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Historic John Marsh House

State and national parks and historical attractions have long been a favorite destination for Liz, and she loves sharing them.

Heritage Day Event, October 20, 2018

The historic John Marsh house in eastern Contra Costa County, within the current Brentwood city limits, featured in the early history of California. I attended a heritage day event, with speakers, booths full of historical information and artifacts, and fascinating speakers. Other than these special events, the property is not, as of this writing, open to the public.

The speakers were Bill Mero, a historian (he calls himself an amateur, but he sure has a professional level of knowing how and where to search for information!), and Todd Myers, a local filmmaker.

There was also Tim Karlberg, dressed up as, and speaking as if he were actually John Marsh himself. The history he brought forth was in great detail about the man's life and times. It turns out, John Marsh was quite the character, having lived a very colorful life.

Built in 1856, the house is still standing, but is undergoing structural stabilization and other repairs. You can look inside, but not enter. The area is a State Historic Park (not yet open save for special events such as the one I attended). The repairs are being done by a non-profit trust, so progress is slow as funds become available; largely from donations and grants. These have made much of the work possible so far, but the State Park system is also heavily invested in this project.

Marsh was the first Anglo-American settler in Contra Costa County. The house itself is huge; 7,000 square feet and three stories tall, with a four story watchtower, from which he could keep an eye on his expansive ranch and watch for any cattle rustlers.

While the house was being built, Marsh lived in an adobe house with his wife, Abby. Sadly, she passed away before the house was finished.

Tim Karlberg, speaking as John Marsh

Tim Karlberg, speaking as John Marsh

John Marsh, a Man of Many Talents

Marsh lived a full and colorful life. A short capsule of some of the things he did illustrates this very well:

  • Born 1799, Salem, MA
  • Graduated Harvard, 1823
  • Schoolteacher
  • Indian agent
  • Studied medicine
  • Befriended the Sioux, and made the 1st dictionary of the Sioux language
  • General store owner
  • Practiced medicine
  • Became landowner of a huge rancho

These are only a few highlights; of course, there are many more details behind each of these events, over the span of many years.

A Huge Landholding

The area of the original rancho was immense. It sprawled across Contra Costa County from the foot of Mount Diablo east to the San Juaquin River, and north to south from nearly Sacramento to Livermore!

Map shows the area of the house and land holdings

Map shows the area of the house and land holdings

Errors in the History

Bill Mero, having done thorough research on the life and times of Marsh, pointed out that the former pre-eminent biography of Marsh by one George Lyman, and written in 1930, is deeply flawed.

It would seem that Lyman relied heavily upon others doing his research for him, and chose to disregard historical evidence that disagreed with his own perspective. Mero, on the other hand, went in person to all the various locations that featured in the life of Mr. Marsh, and dug through the archives himself, taking both copious notes and photocopies of documents when available.

Lyman asserts that Marsh was 'on the run' for various reasons every time he moved locations. The historical evidence fails to back this up. On the other hand, Lyman does acknowledge his status as a pioneer and intellectual, and lauds him for that.

Bill Mero, speaking on the history of John Marsh and his landholdings

Bill Mero, speaking on the history of John Marsh and his landholdings

Marsh vs. Murrietta

Filmmaker Todd Myers spoke at length, to the delight of the audience, on the history of Joaquin Murrietta. The man is remembered as a bandit of the old west/early California. However, Myers sought to deviate from the traditional Hollywood renditions of the man, and tell his story from the perspective of the Mexican people, who had been seriously disrupted and displaced by the upheaval in land ownership, and transfer of a large swath of territory once belonging to Mexico, into the hands of the United States, in the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

As it turns out, Myers, having done massive research of his own, found a very different man than "just a bandit" as Hollywood portrays. He was, in fact, a good and peacable man, opposed to war and violence, until external circumstances forced he and his people into untenable situations.

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From there, it became a matter of some revenge and some form of honor, to attempt to exact justice. This was the wild, wild west, after all, and mostly people took the law into their own hands.

After his brother was unjustifiably lynched for stealing a mule (which he had actually purchased, and for which he had a receipt), that was the tipping point for Murrietta.

He and Marsh actually had a close and friendly relationship, and were "on the same page," to use today's vernacular.

However, Murrietta became famous (infamous!) for his robberies, and many groups all over the state began to copy what he was doing, often with far more violent means. Sightings of the bandit were reported everywhere at once! "He's like a fox," it was said. It seems he was able to teleport to so many far-flung locations. The copycats often claimed their deeds in his name.

Interestingly, there is a connection here to the Zorro stories and later TV series. "El zoro," in Spanish, means fox. For the stories, they added an extra 'r.'

The movie, "Murrieta," is expected to be released in November of 2019.

Todd Myers, speaking on Murietta

Todd Myers, speaking on Murietta

End of the Trail

John Marsh died at the age of 57, in 1856, at the hands of a gang of bandits of some description.

It was attributed to Murrieta.

It was, therefore, both interesting and heartwarming to see descendants of both families together on stage at the heritage day event. As the current John Marsh, a direct descendant commented, "let's hope history doesn't repeat itself."

Descendants of both the Murrieta and Marsh familys meet on stage.

Descendants of both the Murrieta and Marsh familys meet on stage.

All photos by the author.

© 2018 Liz Elias


Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on October 25, 2018:

Thanks very much, Doris; I'm glad you enjoyed this article. I like history far more now than I did while in school! And yes, I await the film with bated breath!

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on October 25, 2018:

This is a very good review. I haven't heard of this gentleman although I love history and continue to study it. I would love to see the film when it comes out in 2019.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on October 24, 2018:

Thank you both, Bill and Liz, for your kind comments. I'm pleased you enjoyed the article, and happy I could provide some additional historical tidbits for your...ahh...edification. ;-)

Liz Westwood from UK on October 24, 2018:

This is an interesting account of your visit.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 24, 2018:

Never heard of that gentleman, but I love local history like that and I would love to see it. Thanks for the information. Maybe one day I'll see it for myself, although I sure don't do much traveling these days.

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