“Perhaps no more horrible crime than the murder of this pioneer can be found on the pages of any history, and certainly no better example of justice following the guilty than which tracked one of the murderers to punishment eleven years after the commission of his foul deed.” — History of Contra Costa County, W. A. Slocum & Co., Publishers, 1882.
Not much has been written about John Marsh, the first American settler in what would become Contra Costa County. At times during his remarkable life, Marsh was a Harvard graduate, a doctor, an Indian sub-agent, justice of the peace, hunter/trapper, merchant, cattle rancher, farmer, husband and father and more.
By the time of his murder on Sept. 24, 1856, he was a well-known and wealthy man. His murder caused a sensation, and the trial of his killer one of the few parts of his life that was well-documented. A trio of vaqueros, former employees – Felipe Moreno, Jose Antonio Olivas and Juan Garcia – had a dispute with Marsh over wages, and waylaid him on the road to Martinez.
It was a decade before Moreno, the man who did the killing, was tracked down by Marsh’s son, Charles. His trial began on Sept. 23, 1867, and lasted less than a week. He was convicted largely on the testimony of Olivas. The trial included the following description of Marsh’s killing as recounted by Olivas, and published in Slocum’s 1882 history.
“On the morning of September 24, 1856, the date of the murder, Jose Antonio Olivas and Felipe Moreno, aged twenty-five and nineteen years respectively, in company with some females, came into the village of Martinez, where, having attended church, they proceeded to Pinole, returning from thence between four and five o’clock that same evening. They almost immediately continued their journey to Pacheco alone, and when reaching the hill about a mile from Martinez paused awhile to await the arrival of Juan Garcia, who was expected to meet them. Olivas then went on ahead for about two hundred yards, when he was overtaken by his comrades, and the three urged their horses into a gallop. While so proceeding they met a man named Swanson.
“Not long after this circumstance Doctor Marsh was observed to be coming in his buggy. Hereupon he was accosted by Olivas, who asked him for certain money due to him for services as a vaquero, to which the Doctor replied that he would be paid on his return from San Francisco, but that he had no money with him then. The deceased now drove away, while the party remained behind and concocted a scheme to kill him, but finally arranged that he should only be robbed.
“They then followed in pursuit, and on overtaking their victim, Olivas, by Moreno’s orders, seized the Doctor’s horse by the head, while Moreno jumped into the buggy and Garcia stood guard alongside. The deceased at once faced his enemy and said: “Do you want to kill me?” to which he received the reply “No” from Olivas, and “Yes” from Moreno, and notwithstanding the dissuasions of his companions, this youthful fiend slashed the unfortunate man in the face with a knife. He was then draped out of the vehicle and fell to the ground, being before, however, wounded in the hand; Olivas having then dismounted, as he says, for the purpose of assisting the Doctor, who came towards and struck at him, a scuffle ensued, Olivas crying to Moreno to free him.
“Thereupon Moreno observed: “why should I let go this old cabron” and forthwith stabbed his prostrate victim in the left side. Upon receiving this wound the Doctor cried aloud, when Moreno was prepared to repeat the operation, but was pushed away by Olivas, who parried a cut made at him.
“The Doctor now attempted to rise, but was only able to stagger a short distance and fell into a ditch-dead. His pockets were then rifled by Garcia find Moreno, who afterwards cut his throat, the deed being witnessed by Olivas from his saddle. This terrible crime being perpetrated, the triumvirate repaired to the top of a convenient hill and there divided the booty, whence they repaired to some houses for the night and afterwards fled, and for ten years and upwards escaped the iron hand of the law.”
Moreno was sentenced to life in the State Prison, but was had his sentence commuted to 41 years by Gov. Henry Markum in 1891, largely because of his young age at the time of the crime and because his trial wasn’t until 11 years after the crime. He was released in 1896, after serving 29 years, with time off for good behavior.
In exchange for his testimony, Olivas was not charged. Historian Bill Mero said his study of Superior Court records shows Garcia was captured and was to be tried in 1896. Moreno was approved for a witness fee to testify in the trial, but he had left the county after his release, so no trial was held and Garcia was released.