added an extra 'r.'
The movie, "Murrieta," is expected to be released in November of 2019.
End of the Trail
John Marsh died at the age of 57, in 1856, at the hands of a gang of bandits of some description.
It was attributed to Murrieta.
It was, therefore, both interesting and heartwarming to see descendants of both families together on stage at the heritage day event. As the current John Marsh, a direct descendant commented, "let's hope history doesn't repeat itself."
All photos by the author.
© 2018 Liz Elias