By William Mero
Once violent death was commonplace in Contra Costa. From the 1820s through the 1870s eastern Contra Costa was a wild frontier. By necessity most males were armed and were responsible for defending their families. The Law was remote and far away. Rustling and horse theft occurred on a vast scale. Famous East Bay lawmen like George Swain and Harry Morse fought duels to the death with hard bitten outlaws who sought sanctuary in the wild, unsettled wilderness of Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
The first large scale banditry in Contra Costa began in the 1820’s. Bands of warriors striking from the Sierras, out of the wilderness of San Joaquin and even as far away as Utah made life a living hell for the Spanish and Mexican rancheros in Contra Costa. Rancheros were forced to build adobe ranch houses constructed like forts.
In 1838 the Marsh rancho (Los Meganos) was nearly destroyed the first time by Indian raiders. While Dr. Marsh was visiting San Jose, his rancho was sacked and personal papers were stolen. Marsh led his neighbors on an expedition that tracked the bandits to their lair in the Sierra foothills. Eleven of the raiders were killed and 500 horses recovered.
La Vereda del Monte, “The Mountain Trail”, ran north-south through the wild Coast Range. It crossed the Livermore Valley and ended at Point of Timber near present day Brentwood. During the 1840s tough mustangers known as mesteneros, hunted the huge herds of wild horses roaming the San Joaquin Valley. With the depletion of the wild horses, the mesteneros turned to cattle stealing and worse. Stolen cattle and horses were driven both south to Mexico and north to Contra Costa County. Joaquin Murrieta himself was a mestenero and frequent visitor to Contra Costa from his outlaw hideout in Niles Canyon.
By the late 1840s this incessant horse raiding had brought economic devastation to Contra Costa. Charles Weber, the pioneer founder of Stockton, commented that when he first met John Marsh, “ Practically the only animal that remained on John Marsh’s ranch was the horse that he was riding.” Without domesticated horses and mules cattle raising became nearly impossible. By the time of the American conquest, the more exposed ranchos were near collapse.
With the Gold Rush there was a huge jump in Contra Costa’s criminal activity. Contra Costa and Alameda county ranchers that spoke out against the general lawlessness often found their fields and homes mysteriously burned. Much of outlaw power lay in their ties to supposedly law-abiding, Anglo citizens and ranchers. It was common knowledge the goods were being fenced and stolen cattle hidden on local Contra Costa ranches. As late as 1877, Procopio Bustamente raided ranches in Contra Costa County and boldly sold stolen cattle to crooked butchers in Martinez.
One of the most prominent and vicious of the outlaw bands attacking the isolated ranchos of old Contra Costa was led by Claudio Feliz, Joaquin Murrieta’s brother-in-law. Claudio mounted an armed assault on Dr. Marsh’s Rancho Los Meganos, on December 5, 1850. After spending a pleasant afternoon as a guest of John Marsh, Claudio returned that night with a dozen outlaws armed with guns and lances. They overran the rancho, captured Marsh, looted the adobe ranch house, and just for fun, speared to death William Harrington, an unresisting Anglo visitor. The bandits escaped with $300, gold watches and guns. However Marsh was luckier than he knew.
Two weeks after the Marsh raid, Claudio’s band made a quick thrust south to San Jose. Attacking the ranch of Digby Smith, they robbed Smith of $1500. After tying up his helpless victims, Claudio Feliz crushed Digby Smith’s skull, split E.G. Barber’s head open with an ax and severed the Chinese cook’s head with a knife. Following the massacre, Claudio Feliz burned the ranchhouse to the ground.
For the next two years Claudio preyed on the Sierra mining camps before returning to our East Bay. In 1852 an alert rancher’s wife on the Kottinger’s Rancho near Pleasanton became suspicious of the approaching strangers and sealed up the ranch house frustrating the attack by Claudio’s gang. Shortly afterwards a largely Hispanic posse caught up with Claudio Feliz near Monterey. Claudio was killed along with several of his murderous gang in a bloody gun battle. Leadership of Claudio’s outlaw band now passed to his brother-in-law, Joaquin Murrieta.
After Claudio Feliz’s raid, Dr. John Marsh was desperate enough to call upon his good friend, James Kirker, and his band of hard fighting Delaware and Shawnee Indians, to defend Rancho Los Meganos. Kirker, mountain man and Apache fighter, had fled the Southwest shortly after the Mexican government placed a $10,000 bounty on his head. Kirker and his followers settled at Oak Springs, a few miles south of Antioch. Operating out of his well defended base, Kirker and his Indians fought rustlers for Marsh and hunted wild game on Mount Diablo for the tables of San Francisco. Even today it is difficult to decide which was more frightening – the local bandits or James Kirker and his Indian scalp hunters. Upon Kirker’s death from cancer in 1853, the entire county breathed a collective sigh of relief when Kirker’s band of tough, Indian warriors mounted up and quietly rode east back to their homes in Missouri and Oklahoma.
Sadly, without Kirker’s protection, survival in the Contra Costa wilderness became even more precarious for John Marsh. Alone he now began fighting the river borne cattle thieves (carniceros) that swarmed out of the Delta like voracious mosquitoes. They butchered Marsh’s cattle on the spot, loaded their boats, and escaped down the river channels. A legal dispute with Ygnacio Sibrian led to a rumored contract on Dr. Marsh’s life. In 1856 outside of Martinez, John Marsh was ambushed by robbers or assassins and left abandoned with his throat cut. He bled to death in a roadside ditch.