Marsh’s beloved Abby
John Marsh married Abigail Smith Tuck Marsh in 1851, and a year later their daughter, Alice, was born. The four-room adobe that had been Marsh’s home for 20 years was no longer adequate. Abby selected the site, and Marsh began building the Stone House for the woman he called “my companion, the joy of my life.”
Abby was born in Massachusetts in 1818. She taught school in Raleigh, North Carolina before she moved to California, where she also was a teacher in Santa Clara when she met Marsh. Two months later they were married.
Abby died in Marsh’s arms, probably of tuberculosis, in 1855. The great Stone House John was building for her was not yet complete, and a devastated Marsh was at first unable to return to the adobe.
“I have for the last two month been residing in (San Francisco) only going home occasionally,” he wrote to Abby’s parents. “Indeed it seems to me that I have no home now …”
In the article below, former Trust President Bill Mero provides a an intimate look at life on Los Meganos through the letters of John and Abby.
Love, Life and Death on the California Frontier
By William Mero
From the Letters of John and Abby Marsh.
The archives of Bancroft Library hold many documents and letters of the Marsh family. In a joint project with the John Marsh Historic Trust, the Bancroft Library microfilmed several boxes of Marsh primary source material. The following excerpts are part of this important collection.
Doctor John Marsh was the first American born pioneer to settle permanently in Contra Costa County. He carved out a huge cattle empire on the wildest part of the raw northern frontier of Mexican California. John Marsh was also one of the few college-educated adventurers in the far West and secretly worked to bring California peacefully into the Union.
Abby Marsh was born Abby Tuck in Chelmsford, Mass. She was bright, independent, beautiful and well educated. Abby had a spirit of adventure that was unusual for woman of her time and station. As a young woman, she moved to the South and earned a good living as a private tutor and teacher. After gold was discovered in California, she then decided to sail to San Francisco with a party of missionaries. She had many suitors but found no one acceptable. Unfortunately Abby also suffered from a recurring lung infection (probably tuberculosis). The following letters give us an unusual glimpse into a time and place where disease, accidents and outlaws made death a constant companion. The grammar, spelling and punctuation of the following letters have been retained whenever possible.
July 14, 1851
…I concluded(sic) to stop a few weeks with Mrs. Appleton a lady with whom I used to board with. She promised to take me on a pleasure trip over the mountains into the San Joaquin Valley. This trip promised to be quite an interesting one. The first day we came about twenty five miles. The next morning we started early & wandered among the mountains. When about one o’clock we came to the place where we started from in the morning, then we took a guide who directed us over the mountains. About sunset we came to a bachelor’s rancho, but no one was at home. We had seven or eight miles further to go but did not know which way it was. But we started out not knowing [..] we [..], [..] a few miles and then returned to the bachelor and found him at home and glad to see us. He was an acquaintance of Mrs. Appleton’s. We stayed with him all night and the next morning completed our journey.
The bachelor has been out here sixteen years. He is about fifty years old and is a graduate of Cambridge College. I like his appearance and have since become further acquainted with him. His name is Doctor John Marsh & he is [none] other than your brother-in-law. We were married on the 24 of June. Our acquaintance was short only a little more than two weeks but I had [no] risk to [run] and is worthy in every respect, 2 [engaging] my affections. I feel that my roaming is at an end – I have some one to love and care for me and who has enough of this [material] goods to satisfy every reasonable want. I expect to spend my days here.
…Next year he intends to build a house. There is a house here, but not one that he wants me to live in. I know you will all be rejoiced to hear that I am married. Well, I think I have waited long enough, and I feel that I am compensated for so doing. He says he hopes he is a Christian & that is all I can find out. Pray for us that we be bright and shining lights in the world. My religious privileges may be small. The Doctor says he will go with me whenever I want to go to San Francisco.
I would like to come home next year, but have faint hopes, only as I know it will be very difficult for us to leave. Please do write often and do not forget us.
(Editor’s Note: While Abby longed for home, she could never bring herself to return. She could only go to the East by sea and the ship travel made her deathly seasick. Even traveling to San Francisco by river steamer made Abby extremely ill.)
…The Doctor used to be in Danniford, he spent some years in the West before he came out here.
He joins in much love to you.
Your ever devoted Sister
I think I have got as good and kind husband as any of my sisters.
September 14, 1851
…Without any idea of vanity, I will tell you the Doctor is proud of his wife and says he thinks the Lord sent me to him. Tell mother she must not feel anxious about me for I have got a kind and good husband who will ever take best care of me…
October 19, 1851
…I will assure you I am much happier than I used to be as I know that I have some one to care for me. It would be more pleasant to be nearer my friends…
May 16, 1852
…about 20 men, women & children [who] live in huts a few yards from our door. They are great service to us…They are faithful servants and I think a great deal of them. Not a day passes but two or three or six Indian women come to see me, they speak the Spanish language of which I am able to speak a little…
August 19, 1852
…My time is mostly [spent] in superintending my domestic affairs. Since I last wrote you we have had a California specimen favorable to [everyone] since we last wrote you & is acknowledged by all to be one of the rarest specimen of the country and her father thinks one of the rarest in the market. We call her Alice Francis. She is more than five months old…
…How I wish you could see our darling little Alice. She seldom cries and is the best child I ever saw. Her teeth are now beginning to trouble her, what a treasure to us she is. She has dark blue eyes and very light hair nearly white…The Indians who live on our rancho almost worship her – they think she is a perfect little beauty…Some of them have lived with the Doctor from his first arriving into the country…I often go see them and carry them medicine when they are sick, they now have the chills and fever [ ] great many of them and would die if left to themselves…
April 18, 1853
…Sometimes people steal our cattle for which a great many have been hung. Little more than two years or so, four men were hung for stealing the Doctor’s and another man’s cattle. We have now less stolen every year. We sold a hundred steers not long since for five thousand dollars. This is a very easy way to get money…
…As to the Indians, we are no more danger of being killed by them than you are. Where you have these bad and wild Indians are more than a hundred miles from us – Yes, several hundred…
October 22, 1853
…The Doctor is going to San Francisco this evening & will be gone a week or two. This makes me feel sad as time seems long when he is gone and I do not know what to I shall [do] to make the time pass pleasantly…
October 5, 1854
…The Doctor has gone to Martinez and San Francisco. At Martinez it is court week and he had to go as a witness, in the trial of three murderers, who killed a man about two miles from our house…they shot him it was just dark and he escaped to our house and lived two days and nights…They are all convicted of murder in the first degree, and will be hung, we suppose. They are all very young men from 18 to 25, but they [have] bad countenances…
…We have a great deal of money in a year but it goes to hire helpers, protect us from thieves and vagabonds that surround us, but we hope to have better times before long…
October 21, 1854
…I often think that we have more trouble than any body besides us – Here the thieves and vagabonds are like wolves [waiting] to tear you in pieces if you do not keep a sharp look out for them. But I hope the Lord will give us grace and patience to wait for better days…
June 12, 1855
My Very Dear Sir
At the request of my dear wife I write you a few lines.
My Dear Parents
As I expect to be but a few more days to spend in this world I must say farewell! But do not weep or mourn for me. You know the source from whence to draw consolation – In a few more months or years I expect to meet you in another & better world where the wicked cease from troubling & the weary can rest. I did hope to see you again in this world, but God has ordered it otherwise. He calls and I must go. I have no wish to be here longer, but have rather depart & be with my Savior. Oh that I could have you here with me that I could have your prayers & your sympathies that are so much needed. May God bless you my Parents & support & comfort you.
My Dear Brother & Sisters
To you I must say farewell. Death is about to take one more of your little band and claim her as his own. Two of our dear sisters have gone & I trust are now hymning the praises of God. You are all professors of religion. May God enable you to adorn that profession & live a holy & devoted lives. Let the great object of your lives be to do good in the world. My strength fails me. I can say but a few words.
The coolness of the weather caused me to revive a little. You may yet [ ] me to my husband and child a few more days or even weeks. Yet my disease is such a flattering one that I am liable to pass away at any moment. But Oh! My dear parents and brother & sisters. My weak & trembling hand would fain clasp yours & say farewell. May God bless & console you. Pray for my dear husband & darling child who need your sympathies.
Abby is quite comfortable to day & has some appetite but is very weak. The above is written word for word from her dictation, but she cannot well dictate more now as it makes her cough- Rev. Mr. Brierly spent a day with her two weeks ago. At that time I did not expect her to live day to day – now she is a little better – more comfortable & stronger – she is surrounded by every comfort that can possibly be procured for her – She could not be better cared for except by her own relatives – I am going down to the city this evening & shall return by steamer by tomorrow evening & shall keep you constantly advised of her state.
Very Affectionately John Marsh
August 18, 1855
Contra Costa County California
My Dear Sir
During the long & painful sickness of my dear wife I have continually kept you advised of her condition & I have now to communicate the sad news of her decease. She died last Saturday morning at 5 o’clock. Perfectly calm and resigned and even desirous to depart & with her Savior. I have been so oppressed with grief that I have not been able to send you the sad intelligence until today & now I can hardly tranquilize myself sufficiently to write.
Yes, my dear Sir your affectionate & and most excellent daughter has departed from the earth to that eternal home where sorrow & sickness are unknown. I have lost the most loving, affectionate & dutiful of wives, & my child the kindest and best of mothers. Last Sabbath evening the remains were deposited in a place long ago selected by herself in the orchard near the house. The funeral was attended by a minister & a large concourse of friends & neighbors. She was repeatedly visited and consoled by the Rev. Mr. Brierly and other clergymen. She has for a long time been attended by Mrs. Osgood a member of the Baptist church & a kind & excellent nurse, & and(sic) by Mrs. Thomson her neighbor & particular friend.
Some months ago she said to me that probably after her death her relatives might desire her body to be sent to the east. I informed her that whatever was her wish it should be complied with – Her reply was that she had no other wish “but to lie by my side of her husband,” and whenever it shall please God to my spirit hence it is my intention to have [my] bones laid by her side.
Your little granddaughter is in good health & is for the present with Mrs. Thomson by the special desires of the mother.
A portion of her clothes she desired to be sent to her mother & sisters, & they will be accordingly forwarded in due time –
At present I am so overwhelmed with sorrow that I hardly know what to think or determine, but it is probable that within the next six months I shall visit Massachusetts the place of my birth, & bring my little girl to see her grandparents.
I bid you my dear Sir
An affectionate Adieu
This was never to be. On September 24, 1856 bandits between Pacheco and Martinez murdered Doctor John Marsh. In little more than a year after her death, Abby’s wish was fulfilled. They now lie together finally united in death as in life.