Who was Dr. John Marsh?
I located Marsh in many places: in Massachusetts, where he was born; at Phillips Academy, Andover, in his prep days; at Harvard where he graduated; at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, where he taught the first school; at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin; at Davenport, Iowa; at New Salem, Illinois; at St. Louis and Independence, Missouri; at Santa Fe, New Mexico , and finally on a rancho in California.
When I had run down the clews, collected my data, and pieced together my information, what a history it disclosed! What a man! I had found a hero neglected by the historians!
For John Marsh was one of the greatest of our early adventurers. He was a pioneer of six American frontiers, a founder of commonwealths, a power in every community in which he lived. What other frontiersman, I ask, can equal that record? What other man figured as largely in the pioneer annals of the frontier as he?
John Marsh was a Harvard graduate. How many others, of our wilderness wanderers, boasted an alma mater? That diploma made him unique as a frontiersman. He carried the intellectual traditions of New England from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The faded and dusty records show that he made them revered. He helped to bind Massachusetts, the Mississippi, and the Pacific with one indissoluble bond. Therein lies John Marsh’s chief claim to fame. Not only did he blaze a trail; he carried a torch.
One of John Marsh’s acts is quoted as a cause leading up to the Black Hawk War. He was a witness of the treaty that terminated that struggle, and that transferred an immense tract of land from the possession of the red men into the hands of the whites.
Another of his acts started prairie schooners rolling across the continent. Still another freed California from the last of her Mexican governors. Both those accomplishments paved the way to California’s ultimate acquisition by the United States.
Many of Marsh’s deeds were greater than the man himself. Many fell far short. Sometimes he destroyed. Mostly he builded. He was strong. He was weak. He was great. He was small. He loved. He hated. But always he was human. On every occasion but one he was master of circumstances. Even then, in defeat, he was heroic.
Wherever John Marsh went there was romance and adventure. His life reads like a volume of fiction. The name of Marsh should be a household word. Yet Fate, for some inscrutable reason, denied him a place among the immortals.
GEORGE D. LYMAN
San Francisco May, 1930
(Excerpt from Preface to the definitive biography of John Marsh: JOHN MARSH, PIONEER by George D. Lyman, NY, 1930, Scribner’s & Sons)
John Marsh – California Pioneer
Being a brief outline of the remarkable life of Dr. John Marsh, Physician, Indian Agent, Friend of the Sioux, Explorer, Rancher, Father of Early California Immigration, Pioneer. Harvard Class of 1823.
- Born in Salem, MA in 1799
- Died in Contra Costa County, CA 1856
- Graduated Harvard College 1823
- Taught first school-Minnesota.
- Assistant to the Indian Agent at Fort St. Anthony, MN.
- Studied medicine under the eye of post physician but never received official certificate due to the death of his mentor.
- Became a staunch supporter of the Sioux during the tribal difficulties that finally erupted into the Black Hawk War.
- In 1828 he rescued the wife and child of an influential Sioux chief, being held captive by Morgan, war chief of the Fox tribe.
- Compiled the first dictionary of the sioux language with the help of his common law wife, Marguerite. Marguerite was the beautiful daughter of a French trapper and his Wahpeton wife. John and Marguerite produced a son, charles.
- Moved to Independence, MO where he set up a general store.
- moved on to santa fe and thence to Los angeles as rumors of gun running to the sioux and creditors dogged him.
- Practiced medicine in Los Angeles for a year to earn money to buy land. He was paid in the currency of the pueblo, hides and tallow.
- Arrived in San Jose in 1837 inquiring after land for sale. Purchased Los Meganos from Jose Noriega for $500.
- Took possession of Los Meganos in 1838, a year before John Sutter took up his grant on the Sacramento.
- Built a small adobe along a stream and began practicing medicine. His fees, paid in cattle created one of the largest herds in early California.
- Began his letter campaign to bring American settlers to California. One, to Governor Cass of Michigan correctly evaluated the agricultural potential of California. These letters brought the first wagon trains to California, 1000’s of settlers followed.
- Developed Los Meganos into one of the largest ranches in the area and shipped beef and produce to the gold mines and to San Francisco.
- Married Abigail Tuck in 1851; daughter Alice born in 1852. Reunited with lost son Charles in 1855.
- Murdered on the road to Martinez, CA in 1856