by Allecia Vermillion
San Francisco Museum and Historical Society Spring 2009
This is believed to be a photograph of Juana Briones taken in the 1860s, but it has not been definitively identified. Image Courtesy of Point Reyes National Seashore Museum.
Juana Briones was born in March 1802 in Villa de Branciforte, a secular village established by the Spanish at the site of present-day Santa Cruz. Like many of her contemporaries, Juana was a mestiza of mixed Spanish and Native American heritage. Her father and grandfather arrived as part of Spain’s very first push into Alta California, with the expeditions of Gaspar de Portolá and Juan Bautista de Anza.
Young Juana spent the first 10 years of her life in a wattle-and-daub house, before her father moved the entire family to the San Francisco Presidio. There she married Apolinario Miranda, a soldier, when she was 18 (a somewhat late age for women of her generation). Briones gave birth to 11 children, but four did not survive past childhood in the rugged frontier environment. Three of their children died within one month in 1828, and a fourth only one year later.
As a girl, Briones was under her father’s total authority until she married and that responsibility transferred to her husband. While Juana’s full married name was Juana de la Trinidad Briones y Tapia de Miranda, she used the name Juana Briones in all her business dealings. Her children used the surname Miranda.
In 1840, Briones brought a suit against her husband for physical abuse after repeated episodes of violence. Her husband was literate, while Juana could neither read nor write, but she navigated the male-leaning legal system, hiring people to write on her behalf. Society considered marriage indissoluble at the time, but Briones appealed to courts repeatedly and was ultimately granted a separation. Apolinario Miranda died in 1847 at age 54.
In the 1830s, Briones established her own homestead down the road from the land she previously occupied with her husband at the Presidio. Her claim in the town of Yerba Buena was in the area of the current North Beach neighborhood. Today Washington Square occupies the land that once served as her corral and dairy farm.
Here Briones set up her own farm with her children. In Yerba Buena she sold milk, took in sewing and offered nursing and healing services. She most likely also sold produce, beef, chicken and eggs to keep the household profitable. Throughout her life Briones was also known in the area for her abilities as a curandera, with native and herbal medicine and healing.
Briones briefly established another home at Mission Dolores but in 1844 she purchased the 4,400-acre Rancho La Purísima Concepción in the foothills near present-day Palo Alto. She bought the land from its Native American owners to expand her cattle ranching business. Briones’ status as a female landowner was unusual in an era where women generally could only possess land they inherited from a deceased husband. Despite her lack of formal education, Briones was a keen businesswoman with a seemingly intuitive understanding of how to make her case with the Mexican governmental system.
However when California became part of the United States and gained its statehood in 1850, Briones and her Hispanic contemporaries were required to certify their land ownership before the U.S. Land Commission. This legal process included a number of hurdles for all Mexican landholders, but especially for women and racial minorities. The legal process was too difficult or expensive for many people who had owned land under Mexican law. Briones could neither read nor write, but she hired an astute lawyer and navigated the court system carefully and precisely. Her legal battle for property ownership ultimately made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Through persistence, her business abilities and several legal battles aided by an effective lawyer, she ultimately emerged with documented ownership of her ranch and the property in Yerba Buena. Briones later purchased other tracts of land—five total in her lifetime—and eventually moved to the town of Mayfield, now part of Palo Alto. She built a home there in 1884 and remained in Mayfield until her death in 1889.
Briones’ life reflects California’s transition from the rugged Spanish and Mexican frontier to a more formalized society as part of the United States. The adobe home Briones built on her original rancho around 1845 still stands today in Palo Alto. Historians are working to convert the home into a hands-on history center.
More Resources on Juana Briones -
Juana Briones of 19th Century California, by Jeanne Farr McDonnell (The University of Arizona Press, 2008)