Juana Briones lived in Spanish, Mexican and U.S. California and she left her mark on all three. Now she is receiving the attention she deserves.
Who was Juana Briones?
Sometimes historical research presents us with fascinating figures that have largely been overlooked. Such is the case with Sylveria Pacheco, a woman born at Mission Santa Clara, whose life I have been chronicling. Another fascinating Alta California woman is Juana Briones de Miranda. Juana was a foundational figure in the Mexican and early U.S. period of the San Francisco Bay Area.
During her lifetime, Juana was known and loved by many people because of her energy, her business sense and her concern for others. Even so, today she is still relatively unknown, but more people deserve to know about her.
Juana Briones was the daughter of Marcos Briones of San Luis Potosí, New Spain (today’s Mexico) and Isidora (or Ysidora) Tapia of Culiacán, New Spain.
Marcos’ father, Vicente (Juana’s grandfather), arrived as a soldier with the Portolá expedition of 1769. It is not clear when Marcos arrived, but he likely also accompanied Portolá as a soldier. In the census of Alta California of 1790, Marcos was listed a soldier at the Monterey Presidio and 29 years old at the time. Isidora’s father, Felipe, was also a soldier, and he brought his family north with Juan Bautista de Anza in 1775-76, when Ysidora was five years old. According to the census, both Marcos and Ysidora were considered mulatos, or people of mixed African and European descent.
Marcos and Ysidora would eventually go on to have a total of 12 children. Marcos was stationed at the Monterey presidio, at Mission San Antonio, and also at Branciforte (present-day Santa Cruz), where he was comisionado. It was while he and his family were at Branciforte that Juana was born, in about 1802. Marcos was later sent to the San Francisco Presidio, where Juana would live for some time.
Early Life and Marriage
We don’t know much about Juana’s childhood, except that it was probably typical of children growing up at presidios and missions. Along with her brothers and sisters, Juana probably had plenty of chores to do, but also found time to have fun, and learn things from both the padres and the native people she knew.
In 1820, Juana married Apolinario Miranda, a Spanish soldier whose parents were of Yaqui Indian descent. She and Apolinario lived close to her family near the San Francisco Presidio for some 20 years on a ranch named Ojo de agua de Figueroa (“Figueroa’s Spring”). They had 11 children together, though she lost four of them, three in the measles epidemic of 1828. In 1834, she adopted Cecilia, a young Indian girl who whose parents had died.
Juana’s time with Apolinario was not happy, though. Her husband drank too much and was abusive to Juana, for which his military superiors reprimanded him numerous times. Juana appealed to Church authorities and they granted her a separation from Apolinario in 1843. Apolinario died around 1848, and for the rest of her life, Juana was on her own as a single mother.
While living near the presidio, Juana began some business activities in the growing community of Yerba Buena. Yerba Buena would eventually evolve into the city of San Francisco. She sold milk and other supplies to local people and foreign visitors, all from an adobe house on a farm at the base of Loma Alta, today’s Telegraph Hill. She and her sister Guadalupe lived in the first structures built outside of the walls of the presidio or the mission in what is today San Francisco.
Juana was known for her openness and hospitality. After Mexican independence, when foreign ships began to make frequent visits to the coast, she helped four men — two Americans, a Filipino man and a Native American from Connecticut — to escape from their ship. The men lived with her and Apolinario until 1832, and settled in Alta California.
Owning a Rancho
In the 1840s, Juana became the owner of Rancho La Purísima Concepción in Santa Clara County. The rancho had been part of Mission Santa Clara and was granted to Gorgonio, a well-respected Indian of that mission. Juana was a friend of Gorgonio and his family, and bought the 4,400-acre rancho from Gorgonio in 1844. The rancho took in what is today Sunnyvale and Los Altos. Later, she was one of the founding members of Mayfield (today’s Palo Alto), where she lived until her death in 1889.
Caring for Others
It was Juana’s reputation as a healer that truly made her beloved throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. She had learned the medicinal values of the various herbs in the San Francisco region from the local Ohlone Indians, including yerba buena, which provided the first name of the city of San Francisco. Her aid to the people of the town of Bolinas during a smallpox outbreak was well-known, and she was loved among Hispanic settlers, native people and Anglo-Americans alike. She was also a sought-after midwife, and helped deliver many babies amongst the people of northern Alta California.
Juana Briones’ Legacy
Juana was a woman of deep faith, and was a friend of Fr. Magín Catalá of Mission Santa Clara. Catalá had a reputation as a spiritual counselor with a gift for curing people’s illnesses. Later in her life, Juana was one of those who testified to the saintliness of Fr. Catalá during the early phases of the process of his canonization.
Juana had a long and impactful life — she lived to be almost 90 years old. She died on December 3, 1889, and lies buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Menlo Park.
Although Juana was not a famous politician or military figure, she left an important legacy in California. She was an active and caring person who impacted the lives of many people — Hispanic, indigenous and Anglo-American. And although she could be called “the mother of San Francisco,” no street or building bears her name (though there is a commemorative plaque). Isn’t it about time?
Loss of the Juan Briones House
For many years Juana’s adobe house stood in Palo Alto. It was a testament to her contribution to the community and to the esteem in which she was held in both the Mexican and American eras. In 2011, however, after many years of struggles with preservationists and local history organizations, the owners of the land on which it stood went through with plans to tear it down.
Although her house, built some time in the 1840s, was demolished, members of local history organizations managed to recover a portion of one of its walls. It was later put on display in an exhibit in her honor at the California Historical Society. Here you can find more information about the unsuccessful fight to save Juana’s house: www.pastheritage.org/JuanaBriones.
Renewed Interest in Her Life
Over the last several years, interest in Juana’s life has been growing. In 2014, the California Historical Society produced an exhibit titled “Juana Briones y su California ~ Pionera, Fundadora, Curandera.” The bilingual exhibition brought together paintings, maps, portraits, legal documents, and artifacts to offer a three-dimensional portrait of Juana and her times.
In October of 2018, the Los Altos History museum launched an exhibit titled “Inspired by Juana: Doña de la Frontera.” It included pieces produced by local high school students at a two-week Summer Workshop focused on creating works for the exhibition.
There is much to learn about Juana Briones and her legacy. I recommend some of the following resources:
Juana Briones of Nineteenth-Century California. For those wishing to go deep in understanding Juana’s life and times, the best resource is Jeanne Farr McDonnell’s book Juana Briones of Nineteenth-Century California. The author does a splendid job of using all the historical sources available. She paints a picture of the circumstances of Juana Briones’ life and her contribution to the times and places in which she lived.
The Stories of Juana Briones: Alta California Pioneer. This book offers the story of Juana Briones in a format perfect for 3rd or 4th grade readers. With large print and lively illustrations, Juana comes alive on the pages of this engaging read. My 3rd grade daughter loved it.
Juana Briones y su California ~ Pionera, Fundadora, Curandera. The online exhibit curated by the California Historical Society. Full of artifacts and images to paint the picture of Juana’s life and times.
Inspired by Juana: Doña de la Frontera. An exhibit at the Los Altos History Museum focussed on drawing lessons from Juana’s life for conversations about the present. Several events have been planned around the exhibit.
I owe special thanks to David Cresson, President of the Half Moon Bay History Association (www.halfmoonbayhistory.org) for providing valuable information about Juana and her sister Guadalupe.
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