View of Juana's house on a hill

Stanford Historian's Research Paper
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Adobe Mud
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Honoring Juana
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The Juana Briones Heritage Foundation Home Page

Juana's Life
Juana Briones was a woman whose footprint transcended the era in which she lived.  Businesswoman. Humanitarian. Landowner. Juana Briones was praised for these attributes during the 19th century and continues to be admired for them in the 21st century.

photo of niece with scarf

While there is no known photo of Juana, her niece and namesake Juana was said to resemble her. She was the daughter of Juana's brother Gregorio and her image was used years later as a basis for this artist's sketch.

Juana Briones was born in 1802 in Villa Branciforte, now Santa Cruz, California, to parents of mixed European, African, and Native American ancestry.




Her mother and grandparents came to California from New Spain (current day Mexico) as settlers in 1776 with the De Anza Expedition, helping to found the present-day cities of San Francisco and San Jose.  The racial caste system prompted many to travel 1600 miles for a new life in California, where they could acquire land and have greater economic opportunity. 

At the age of 18, Juana married a cavalryman stationed at the Presidio named Apolinario Miranda, with whom she had eleven children. Three did not survive infancy.  As a young mother Juana reached out to serve others by providing refuge to sailors, ill from arduous working conditions, whose ships were anchored in San Francisco Bay.

Juana and her siblings grew up in San Francisco's Presidio, where her father, a retired soldier, was sent. Juana learned herbal medicine from curandera traditions of Mexico and from the Native Californians who were neighbors to the Briones family.
























Documents from the early years of San Francisco, then called Yerba Buena, show that Juana separated from her husband and set up another house with her children in the area of San Francisco known today as North Beach. Strained by the drunken abuse from her husband, Juana raised cattle and ran a small vegetable farm to provide for her own family.  A California State Landmark plaque on a park bench in this area marks the site of her home and farm, which are no longer there, and heralds her success participating in the international hide trade and her home business selling milk and vegetables.

Continuing her focus on the community, Juana aided those in need around her, traveling to Marin County to help manage a smallpox outbreak there in 1834.  She was known to use medicinal herbs to tend Native American, English and Mexican people who needed help. She helped train her nephew Pablo Briones, who later became a doctor in the Marin community.  He cared for families there for fifty years, giving tribute to his aunt Juana’s knowledge, especially in setting broken bones.

Needing more land for her growing cattle business, Juana purchased the 4400 acre Rancho La Purisima Concepcion in 1844 in the foothills of today’s Los Altos and Palo Alto communities.  She built an earthen-walled home from adobe clay, ran her business and raised her family. Juana was ranching at least into her mid - fifties, according to the  county census records.

With California’s admission to the Union in 1850, new laws challenged land ownership and many families who owned land under the Mexican California government lost their properties.  Not Juana.  She astutely chose good people to represent her in the U.S. Land Commission Hearings.  Her neighbor Maximo Martinez, who also served as the alcade or mayor, testified that Juana lived on the property and built a house there shortly after buying the Palo Alto rancho

Juana not only held onto that rancho, she waged a tenacious fight to maintain title to another property in San Francisco that rightfully belonged to her and the children after her husband’s death. That twelve-year battle went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled in Juana’s favor.

Juana Briones owned five properties in her lifetime and in her later years moved to the town of Mayfield, California (now South Palo Alto) to be near her grown daughter.  She died in 1889, and was buried in the Holy Cross Cemetery, in Menlo Park. Her grown children later sold off parcels of the original rancho, and today the Juana Briones Heritage Foundation seeks to buy the house on the one and a quarter acre parcel to create a hands-on history program there. Please help the Foundation save her house and this important piece of women’s history.
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