Doctor John Marsh

Doctor John Marsh is one of California’s early colorful characters, one of many who reinvented themselves in the West–for although he treated dozens of patients (and never lost one), Marsh was never a genuine doctor.  Born in 1799 and raised in Boston, he decided to study medicine when he entered Harvard.  Marsh completed an anatomy course, studied under a practicing physician, and obtained his bachelor’s degree, a requirement for attending medical school.  To raise money for his medical education he took a tutoring position in southwest Wisconsin, where he became fascinated with the area’s Sioux Indians.  He was appointed an Indian agent and fell in love with a half-French, half-Sioux woman named Marguerite.  Blamed for an Indian uprising, Marsh fled to Illinois with his common-law wife and their child, Charles.  Mother and son were supposed to stay in Illinois when Marsh returned to Wisconsin to resume his duties.  Instead an unhappy Marguerite left the boy with a responsible family and undertook a perilous journey to rejoin her lover.  She made it back, but died in his arms.  Devastated and morose, John Marsh arranged for his son’s upbringing with the Illinois family and headed for the Missouri frontier.  For a short time he was a merchant and bar owner in Independence, before moving on to Santa Fe.  Hearing intriguing stories about California, he joined an exploration party, arriving in Los Angeles in 1836 via the southern route.  Learning the town needed a doctor, Marsh presented his Harvard diploma–written in Latin–to authorities, telling them it was a degree in medicine.  Since no one could translate the language, they believed him.  Marsh practiced in Los Angeles for a year until he sought greener pastures in northern California, where he bought a ranch on the eastern slope of Mt. Diablo.  He lived there for the rest of his life.  He was reunited with his son Charles in the 1850s, just months before John Marsh was murdered by a former employee.

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