Native Americans and Dr. John Marsh
By Dean L. McLeod
Member, Marsh Advisory Board
From our Spring 2010 newsletter
For thousands of years before North Americans settled in East Contra Costa numerous small tribes and bands lived along its streams, in its foothills and along the shores of San Joaquin delta. Scholars believe that one small tribe was known variously as Bolbones or Volvons. They thrived up and down the Marsh Creek Drainage and may have had villages as far northwest as today’s Clayton.
In the 1820’s Mount Diablo was called by the Spanish Padres Sierra de los Bolgones, apparently because the Volvons held sway in its eastern canyons. They were a hill people who seem to have ranged in the upper reaches of what became known as Marsh Creek. The natural resources of this terrain suggest to scholars that the Volvons may have migrated up and down the drainages throughout the season, building a series of temporary villages. Their proximity to the pass between the Livermore Valley and the San Joaquin Valley may have provided them a strategic trading location.
Native life changed radically with the coming of the Spanish missions to the Bay Area. The mission at San Francisco was formed in 1775. The mission in the San Jose’area was founded in 1797. Although, at their capitulation to the missions between 1804 and 1806 a third of the Volvons went to San Francisco, it was at Mission San Jose that the tribe met its organized end. Unfortunately, over half the Volvons at Mission San Jose’died just one year later, in a measles epidemic. The surviving adults intermarried with other neighboring tribes at the mission. Only 13 Volvon children were born at the mission between 1806 and 1840. *
Downstream, another tribe settled more in the flatlands along Marsh Creek and adjacent to the northeastern marshlands. Scholars have named this group the Julpun. There is no proof as to the permanence of the Julpun settlements, but perhaps the Julpun lands provided greater stability and more village permanence. Both groups predominantly spoke what has been termed the Bay Miwok language.
Dr. Randall Milliken has determined that “three Julpuns went to Mission San Francisco with their Volvon neighbors in March of 1806. Four went to Mission San Jose in 1807 and 1808… ” “The largest group, with 103 people went to Mission San Jose during 1811”following major mission expeditions in 1810 and 1811. Another 50 people from the tribe went in between then and 1827.
John Marsh, the first permanent North American settler in Contra Costa County, built his ranch headquarters on the site of an Indian village called by a Spanish Padre “Arroyo de los Poblanos” or “Arroyo of the People”. This was primarily the tribal territory of the Julpuns, whom Marsh said called themselves the “Pulpunes.” These were the people who helped Marsh survive and build his rancho in what was then a wild and dangerous frontier in the 1830s.
Scholars have only partly outlined the story of these early inhabitants of the Marsh Ranch. Experts now think that the Indian settlements go back more than 12,000 years. Just as John Marsh was an important figure in the American settlement of California, so also were the early people who inhabited his rancho. Uncelebrated, they played their role in shaping central California many generations before the arrival of the Europeans.