Saturday, December 12, 2009

John Marsh (1799-1856) - Early California Pioneer & Alice Marsh Camron (1852-1927)

[John Marsh; Photo courtesy of Camron-Stanford House]

[Alice Marsh Camron; Photo courtesy of Camron-Stanford House]

[John Marsh House (c. 1870), Marsh Creek Road, Brentwood vicinity]

[Photo of Marsh family plot by Michael Colbruno]

Plot 11, Lot 117-8

John Marsh was born in Danvers, Massachusetts, to a family whose forebears had come from England to Salem in 1633. After his graduation from Phillips Academy in 1819 he entered Harvard, but was dismissed during his second year for his participation in a student uprising. In 1821 he was readmitted on the condition that he not participate in any further student disturbances. He had originally studied for the ministry, but decided to become a physician.

During his time in Minnesota he took the opportunity to “read medicine” under the post surgeon’s guidance, but the doctor died before Marsh could complete the two-year course of study and receive a certificate to attest to his training. While in Minnesota he set up that territory’s first school for the children of the fort’s officers. Marsh developed a close working relationship with the local Sioux Indians and developed a Sioux dictionary.

He fell in love with a French Canadian Indian woman, Marguerite Decouteaux, by whom he had a son Charles. Marsh felt that he could not return to Boston, convinced that Marguerite would not be accepted there, so he accepted the post of Indian agent. There is evidence that he almost lost this job because of his friendly relationship with the Indians to whom he had sold guns.

Marsh's life was further complicated by the death of Marguerite, which left him with a small son to care for. He left the child with friends in Illinois and headed for Independence, Missouri in 1833 where he was a merchant. His business failed and in 1835 he moved to Santa Fe before heading off to Los Angeles in 1836. Upon his arrival in Los Angeles, he opened a medical practice, using his Harvard bachelor’s diploma as his medical credentials, and making him the first American “doctor” to practice in California.

Marsh spent about a year in Los Angeles, taking cattle as payment for his medical services. This practice enabled him to make a huge land purchase for $500 in 1837 when he bought the 13,000-acre Rancho de Los Meganos (aka Medanos) on the east side of Mt. Diablo overlooking the San Joaquin Valley. In April, 1838, Marsh settled on the property in a four-room adobe built with the help of some of the local Indians, a branch of the Bay Miwok. He referred to his property as “Los Pulpunes,” his name for the Indians. His house had an attic beneath its thatched roof where two of his vaqueros slept, acting as his bodyguards. The walls beneath the eaves were perforated by loopholes large enough to admit the muzzle of a gun, offering the doctor and his guards a means to drive away the frequent robbers and horse thieves.

John Marsh had several firsts to his credit in addition to his title of first doctor. Rancho de Los Meganos was the site of the area’s first cattle and horse breeding operation, and Marsh was the first white man to raise grain in the vicinity. As an early experimenter in all types of fruits, he had orchards of pear, apple, plums, figs, and almonds, as well as two flourishing vineyards. He continued to practice medicine, charging high prices in cattle for his services, much to the dismay of his Californio neighbors throughout the San Joaquin. While the Californios found him to be “unfriendly, mean, and shrewd” the Indians seemed to like him.

As a successful rancher, he was instrumental in encouraging other Americans to emigrate to California, his preferred method of making California American, rather than by force. Paradoxically, he was one of scores of Americans from Monterey to San Francisco to be seized by Californio officials and charged with trying to take California in 1840. Jailed in Monterey with a hundred others, Marsh was released and avoided being sent to Mexico. His frequent letters to Americans in the Middle West finally resulted in the arrival at his rancho in 1841 of the Bartleson-Bidwell party from Missouri -- the first important overland wagon train to come to California.

In 1851 he married schoolteacher Abbie Tuck from Massachusetts, and the next year their daughter Alice was born. He promised to build his wife California’s finest house. Abbie selected the site with a magnificent view over the San Joaquin Valley, and plans were drawn for an impressive three-story stone house. Abbie died in 1855 before construction on the house began. Marsh, however, proceeded with the building of his baronial home, and in September of 1856 he moved some of his personal belongings into one of the upstairs rooms. He spent a few nights there as the house was being finished, but on September 24 he left for Martinez on his way to San Francisco on business. On the road he was attacked and stabbed to death by three young Californios who felt they had been underpaid for work at his ranch. Ten years later, one of the three was caught and sent to prison.

After John Marsh settled on his rancho, his son Charles came to California to find his father, knowing only that he lived on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. He knocked on doors, of which there were few, until he tracked his long-lost parent, and the two were happily reunited. One story says that John Marsh had Charles remove his shoe and sock to be identified by a scar the father remembered on his son.

When John Marsh was murdered Alice was only four years old and could not assume ownership of the house. Charles fought a long court battle to establish himself as the rightful heir, and did eventually live in the house for a time. By the late 1880’s the house had passed out of family hands, and was owned by a succession of others until it finally came into the possession of the State of California.

In 1871, Marsh’s 19-year-old daughter Alice married William Walker Camron who had come west with his family by wagon train in 1849. Traveling with him in the family group was a cousin, Elam Brown, who became the founder of Lafayette.

Camron’s grandfather had dropped the “e” from “Cameron” and it was not replaced in the family name until 1896. Camron purchased 3,000 acres from Miller and Lux covering the area that is now Orinda, north of Highway 24.

In 1877, using part of Alice’s inheritance, the Camrons purchased a handsome Victorian on the shores of Lake Merritt, built “on spec” by Samuel Merritt, and now known as the Camron-Stanford House. Camron had surveyed Wildcat Canyon Road from Orinda to Berkeley, but couldn’t afford to grade it. He ran through all of Alice’s money, then deserted her and their daughter Amy. (Another daughter, Gracie, had died in infancy). After the Camrons divorced in 1896, Alice and Amy ran a boardinghouse in San Francisco, and later moved to Santa Barbara. Amy never married, died in 1961, and is buried here in the family plot.

[Biography courtesy of Barbara Smith and Mountain View Cemetery docent program]

No comments: