“RANCHO LOS MEGANOS LAY TUCKED INTO THE FOOTHILLS AT THE BASE OF A NEARBY MOUNTAIN. ”
The pioneer doctor John Marsh purchased a Mexican land grant in 1938 and established Rancho Los Meganos. The rancho was about 30 miles from the tiny village of Yerba Buena, which boasted fewer than a dozen buildings and gave no hint of the fact that the sleepy hamlet would spread over the surrounding hills and grow into the sprawling metropolis of San Francisco.
Rancho Los Meganos lay tucked into the foothills at the base of a nearby mountain beside a creek. The rancho was located in wild country, peopled only by a few dozen Volvon Indians plus some grizzly bears, mountain lions and rattlesnakes. Marsh shrugged off the dangers that surrounded him and relished the solitude the seclusion offered. The rancho was secluded indeed. Nobody knew it existed except for a few local residents.
Biographer George Lyman summarized Marsh’s character and activities:
“…a mysterious bachelor who lived in the San Joaquin Valley, who read Greek for pleasure and herded cattle for profit, who could converse in every known tongue, including many Indian dialects, who could throw a lasso as well as any vaquero, who could outshoot any marksman, but who spent most of his time reading, writing, accumulating wealth, and avoiding his fellow men.”
FROM EAST TO WEST; FROM CIVILIZATION TO WILDERNESS
Marsh had graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in 1823, having studied medicine for two years. He planned to return to finish his medical training, and headed west and earned tuition money as a teacher at Fort Snelling on the Mississippi River frontier. While there he became a partner with a half-French, half-Sioux woman named Marguerite Decouteaux, who gave birth to a son they named Charles.
Marsh never returned to Harvard, however. He worked his way further west and earning a living as a doctor, merchant, Indian Agent, and trapper. Along the way, he acquired the skills he would need to survive as the first Anglo-European settler in what became Contra Costa County. When he arrived in what would become Brentwood, with the help of Volvon tribespeople, he built an adobe house and established a great cattle ranch by accepting livestock as fees for his medical services.
Marsh opened his house to visitors who were accustomed to dropping in unannounced. His home became a stopping-off point for travelers including such notable figures as Kit Carson, John Sutter, and John Fremont. Marsh was hoping to bring law and order to the Wild West by attracting American settlers and gaining statehood, so he wrote a flurry of letters to influential people back east, extolling California’s temperate climate, abundant wildlife, and wide-open territory. His letters inspired John Bidwell and John Bartleson to form the first caravan of settlers to cross the Sierra Nevada to California. In 1841 they trudged 2,000 miles in five months, establishing what would become the historic California Trail with its beginnings in at the Missouri, across the Great Plains, over the Rocky Mountains, and into Rancho Los Meganos as its original terminus. For the next several decades a great people movement would follow in their steps, branching off towards Western California destinations with many of them heading to the fabled treasures buried along the streambeds in California’s Gold Country.
A bandit named Claudio Feliz abused Marsh’s hospitality by spending an afternoon as Marsh’s guest, posing as an Argentinian horse trader. A few hours later in the dead of night, he returned to the rancho with a gang of desperados, beating and robbing Marsh and killing one of his visitors. Two years later Feliz would be slain and control of his gang passed to his brother-in-law, the notorious bandit Joaquin Murrieta.
A STONE HOUSE MANSION IN THE WILDERNESS
Shortly after Feliz’s attack, Marsh married Abigail Tuck, who bore him a daughter they named Alice. Together, the two of them began building a sprawling mansion in the wilderness as befitting Marsh’s growing stature as wealthy landowner. The resplendent structure had seven gables, arched windows, and marble fireplaces. A 10-foot-wide veranda ran around three sides of the house, and a tower 60 feet tall provided Marsh with sweeping views of his rancho. The 7,000-square-foot brick and sandstone edifice was built in the Gothic Revival style that enjoyed a couple decades of popularity for estate homes but that persisted for churches nationwide for another century.
Marsh built the house in honor of his believed wife, Abby, who tragically died of tuberculosis in 1855, just a few months before the house was completed. Marsh himself lived in it only briefly because the next year he was murdered by vaqueros (Mexican cowboys) who felt they had been underpaid for branding Marsh’s cattle.
Following Marsh’s death his house and rancho passed to Alice, and to her older half-brother, Charles. The two siblings had financial problems, so the house and land were foreclosed upon in the mid-1870s and was occupied by a succession of managers and tenant farmers until the mid-1960s.
FROM RANCHO TO STATE PARK
In 1994 the non-profit John Marsh Historic Trust (JMHT) was founded with a mission of preserving and restoring the Stone House. In 2007 the S.H. Cowell Foundation worked with JMHT to move 3,700 acres of the former rancho into the California State Parks system. In 2012 the City of Brentwood adopted a General Plan for the newly renamed Marsh Creek State Historic Park. The California Cultural and Historical Endowment joined the effort and more than $3 million was invested in work for emergency repairs and stabilizing the building. In 2017, the first phase of stabilization was completed, including the laying of a new foundation plus application of construction foam to the inside of exterior walls and steel studs to bolster the sandstone walls.
MORE THAN MARSH
Compelling as it is, the history of John Marsh and Rancho Los Meganos is just one of the stories encompassed by the Marsh Creek State Historic Park. Evidence has been uncovered next to the house indicating that the site had been occupied by primitive people some 7,000 years ago, more than 25 centuries before the pyramids in Egypt were built. In 2002 Archaeologists uncovered the site of more than 130 human burials dating 3,000 to 4,000 years in the past, including a few full skeletons. In a 2015 East Bay Times article, Jelmer Eerkens of UC Davis’ Department of Anthropology estimated that many as 500 burial sites may be located in the park. He said that analysis of the bones from some skulls indicated that they were probably from venerated family members rather than trophies of war. The Sacramento Archaeology Society deemed the site “one of the most significant in the State Parks system.”
Thousands of years after the original primitive inhabitants had vanished, Volvon tribespeople, who were part of the Miwok language group, occupied the site. They provided workers for Marsh’s rancho and companions for Abby and baby Alice. In return, Marsh provided medical care and food when needed, as well as protection from other settlers. THE ORIGINAL CALIFORNIA COWBOYS AND WILDLIFE
Mexican culture also has a strong presence in the park. Prior to becoming a state, California was a part of Mexico known as known as Alta California. Marsh’s Rancho Los Meganos was previously a Mexican land grant. Marsh’s operation, which often included rounding up wild animals, relied on vaqueros, without whom the rancho could not have functioned. According to cowboyhistory.wordpress.com:
“The only people who knew anything at all about handling the huge herds of wild, mean, feral long horned cattle and wild horses was the Mexican Vaquero. The result was that nearly everything the early American ranchers and cowboys learned about open range ranching and livestock handling was learned from the Mexican vaquero.”
The park is also home to more than a dozen threatened or endangered species of plants and animals. Golden eagles frequently traverse the area, which is now part of 110,000 acres of contiguous protected space in the Diablo Range, including Mount Diablo and East Bay Regional Park District land.
Outdoor enthusiasts will explore the network of trails crisscrossing the park as part of the East Bay Regional Parks’ extensive network, as well as to Mt. Diablo.
AN INTERPRETIVE CENTER FOR FOURTH GRADERS (AND THE REST OF US)
In 2014, the Trust became an official cooperating association for State Parks and broadened its mission to benefit the entire park. The General Plan includes two visitor centers, 70 miles of trails, hundreds of picnic and camping sites, equestrian facilities, RV facilities, and accommodations for special events.
In addition to continuing its work to restore the Stone House, the JMHT has worked with local schools and State Parks to develop a field trip curriculum for fourth graders studying California history. They will enjoy hands-on activities such as making rope, throwing lariats, carrying cow hides, stamping leather and creating a land grant application. Previously, such experiential field trips meant traveling to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento at significant expense that can be avoided by staying local.
To enable expansion of its field trip program, the Trust is currently raising money for an Interpretive Center (IC) to be built in front of the house. The IC will also enable part of the park to be open on a regular basis for hikes, picnics or educational visits as the funding and planning for opening the entre park moves ahead.
As part of its effort to raise awareness of the park and its potential, the Trust hosts a Heritage Day event each October. The free event includes hikes, music and information from like-minded non-profits, as well as hands-on activities and presentations on the park’s history. This year, the event brought descendants of both Marsh and Joaquin Murrieta together on the site for the first time since Feliz’s raid 168 years ago. They joined the event’s major sponsor, movie producer Todd Myers, who has begun work on a new movie, “Joaquin Murrieta, the Legend Untold.” The movie, expected to be out next year, draws on official records and family histories to tell Murrieta’s story from a Mexican perspective.
The next tale on this storied site is now being written. Folks will be able to experience, and preserve, the history of Marsh, Native Americans, Mexicans, wildlife and open space. It will all be accessible to local, regional, statewide and even national visitors.
Fortunately, if they come from Independence, Missouri, they won’t have to trudge 2,000 miles to get here.