Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Remembering a Founding Mother of San Francisco: Juana Briones y Tapia de Miranda

Descendants of Juana Briones pose before the reconstruction of her adobe-filled wall at the California Historical Society, San Francisco, January 26, 2014 
California Historical Society

More than a dozen men and women gathered in January 2014 at the opening of an exhibition at the California Historical Society. Some of them had never met before. But they all had something special in common: their ancestor, a Californio woman of Spanish, indigenous, and African descent named Juana Briones y Tapia de Miranda (1802–1889), recognized by one historian as “the most prominent woman of provincial California.” They had come to the learn about her and her legacy at the exhibition Juana Briones y su California ~ Pionera, Fundadora, Curandera (pioneer, founder, healer).

These descendants are standing in front of the exhibition’s centerpiece—a segment of a wall from Juana’s homesite in Palo Alto dating to the 1840s. The wall is a rare example of post-and-beam construction, insulated with unformed adobe mud. It is one of the few historic artifacts salvaged from Juana’s Rancho la Purísima Concepción. Deconstruction of her home containing this remnant of the original wall began in May 2011. A few months later, when demolition ended, a rare structure and significant piece of California history was lost.

Wall segment from Juana Briones’s Palo Alto homesite on display, Juana Briones y su California, 2014 Preservation work by Gil Sanchez, FAIA
California Historical Society

Today the wall is in storage with the City of Palo Alto, awaiting a new home at the Palo Alto History Museum, whose historic building will be reconstructed in the near future.

But the commitment to tell the story of the house and its owner was not. In 2014, CHS honored the contributions of Juana Briones—rancher, farmer, businesswoman, healer, landowner—with a bilingual exhibition at its San Francisco headquarters and online. Uniquely, the exhibition reconstructed Juana’s life in 19th-century California) during California’s transformative Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. periods—all in the absence of any known personal objects of hers.

From the wall remnant, historic seventeenth- and eighteenth-century manuscripts, accounts of early travelers to the Bay Area, legal papers, maps, and deeds, an image emerged of this potent, resourceful, and creative woman who convincingly still represents the spirit and promise of our state.
The photo essay below, drawn from the exhibition, commemorates Juana—who died on December 3, 1889—as part of an ongoing effort to keep her history and spirit alive.

Artist unknown, Las castas, c. 1700s
Reproduction authorized by the Instituto Nacional de Antropologie e Historia

Widespread diversity characterized 18th-century Mexico, the home of Juana’s parents and grandparents, who were of Spanish, African, and probably Indian descent. Socio-racial designations, as represented in this painting, were part of the Spanish Empire’s casta system, an elaborate hierarchy of identities based on racial mixing, family lineage, economic position, and other factors. In missionized Alta California (Upper California, or roughly what we now know as the State of California), these social distinctions were replaced by a new hierarchy between the Hispanic colonial settlers and Native Californians. 

Map of Juan Batista de Anza’s Route to Alta California in 1775–76
Courtesy National Park Service

Juana’s mother, Ysidora Tapia, traveled with Juan Batista de Anza to Alta California in 1775–76 from Mexico to San Francisco, where de Anza founded the Presidio of San Francisco. Juana was born in Villa de Branciforte (present-day Santa Cruz) in 1802.

Adobe House at El Polín Spring, The Presidio, San Francisco, 2013
California Historical Society, photograph by Rebeca Méndez 

After her mother’s death, Juana (age 10) moved with her family to the Presidio de San Francisco and then to El Polín Spring, a settlement adjacent to the Presidio. An adobe foundation was discovered in 2003 by a Stanford University archaeological team in partnership with the Presidio Archaeology Lab. It is believed to be one of two houses occupied by the Briones family. The foundation was later reburied to preserve the site. This reconstructed foundation is part of an interpretive exhibit at The Presidio in San Francisco.    

San Francisco de Asis Mission, Marriage Record, Apolinario Miranda and Juana Briones, 
May 14, 1820
Courtesy of the Mission Dolores Museum

At the age of eighteen, Juana married 26-year-old Presidio soldier Apolinario Miranda at Mission Dolores. Although the couple had eleven biological children together, their marriage was marked by domestic abuse and legal strife. Seeking to live separately from her abusive husband and strike out on her own, Juana moved in the late 1830s to Yerba Buena, a flourishing town and soon to become a hub for international commerce.

C. 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 drawing provides a glimpse into domestic life in Mexican California in the 1840s. Juana and other Californios lived in small adobe houses with gabled, tiled roofs. Waseurt’s drawing shows a comal (griddle) for cooking tortillas; a pot for cooking atole (gruel), bean dishes, and meat stews; and an open fire for roasting meat.

William Henry Thomes, On Land and Sea, or, California in the Years 1843, ’44, and ’45 
(Boston: DeWolfe, Fiske, 1884)
California Historical Society

One of the first non-native residents of Yerba Buena (renamed San Francisco in 1847), Juana was legendary for her friendship with the sailors whose ships arrived there to trade for hides and tallow, whale oil, and other commodities. She sold them goods from her North Beach home, treated their illnesses and wounds, and bravely harbored deserters. 

One such visitor to San Francisco in the 1840s was William Henry Thomes, who wrote a semi-fictional account of his travels when he was a young sailor, includes anecdotes about the “rich widow” “Senora Abarono” and her Yerba Buena farm, including his opinion that “If the men had some of the energy of that buxom, dark-faced lady, California would have been a prosperous State, even before it was annexed to this country, and we would have had to fight harder than we did to get possession.”

Fritz Wikersheim, Entrance to San Francisco Bay Taken from Telegraph Hill, California, 1845–51
Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

In Yerba Buena, Juana quickly identified and seized an opportunity that would forge her reputation there as an astute businesswoman and entrepreneur. By 1837, she had built an adobe house in present-day North Beach and established a dairy farm that supplied milk to sailors, merchants, and other visitors. This artist’s rendering shows the northern tip of the San Francisco peninsula, the bay, and Marin. The settlement pictured is Yerba Buena (present-day North Beach). Footpaths to the presidio cross the northern tip of Russian Hill behind. The corral and home shown in the flatland may be Juana’s residence.

Briones Family Chest, undated
Courtesy of the Bolinas Museum; photograph by Rebeca Méndez

During this time, Juana served as a curandera (healer) at Mission Dolores, the Presidio, and Yerba Buena. According to a Briones family descendant, this painted Chinese chest belonged to Juana’s niece in Bolinas. Legend has it that sailors gave Juana a red-lacquered Chinese chest as a token of their gratitude after she cured one of their shipmates.
Doctor’s Bag Belonging to Pablo Briones, 19th century
Courtesy of the Bolinas Museum; photograph by Rebeca Méndez

According to a Briones family descendant, this medicine bag belonged to Juana’s nephew Pablo Briones, who worked as a doctor in Bolinas. Juana may have inspired and trained Pablo. The family tradition of curanderismo (folk healing) was also carried on by Juana’s sister Guadalupe Briones de Miramontes’ daughter Carmen Miramontes, a midwife in Half Moon Bay.

Aerial View of Juana’s Homesite in Santa Clara County, 1923
Courtesy Special Collections, Stanford University

In 1844 Juana purchased Rancho la Purísima Concepción in Santa Clara County from two Ohlone Indians with the money she had earned in Yerba Buena. After Apolinario’s death in 1847, she left Yerba Buena and moved to the rancho. Little did she know that this property would provide a place of physical and economic refuge during the frenetic years following the discovery of gold in California in 1848. This aerial photograph shows the site of Juana’s home in the 1923. By this time, previous additions had altered the original structure, but it is still easy to see Juana’s strategic location for her home on the crest of a hill. During her lifetime, there would have been fewer big trees, allowing Juana an unobstructed view of her ranch lands.

Plat of the Rancho La Purísima Concepción, 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

Following the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago in 1848 ending the Mexican-American War, California was ceded to the United States. Landowners like Juana were now forced to prove their land claims in American courts. Juana was involved in litigation for two decades, defending her claims to her properties. 

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.

Henry W. Halleck, 1862
California Historical Society

In order to overcome some of the legal challenges of defending land claims, Juana temporarily hired Civil War general and California attorney Henry Wager Halleck, widely considered one of the best lawyers in California. Juana’s ability to negotiate her way through a complex system of laws and obstacles to successfully defend her property, despite being an illiterate woman from a humble background, speaks to her remarkable resolve and ingenuity. Of the sixty-six women who petitioned for and were granted land during the Mexican period, only twenty-two—including Juana—had their grants confirmed and patented by the United States. 

Historical Atlas Map of Santa Clara County, California (detail)
(San Francisco: Thompson & West, 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.

California Bear Flag Belonging to the Briones Family, c. 1850–1900
Courtesy of the Bolinas Museum; photograph by Rebeca Méndez

The California Bear Flag was first flown during the 1846 Bear Flag Revolt, in which American insurgents led by John C. Frémont captured Sonoma and proclaimed the Republic of California. This flag was donated to the Bolinas Museum by the granddaughter of Pablo Briones, Juana’s nephew.

Five Generations of Briones Women, before 1901
Courtesy of the Bolinas Museum

We end as we began, with Juana’s descendants. Pictured here are five generations of Briones women, descended from Juana’s older brother Gregorio Briones and his wife, Ramona. Upper left: Ramona Garcia Briones Munos (wife of Gregorio); her daughter Maria del Rosario Briones (Mrs. Francisco Mesa; her daughter, Francisca Nott (Mrs. Samuel Clark); her daughter, Frances Clark (Mrs. Martin McGovern); her daughter, Elsie McGovern.

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager

Marie Silva
Acting Director of Library & Archives
Co-curator, Juana Briones y su California


  • J. N. Bowman, “Prominent Women of Provincial California,” Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly XXXIX, no. 2 (June 1957): 149–66
  • Juana Briones y su California, California Historical Society, January 26–June 8, 2014, and online at
  • Anne Petersen, “Exhibition Review: Juana Briones y su California ~ Pionera, Fundadora, Curandera,” The Public Historian 36, no. 4 (November 2014): 100–7
  • Sam Whiting, “Juana Briones exhibit built around wall from her final home,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 25, 2014

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