John Marsh and Marsh House

John Marsh not only witnessed California ’s formative period – he helped create it. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1836, just after the Spanish missions had been secularized and much of California was a Mexican province. He moved on to the sleepy little pueblo of San José, and then to the village of Yerba Buena (now San Francisco ). The “village” had exactly three buildings at that time. At that early time he was the only person in the area with knowledge of western medicine. Marsh was largely responsible for the first rush of settlers to California, nearly a decade before the discovery of gold in the Sierra foothills. He advocated for a railroad to link the Mississippi River to the Pacific coast, offering a right-of-way through his rancho. And he built a magnificent stone house for his beloved wife Abby, who never had the chance to live in it.

Marsh House was Considered an "Architectural Gem" in the 1850s. Photographer Unknown.

At a time when most non-Indian people lived in Spanish-style adobes, Marsh built a three-story mansion of brick, timber, and local sandstone. The Gothic Revival home was designed by San Francisco architect Thomas Boyd. It had seven gables, arched windows, a marble fireplace in the living room, and a tower 65 feet tall with a panoramic view of the rancho. Around the outside of the mansion was a wide portico supported by octagonal pillars and finished with a balustrade. Sadly, Abby Marsh died of chronic tuberculosis in August of 1855, less than a year before the house was finished. Marsh himself lived in it for only a few weeks. In September, 1856, while on his way to the town of Martinez, he was ambushed by three vaqueros who claimed he owed them money for the work they had done branding his calves. Marsh refused to pay them and was murdered.

After Marsh’s death, the rancho and the stone house passed to his two surviving children: Alice, his daughter by Abby, and Charles, his son by a French-Sioux woman named Marguerite who had lived with him back in Illinois. Today the Marsh House stands in a state of “arrested decay.” It was badly damaged in the earthquakes of 1868 and 1906, and has never been completely restored. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 and is now the focal point of Cowell Ranch/John Marsh Property State Historic Park.

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