Protecting the Story of Juana Briones & Her California Gem

Posted on: March 25th, 2009 by Guest Writer 7 Comments
Juana Briones (Credit: National Park Service's Point Reyes National Seashore Archives)

Juana Briones (Credit: National Park Service's Point Reyes National Seashore Archives)

On March 12, 1802, Juana Briones y Tapia de Miranda was born in Villa de Branciforte (present-day Santa Cruz), which was one of three secular villas in Alta California.

Juana’s father, a Spanish corporal, was a participant in both the 1769 Portola and the 1775-76 De Anza Expeditions. In 1812, the Briones Family moved north to the Presidio de San Francisco, and in 1820, Juana married Apolinario Miranda in Yerba Buena (current-day San Francisco), where she mothered 11 children between 1821-1841. In San Francisco, the Briones Family operated a dairy farm in what is now North Beach. In addition to being a rancher, Juana was a curandera, or a practitioner of traditional medicines, and was highly regarded by both early Californios and American settlers.

In 1822, Alta California shifted hands from Spanish rule to Mexican, and although the territory changed hands politically, little changed in regard to individual land ownership. In 1843-44, Juana purchased for $300 a 4,442-acre parcel (known as Rancho La Purísima Concepción) from Neophyte Indian José Gorgonio in the Palo Alto hills. Still standing today, the wood-framed, rammed-earth and adobe brick house is believed to have been built by American desertee sailors.

Juana Briones House, c. 1890 (Credit: Palo Alto Historical Association Archives)

Juana Briones House, c. 1890 (Credit: Palo Alto Historical Association Archives)

With the incorporation of Mexican California into the United States, land ownership for many early Californios was challenged by the requirement of proof of ownership. In keeping her rancho, Juana hired the best attorney in California, Henry Wager Halleck, and with her rich ancestry proved ownership to both the Land Commission and the U.S. Supreme Court in 1856, which allowed her to retain her property. At a time when American women could not own land, Juana’s case was unique, setting a precedent for other early settlers. In 1884, Juana moved to Mayfield (now Palo Alto), and eventually died in 1889 at the age of 87.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and Juana lives on in the ambition of local preservationists who are fighting to save her 165-year-old house. Designated a California State Historical Landmark in 1954, the house has sat abandoned in an affluent neighborhood for over ten years, open to the elements and suffering from earthquake damage. In 2007, it was threatened by the possibility of demolition, which encouraged twenty volunteers to document the building with a Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS).

Just as Juana fought for custody of her lands, preservationists today continue to fight for her story in the hope of saving this early California gem.

- Corri Jimenez

Corri Jimenez received her master's degree from the University of Oregon in historic preservation. In 2007, she led a volunteer HABS documentation project on the Juana Briones House. She currently works as a preservation consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information on Juana Briones, see "Juana Briones of 19th Century California" by Jeanne Farr McDonnell (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2008) or visit online.

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7 Responses

  1. Virginia Jay

    April 7, 2009

    Please remove the April 4, 2009 12:22 comment. It is illiterate and uninformed. It does not belong to the world of serious discussion.

  2. Sarah Heffern

    April 7, 2009

    Ms. Jay – Thanks for pointing out the inappropriate comment. It was spam our filters missed. It’s gone now.

  3. Patrick Garcia

    August 25, 2009

    Very interesting article. Juana Briones Miranda was my GGGrandmother.
    I did notice one simple error. Her father was not a part of the Anza Party. His name is nowhere on the list of members. He and his Father came to the San Francisco Area from San Diego soon after Anza has settled the area. Juana’s Mother’s Family (Tapia) were members of the Anza party as well as her Mother-in-Law’s Family (Gutierrez).
    By the way where did you find her Birthdate (March 12)?
    Thank you for your posting, I am always seeking information regarding Juana Briones and her life

  4. jeanne farr mcdonnell

    August 27, 2009

    In response to Patrick Garcia, Juana’s father was in one sense a contributor to the mission of the Anza party. He, Marcos Briones, was already in California, and as a soldier, he accompanied Anza to the tip of the Peninsula to plant flags at the two points they believed would be likely spots for the Presidio and the Mission. Anza was having trouble working with the governor, and decided to go up to the place that became San Francisco to make his own decision on places where settlers could find a place to live. The birth date March 12 is in the Santa Cruz Mission records, which I accessed at the Mormon Center in San Jose. Also Marcos and his father didn’t come from San Diego, they were at Mission San Luis Obispo.

  5. Margaret Garcia Townsend

    September 28, 2009

    I am Patrick Garcia’s sister , Juana GGGranddaughter. I would love to see a currant family tree with Juana’s children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, etc. I was just wondering about offspring of this remarkable woman. Thank you :)

  6. Theresa Garcia

    October 9, 2009

    I am another great, great granddaughter of Juana Briones, and would like to thank you for the article. My husband and I will be in the Palo Alto area later this month, at which time we would like to visit the Briones homesite. Could you tell me if this is even possible? We have a map showing the location of the site, but have not been able to find information regarding
    Thank you!

  7. Clark Akatiff

    October 25, 2009

    The house can only be viewed from the street. The current owners do not allow any access. However, it is still worth a visit. Nearby is a historical marker for Juana which stands at the entry to Esther Clark Park. The original grant extended from miles to the south and the open land of the undeveloped park is more like what the rancho would have been like in Juana’s time.