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Grant Applicants Say the Darndest Things

Part of the 4th grade history curriculum for field trips to the Marsh Creek State Park includes having students fill out a petition for a land grant like the one purchased by John Marsh in 1837. See more photos from students' recent visits below the article.

Part of the 4th grade history curriculum for field trips to the Marsh Creek State Park includes having students fill out a petition for a land grant like the one purchased by John Marsh in 1837. See more photos from students’ recent visits below the article.


by Rick Lemyre
JMHT Executive Director

It all started with Art Linkletter. His radio show, House Party, ran for 25 years, and had a regular segment called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” Children between ages 3 and 8 would be asked to answer mundane questions, and proceed to delight the audience with cute, surprising and unexpected answers.

For Example: Q-Who was George Washington’s wife? A-Miss America.

It turns out you don’t have to be a master at interviewing kids to get them to say cute, surprising and entertaining things. You just have to give them a chance.

I was recently fortunate enough to help run some fourth-grade field trips in the Marsh Creek State Historic Park. The kids were from Ironhouse School in Oakley, and they were studying California history. Part of the lesson was for them to apply for a land grant like that John Marsh purchased in 1837 in what would one day become Brentwood.

As part of the application process, the kids were asked what plans they had for the land. Suffice it to say that things would be a lot different today if the land had ended up in their hands instead of Marsh’s.

Some drew from what they had learned about life on a mid-19th Century rancho, enhanced by their own tastes.

“I will have cows for milk and chicken for eggs and pigs for bacon because bacon is so good.” Another said she planned to raise “…sheep for wool, cows for food, also chickens for omelets.”

Others focused their ideas on nature, although they might make some changes in that regard, too.

“I will have horses, pigs, sheep, snow, rocks, rivers and a mountain,” promised one. Said another, “I will make waterfalls.”

One thought it would be good to combine ranching with a steady income stream. “There will be 200 cows, a watermelon field, 50 pigs, and an apple field,” he said. “And I plan to put in oil rigs.”

Another budding businessperson clearly had an eye for tourism, writing “I will build hotels and motels and there will be a plaza.”

Outdoor recreation was popular, too: “I will build 5 parks. 2 water parks, 1 maze park, and 2 regular parks,” said one. Another said “I will have a whole horse ranch with a circle area to teach kids and no gates to teach people to stay on trails.”

Ranching and animals of all kinds were on the mind of one youngster, who wanted “6 horses, 65 cows, 5 female chickens and 5 male chickens, 42 monkeys, 12 hippos, and a lot of flowers and butterflies and bees.”

Farming was also popular, although some of the crops were unusual. “I will plant a small house,” said one. Another had her eye on the bottom line, with a bit of fun on the side. “I will plant gold and have a huge water slide,” she said.

A couple of kids showed an understanding for the way things were in the wild, wild West. “I am going to build a shed for weapons,” he said, while a classmate noted that on his rancho, “There will be no Internet.”

Lastly, from the hope-for-the-future department, came a plan for people to live together in peace.
“I will make a town,” said the community leader-to-be. “It will have a town hall so we can discuss stuff.”

The field trip program is being created by the John Marsh Historic Trust, along with the East Contra Costa Historical Society and State Parks. The hope is that we’ll be able to offer these local, hands-on historical lessons to a steadily increasing number of students beginning next year.

The Trust is currently raising money to build an Interpretive Center in the park. The center will allow us to expand the field trip program, as well as accommodate regularly scheduled drop-in hours in the park for the first time. Please consider supporting our efforts by making a donation of any size through the PayPal link above.

Students dance during a "fiesta" at the end of their field trip to Marsh Creek State Historic Park. The trips are being put together by the John Marsh Historic Trust.

Students dance during a “fiesta” at the end of their field trip to Marsh Creek State Historic Park. The trips are being put together by the John Marsh Historic Trust.

Youngsters learn how to lasso a "steer" during their visit to the Marsh Creek State Historic Park.

Youngsters learn how to lasso a “steer” during their visit to the Marsh Creek State Historic Park.

Learning how ropes were made in the 19th Century.

Learning how ropes were made in the 19th Century.

Medicine in the 19th Century is part of the history curriculum the developed by the Trust for the Marsh Creek State Historic Park.

Medicine in the 19th Century is part of the history curriculum developed by the Trust for the Marsh Creek State Historic Park.

The original California cowboys

A vaquero ropes a longhorn steer using a figure 8 toss of his lariat. Courtesy of The American Cowboy

A vaquero ropes a longhorn steer using a figure 8 toss of his lariat. Courtesy of The American Cowboy


During his 56 years, John Marsh proved there wasn’t much he couldn’t do. But without vaqueros, Rancho Los Meganos could never have happened.

Cattle were money in Alta California in the 1850s, and Marsh was often paid in cattle or horses for his medical services. General Mariano Vallejo, Marsh’s friend, paid him 1,000 head for attending the birth of a granddaughter. Marsh amassed as many as 6,000 head of cattle, some of which had been wild, left behind by early Spanish and Mexican ranchers. Fortunately, they also left vaqueros.

“It didn’t take these early ranchers long to find out there was a lot more to it than meets the eye and the only people who knew anything at all about handling the huge herds of wild, mean, feral long horned cattle and wild horses was the Mexican Vaquero. The result was that nearly everything the early American ranchers and cowboys learned about open range ranching and livestock handling was learned from the Mexican Vaquero.” Courtesy of cowboyhistory.wordpress.com

Here’s a great piece on vaqueros from The American Cowboy

Evolution of the Californio Vaquero

1519–1700s. After the Spanish arrived in Mexico in 1519, ranches were established and stocked with cattle and horses imported from Spain. Largely ex-military landowners mounted Native Americans on well-trained horses and taught them to handle cattle, using a riding style inherited from Spanish cavalry and influenced by the Moorish Jinete. By the early 1700s, cattle ranching had spread north into what is now Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, and south to Argentina. The native cowboys were called vaqueros (from the Spanish word for cow) and developed roping skills*, using braided rawhide reatas (the root word for lariat). Starting in 1769, a chain of 21 Franciscan missions eventually stretched from San Diego to San Francisco, marking the beginning of California’s livestock industry.

Mid–1700s to 1820s. Livestock production flourished in California and the Southwest, but few markets existed for end products such as meat, hides, and tallow (for making candles). By the mid-1700s, long trains of pack mules would transport these products to Mexico City and return with supplies. American ships began servicing California ports in the early 1800s and traded for the same materials. For the first time, ranchers had local markets for their animals. Huge roundups were held to collect cattle, and the hard-riding vaqueros controlled the chaos, known for expert horsemanship and roping skills. Vaqueros were said to dismount only for a chance to dance with girls.

A vaquero drives cattle using his serape. Courtesy of The American Cowboy

A vaquero drives cattle using his serape. Courtesy of The American Cowboy


Early and mid-1800s. Ranching ceased to be a strictly Hispanic profession as more Americans poured into the Mexican lands (especially after the Mexican/American War, 1846–48). The Anglo newcomers adapted to the vaquero style, and many settlers intermarried with the old Spanish ranching families. The 1849 Gold Rush brought even more people to California, which increased the demand for beef. Californios rode ponies that had been trained in a hackamore, swung a big loop with their hand-braided rawhide reatas, and took a wrap called a dally (from the Spanish dar la vuelta, to take a turn) around high saddle horns for leverage when roping cattle.

Late 1800s. As the livestock industry expanded, these horsemen found work in Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, and Hawaii, taking their foundation, equipment and livestock-handling techniques with them. Cowboys in Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada remained strongly Hispanic (“buckaroo” comes from vaquero), including the use of a center-fire rigged saddle, in which rigging is situated below the centerpoint of the saddle; a long reata; and silver-mounted spade bits. Trail-driving Texans adopted many of their techniques from Mexican vaqueros, carrying their methods with them north through the Plains states.

Today. As long as cattle are raised in big American pastures, the legacy of the vaquero will endure. The early Mexican techniques for handling cattle can be seen throughout the modern livestock industry, like whenever a cowboy cinches a saddle on his horse, straps on chaps (from chaparreras, Spanish for leather leggings), competes in a rodeo (from rodear, Spanish for to surround), or ropes a horse from his remuda (from remudar, Spanish for exchange). Even branding migrated north from Mexico. On the Pacific Coast and on Nevada ranches, buckaroos still carry long ropes (nylon these days), ride slick-fork saddles, and use silver-mounted spade bits and spurs.