Love, Life and Death on the California Frontier:
A Woman's Life in Old Contra Costa

By William Mero

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 a tiny 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 Abigail Tuck in Chelmsford, Mass. She was bright, independent, beautiful and well educated. Abby had a spirit of adventure that was unusual for a 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. She had many suitors but found none of the men acceptable to an independently minded woman. After gold was discovered in California, she sailed to San Francisco with a party of missionaries seeking fortune and better health. Abby suffered from a recurring lung infection (probably tuberculosis). Her health and death were constantly on her mind.

Once in the far West she met a mysterious cattle baron, Doctor John Marsh, a Harvard graduate living on the edge of civilization. After a whirlwind courtship, she became the mistress of an agricultural empire, the Los Meganos Rancho. Abby was suddenly thrust into a new life far different from that of her proper New England upbringing. Experiencing loneliness, hardship, danger and stalked by tragedy, she also found the love and devotion that she had long sought.

The following letters give us an unusual glimpse into a time and place where disease, accidents and outlaws made death a constant companion. We will let Abby and John Marsh speak to us in their own words. The grammar, spelling and punctuation is theirs and has been retained whenever possible.

July 3, 1845 - Abby to her brother and sisters
(written from Raleigh, N.C.)

...You wanted to know where my partner for life [is]. I suppose I believe that matches are made in heaven and I do not know as I have had any particular revelation so I do not know as I could tell you. I suppose if the Lord has made any body for me he will come along some time but I have not got ready for him yet. I do not think much of getting married for the sake not being an old maid. I think it is best to wait until you can find some one that you can love...

November 27, 1850

My trip out here (to California) was more romantic than pleasant. On the Atlantic side I was sick all the way. On the isthmus it was very romantic up the Shagras (Chagras) river, is some of the most beautiful scenery I ever saw... We were detained at Panama (city) about six weeks. This is one of the most filthy places I ever saw, and yet there are many things about it which are very beautiful and romantic...

Our trip up the Pacific side was very pleasant in some respects. We had fine weather and good health, but had fever on the boat...

San Francisco has a very unpleasant climate. It is very pleasant some mornings, after (sic) it generally blows a perfect gale and the clouds of dust make it very unpleasant...

March 10, 1851
(written from San Francisco)

...he (Mr. Grennell) has written me quite a number of letters to return (to San Jose) and is coming down here tomorrow they (sic) say in order to get me to go back with him, but I do not think I shall. So you see that I am in great demand here, ladies are not quite as plenty here and are valued more highly. I think every gentleman ought to come to California and then he would know how to [favor] these ladies...

I am trying to make myself useful though I am not earning any thing. I am tired of trying to earn money here for it comes to hard for me to get much of it. Though I would like a few hundred. One that is ready to do any thing and every thing, can make money here but I will never stoop to do any thing that a New England lady would think degrading. I do not love to teach but as this is the most honorable of any thing that a lady can do and as useful as [any] thing, I am willing to try...

...It is very healthy here. I think it is one of the most healthy climates on the globe. My health was never better. Well, I have no thought of getting married any more than I had when I left home, but a lady can get married here very [easy] if she is not particular...

July 14, 1851

(Abby gently breaks the news to her family of her meeting and marriage to Dr. John Marsh.)

...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 [where] we [were], [ventured] 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, [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.

(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
A.J. Marsh

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...


The Marsh Family


August 29, 1852

(Abby informs her family of a new addition to the Marsh household.)

...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 [and a] great many of them and would die if left to themselves...

April 18, 1853 (letter to parents)

You want to know how we find our cattle, when we want to drive them all together which is called a [roundup], some eight or ten men go in different directions and drive to a particular place, when the cattle get there they stop. This is called the rodeo ground which the cattle all know as well as we do. Then if we want to sell any we point out those we want to sell and drive them off. Our cattle are all marked in the ears and branded on the hips so that we know ours from other peoples and every owner has his brand and mark. So that if our cattle get on to other people's [crops] or farms we go and drive them home and other people do the same. They mark these once a year on every rancho.

...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...

(Abby would never tell her family the true dangers of living on an isolated California rancho. Less than seven months before Abby married John Marsh, the ranch had been attacked by a band of outlaws led by Claudio Feliz, Joaquin Murrieta's brother-in-law. Claudio mounted an armed assault on Dr. Marsh's Rancho Los Meganos, on December 5, 1850. After spending a pleasant afternoon as a guest of John Marsh, Claudio returned that night with a dozen outlaws armed with guns and lances. They overran the rancho, captured Marsh, looted the adobe ranch house, and just for fun, speared to death William Harrington, an unresisting Anglo visitor. The bandits escaped with $300, gold watches and guns. The attacks by outlaws on isolated East Bay ranches continued well into the 1860's.)

...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...

(Here Abby stretches the truth a bit. Indian raiders attacked the ranch and livestock regularly from 1838 through 1848. The Indians were then replaced by bandits that raided the local ranchos.)

He (the Doctor) is getting along very well with every thing and has but little to trouble him, but some squatters. I suppose you have learned what they are...

(As with John Sutter, by the summer of 1852, growing numbers of squatters were taking Marsh's land and killing his cattle. The political power of the squatter faction in Contra Costa, made legal remedies virtually useless. Juries were tampered with and judges bribed. Desperate, Doctor Marsh attempted to organize the vigilantes against Gilbert Leonard and John Osborne, prominent squatters and cattle killers. Marsh was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit assault and battery. He was convicted and fined $500. The State Supreme Court later overturned the conviction.)

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...

(Life on the California frontier could be brutal as well a lonely for Abby.)

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...

(Abby health is finally starting to fail. Within a year she will die in her husband's arms.)

July 16, 1854

We are all very well except for myself. I do not know what ails me. I have no appetite and am so weak. I have been visiting about two weeks down at our landing and at Antioch about three miles below on the river, and I do not feel so well as I did before I went. We have a very pleasant family living at our house at the landing. The Doctor...has been repairing his wharf, which is about completed and then we hope the Steamer will stop every night...

...I have no woman with me but have a very good cook and the Spanish women do my washing. We have a good many families now for neighbors. Some only a mile and a half. Some very good ones and I am not so lonely, as I was...

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.

June 17

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.

June 18

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

John Marsh

January 3, 1856

San Francisco

My Very Dear Sir

I received some time ago your kind letter written after you had received the news of the death of your daughter & my very beloved wife & at the same time letters from several of her sisters. I have delayed some time in answering them, for my mind has been so overwhelmed with grief that it was hardly in my power. I have been for the last two months residing in this city only going home occasionally. Indeed it seems to me that I have no home now that I have lost my companion, the joy of my life...

It was her repeated request during her last illness that I should marry again, & until then, that our little Alice should be in the care of Mrs. Thomson, an excellent lady & especial (sic) friend who resides in a house of mine at the landing. She is there at present in perfect health. A bright beautiful blue eyed little girl full of life & intelligence. She often speaks of her gran papa & gran mama & when I have been away longer than usual [she] asks if I have been to see them.

I have long desired to take a journey to the land of my birth & the home of my childhood but it seems nearly impossible to be absent so long & I have no particular time set for it. My late wife's request that I should marry again was no doubt dictated by a regard for my happiness & the welfare of our little daughter, but it seems to me about impossible to comply with it at present - who is worthy to take her place?

If I should find no one here, I may perhaps go east for that purpose - I enclose to you the receipt of the Express Company for the trunk containing the clothing - please let me know when you receive it. - I shall write to you occasionally & let you hear from your granddaughter & shall always be glad to hear from you -

Please give my love to Mrs. Tuck & Elizabeth

Yours Truly
John Marsh

(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.)

October 30, 1856

(The Tuck family is informed of the murder of Dr. Marsh.)

Deacon Amos Tuck
South Danvers, Mass.

Dear Sir

I have this day recd from my Son the sad news of the death of my brother Dr. John Marsh of California. He was murdered by two Spaniards as he was riding in his buggy to Martinez & had arrived within two miles of that place & about 1/4 of a mile of Col. Tiff's House when he was dragged from his buggy his skull broken his throat cut from ear to ear & stabbed through the heart about 6 1/2 o'clock in the evening Sept. 24. His body was not found till the next morning when his horse wandered in too (sic) the town which aroused the suspicion where the people turned out & found him & arrested one of them before night. The Drs.' money & $115 was found on him & he confessed enough to convict him & he was fully committed for trial. My son is at the Ranch looking after the Drs.' Property & the interest of the little orphan Alice.

Yours Reptly
James Marsh


Alice Francis Marsh grew into a beautiful and wealthy young lady. She married John Cameron, and moved to Oakland where they built the elegant Cameron House. John Cameron invested in several unwise land developments eventually losing his wife's fortune. John was said to have been an alcoholic and abusive towards Alice. Alice divorced him and moved to Santa Barbara where she raised a daughter. She never remarried. Alice Marsh died in 1927 and is buried in Mountain View cemetery near John and Abby.

It was claimed that shortly before Marsh died, Ygnacio Sibrian put out a $500 contract on John Marsh following a bitter court trial. One of the Marsh assassins was Sibrian's brother-in-law. Two of John Marsh's killers were tracked down and brought to trial ten years after the murder. The third was never caught. Charles Marsh, John Marsh's son by an earlier marriage was deputized in order to arrest his father's murders. One killer turned state evidence and was freed after the trial. The other served 25 years in San Quentin for second-degree murder before being pardoned by an outgoing Governor.

Alice and Charles shared in the Marsh inheritance. The United States Land Commission in 1860 formally recognized over 13,000 acres as belonging to the Marsh rancho. The ranch was eventually sold to the Balfour Guthrie Company, a British conglomerate, who planted vast orchards and introduced modern irrigation techniques to the Brentwood area. Eventually the Cowell Company bought the remaining Marsh ranch acreage along with the old Stone House.

Today much of the original Marsh ranch, Los Meganos, as well as the Stone House that John built for Abby have passed into the hands of the State of California. For the present much of the land remains as it was at the time of John and Abby Marsh. There is a currently a major effort to create a 3500 acre Pioneer State Park around the beautiful, old Stone House to commemorate the cultures of the Native American, Mexican rancho and the early American pioneer periods.

Sources and Suggested Reading:

  1. Lyman, George D., 1930, John Marsh Pioneer: The Life Story of a Trail-Blazer on Six Frontiers, Charles Scribner's Sons, 394 pgs.
  2. Marsh Family papers, Bancroft Library

Go Back


Leave comments for the webmaster here.