Utah History to Go
History Matters
The Salt Lake Tribune Arch
Old Adventurer Lured the First Wagons to Utah
Will Bagley
Published: 01/20/2002 Edition: Final Section: Utah Page: B1

"Wherever John Marsh went," his biographer wrote, "there was romance and adventure." Those who met Marsh also knew there was plenty of aggravation.

After graduating from Harvard in 1823, Marsh opened the first school in Minnesota at Fort Snelling and married an Indian  woman.

Following his wife's death in 1833, Marsh had wandered in 1836 to Los Angeles, where he became one of the first Americans to settle in California.

Using skills picked up from an army surgeon, he began building a fortune as California's only doctor. He purchased a 17,000-acre ranch in the shadow of Mount Diablo for $500, naming it Los Meganos, the sand dunes.

Marsh's medical fees, paid in cattle, built one of the largest herds in early California.

He launched an aggressive campaign to lure Americans to California. Marsh's letters, including a vague description of a route, appeared in newspapers such as The Western Atlas.

The Western Emigration Society recruited 500 people who pledged to head west, "armed and equipped to cross the Rocky Mountains to California."

In May 1841, more than 60 Americans gathered at Sapling Grove, Mo., to start the journey to Marsh's ranch. They included a young teacher named John Bidwell, who kept a journal.

The Bidwell-Bartleson party, worn down to 32 men and one woman, became the first emigrants to cross Utah with wagons. Nancy Kelsey, barely 18 years old and carrying a baby daughter, was the first white woman to see Great Salt Lake.

Miraculously, "with no guide, no compass, nothing but the sun to direct them," the entire party  reached Marsh's ranch on Nov. 4.

Marsh killed two pigs to feed the starving emigrants, but some felt he was a bad host. The doctor complained the party had cost him more than $100, and Bidwell "found him one of the most selfish of mortals."

After Mexican officials arrested some of the Americans, Marsh paid to get them passports. Bidwell despised Marsh, and his recollections didn't give the good doctor proper credit for his help.

Marsh grew wealthy during the Gold Rush, and the old curmudgeon married schoolteacher Abigail Tuck in 1851 after a whirlwind courtship. Their daughter Alice was born the next year.

He built his family a Gothic-Revival mansion dubbed Stone House, but Abigail died before it was completed. Marsh lived in the home for only a month.

Over time, Marsh's prickly personality and bad press overshadowed his achievements. After a fight over pay, his vaqueros murdered him in 1856.

Tenant farmers occupied Stone House, and eventually the state acquired the mansion and it fell into ruin.

The magnificent wreck is now a candidate for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's most-endangered list, and activists are working to restore this momentous treasure.

Kathleen Mero and the John Marsh Historic Trust are working to preserve Marsh's Ranch (kmero@ix.netcom.com).

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