Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Historically Speaking: Land Ownership in California

The recent debate over federal ownership of land in Utah brings into sharp focus the ownership and use of land in states where the federal government is a predominant or majority owner.

In California today, according to a 2004 U.S. Geological Survey and a 2012 review by the Congressional Research Service, about 45 percent of state land is owned and administered by the federal government.

BLM: Bureau of Land Management; DOD: Department of Defense; FS: Forest Service;
FWS: Fish and Wildlife Service; NPS: National Park Service
Western Federal Lands Managed by Five Agencies (detail), 2014
Congressional Research Service 
California’s early history sheds light on how land ownership significantly influenced both the development of the state and the lives of its inhabitants.
No time was perhaps more tumultuous in California’s land ownership history than the transition periods from the Spanish era (1776–1821) to the Mexican era (1821–46) to the American era (beginning 1846). These years witnessed the shift from ownership by the Spanish Crown (Spanish era), to government and private ownership in the form of land grants, or ranchos (Spanish and Mexican eras), to federal, state, and private ownership (American era).

Gerald A. Eddy, Map of the Old Spanish and Mexican Ranchos of Los Angeles County, 1937
David Rumsey Historical Map Collection
The story of landowner Juana Briones y Tapia de Miranda (1892–1889)—a woman of Spanish, indigenous, and African descent whose life spanned the Spanish, Mexican, and early American eras—illustrates this period of California’s history. Her example is made all the more remarkable by the fact that she was one of the few women landowners of her time. Although no known photograph of Juana exists, we know a good deal about the times in which she lived.

The following is excerpted and adapted from Juana Briones y su California: Pionera, Fundadora, Curandera (Juana Briones and Her California: Pioneer, Founder, Healer), a California Historical Society bilingual exhibition (http://californiahistoricalsociety.org/exhibitions/juana-briones/exhibit/#/).


Diego Francoso, Californias: Antigua y Nueva, 1787
California Historical Society
Diego Francoso’s map of California was published in Francisco Palóu’s 1787 biography of Father Junípero Serra, founder of California’s first nine missions. It was the first map to delineate the boundary between Baja and Alta California, then called Antigua (Old) and Nueva (New) California
The Spanish Empire established the presidios (military garrisons), pueblos (civilian settlements), and missions (religious institutions) in its remote northernmost frontier of Alta California. During this era, Juana and her family lived at Villa de Branciforte (present-day Santa Cruz), mission Santa Clara, and the presidio of San Francisco.

G. M. Waseurtz, Mission Santa Clara on the Bay of San Francisco, 1842–43
Courtesy of the Society of California Pioneers
Juana and her family had deep ties to Mission Santa Clara, depicted here by the
Swedish traveler G. M. Waseurtz. Juana frequently visited Father Magín Matías Catalá,
who served at the mission from 1794 until his death in 1830.


After the transition to Mexican rule, the Briones family established a farm at El Polín Spring outside the presidio. In the 1830s, Juana and her children relocated to the small town of Yerba Buena, where Juana farmed and ran a dairy. There she forged a reputation as an astute businesswomen, entrepreneur, curandera (folk healer), and humanitarian.

She also developed an exceptionally diverse social network that would help her survive and flourish during the American period. Her husband, Apolinario Miranda, with whom she no longer lived, was granted a lot adjacent to the presidio called El Ojo de Agua de Figueroa.

El Polín Spring, 2004
Courtesy of Tennessee Hollow Watershed Archaeology Project,
Stanford University and the Presidio Trust
The Briones extended family lived at El Polín Spring, adjacent to the Presidio of San Francisco. Archaeological investigations in this small valley have revealed numerous features associated with colonial use of the area. These include building foundations, as seen in this photograph, features for collecting refuse and water, and a kiln.
G. M. Waseurtz, Rough Sketch of a Kitchen and Dining Room on a Farm in California, 1842–43
Courtesy of the Society of California Pioneers
This sketch provides an intimate, if somewhat fanciful, glimpse into domestic life in Mexican California.
Juana and other Californios lived in small adobe houses with gabled, tiled roofs. Juana’s Yerba Buena adobe
was built in the area now known as North Beach, just north of present-day Washington Square..
In 1844 Juana purchased a 4,439-acre rancho in rural Santa Clara County—Rancho La Purísima Concepción—from two native Ohlone men, José Gorgonio and his son José Ramón. She relocated there in 1846. In 1847, she obtained a formal land grant to her Yerba Buena property and inherited El Ojo de Agua de Figueroa after Apolinario’s death.


Although Juana left San Francisco for her rancho before 1848, she could not escape the pressures of the new American era. Among them was passage of the California Land Act of 1851, which placed the burden of proof on every holder of a Spanish or Mexican land grant to prove title in an American court of law.

Plat of the Rancho La Purisima Concepcion, Finally Confirmed to Juana Briones
[Santa Clara Co., Calif.] as Located by the U.S. Surveyor General, 1863
Land Case Map E-281, courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
Establishing rights to Mexican-era land grants required extensive documentation. To support her 1852 claim
to Rancho la Purísima Concepción, Juana needed an official survey, as required by the new land laws.
In September 1858, U.S. Deputy Surveyor C. C. Tracy conducted a formal survey of the property.
This official plat, filed in 1863, is based on Tracy’s and other surveyors’ field notes.
Many who held land grants were forced to sell their ranchos to pay the legal fees and taxes that accrued during litigation processes. Since litigation over land grant claims was costly, complex, and lasted an average of seventeen years, many landowners went bankrupt and were forced to sell all or part of their lands before the proceedings came to a close. By the 1880s nearly half of the ranch owners in California had sold or lost significant portions of all their land holdings.

Juana fought a long and strategic battle to retain title to her lands. She was involved in litigation for two decades, defending her claims to Rancho La Purisíma Concepción and El Ojo de Agua de Figueroa, which she litigated all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Though she could neither read nor write, she mustered all of her personal, social, and economic resources to successfully defend her property, negotiating her way through a complex system of laws and obstacles.

E & H. T. Anthony (Photographer), Henry W. Halleck, 1862
California Historical Society
In 1852 Juana presented her claim for her rancho to the Board of California Land Commissioners. Juana chose Henry Wager Halleck, one of the most brilliant and successful attorneys in California, to represent her land claims before the courts. With Halleck’s help, she successfully defended her claims against title and boundary disputes.
Although Juana received her patent to the Rancho La Purisíma Concepción grant in 1871, she retained only a portion of her original rancho, having sold more than 65 percent to the Irish-born Martin Murphy in the 1850s. Beginning in the 1870s, she deeded parcels of her lands to her children, securing her daughters’ independence. In 1884, she moved to Mayfield (present-day south Palo Alto), the last train stop for travelers going south on the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad.

From the Historical Atlas Map of Santa Clara County, California, 1876
California Historical Society
By 1876, the original Rancho La Purísima Concepción land grant had been divided into eight parcels. Martin Murphy owned the largest parcel, comprising more than 65 percent of the original rancho. Juana retained the second largest parcel, having divided the rest among her children. In this page from the Historical Atlas Map of Santa Clara County, part of the rancho land is shown in brown at the bottom center of the page spread.

On May 20, 2011, a demolition crew arrived at 4155 Old Adobe Road in Palo Alto to dismantle a modest, wood-clad home. As the concrete and wood cladding was removed, the historic core of the ranch home of Juana Briones was revealed.

Juana’s home had been sold in 1996, and its new owner had sought and won a demolition permit. This led a group of concerned citizens to organize as the Friends of the Juana Briones House (now the Juana Briones Heritage Foundation). Unable to stop the home’s demolition, they salvaged historic elements of this landmark of California history during the 2012 demolition.

Jim Steinmetz (Photographer), Juana Briones Homesite Demolition, May–June 2011
Courtesy of Jim Steinmetz
This photograph documenting the demolition of the Juana Briones homesite illustrates the discovery of the wall’s original wood-frame-and-adobe-infill construction that was concealed by concrete.
As part of the preservation efforts of Juana’s homesite, the Friends of the Juana Briones House and the Palo Alto/Stanford Heritage (PAST) raised the funds to salvage a wall segment—a type of construction that was quite rare in nineteenth-century California—along with other portions of the original house and numerous historic artifacts. The segment was conserved for the bilingual California Historical Society exhibition Juana Briones y su California: Pionera, Fundadora, Curandera.

Segment of Wall from the Juana Briones Homesite, 2014
Courtesy of Palo Alto/Stanford Heritage (PAST)
Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager

Hardy Vincent, et al., Congressional Research Service Report R42346: Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data (December 29, 2014), 6; https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42346.pdf]
Juana Briones y su California: Pionera, Fundadora, Curandera / Juana Briones and Her California: Pioneer, Founder, Healer, bilingual exhibition at the California Historical Society, January 26–June 8, 2014, curated by Albert M. Camarillo, Marie Silva, and Martiza Urquiza; http://californiahistoricalsociety.org/exhibitions/juana-briones/exhibit/#/
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