Anza Trail Blog

California Historical Society’s Exhibit Pays Tribute to Californios and Juana Briones

by Greg Bernal-Mendoza Smestad, Ph.D.

Tagged as:   San Francisco County , Santa Clara County , history , women

Briones Descendants

A new exhibit at the California Historical Society (CHS) celebrates a Californio woman, Juana de la Trinidad Briones y Tapia de Miranda, but it goes beyond describing the life of one 19th century woman; the exhibit is a long overdue recognition of the trials and tribulations of the whole group, and the community, to which she belonged.

CHS describes its exhibit, Juana Briones y su California: Pionera, Fundadora, Curandera, as being about the life and times of a “remarkable Californian of Spanish and African descent” who rose above adversity to survive family strife and tumultuous times. It is well worth seeing and draws you into a world that has been neglected in the popular view of the history of the west.

As a descendant myself of several Californio families (Bernal, Sibrian, Peralta, Pacheco, Archuleta, Sanchez and Higuera), I can offer my perspective on Juana and the exhibit, and I can describe some of my efforts, together with the efforts of others, to preserve and understand what she left behind.

Juana’s life is described as well as can be expected in the CHS exhibit, and also in a well-researched popular book by Jeanne Farr McDonnell, Juana Briones of Nineteenth-Century California, published by University of Arizona Press. The CHS exhibit takes much of its inspiration for the documents and artifacts from this book.

Paintings, maps, portraits, legal documents, and artifacts cannot give a full picture of a person, but, taken together, the book and the exhibition go a long way towards giving visitors an idea about the story of Juana Briones and the joys and struggles of the people who lived in 18th and 19th century California.

Juana’s Parents and the Anza Trail

Juana’s life spans Spanish, Mexican, and American periods of California history. Her story highlights her intimate familial relationships with other Californios and American Indians, as well as the repercussions from the change-over from Mexican to American rule in California in 1846, which she and my ancestors navigated.

Juana was born to Maria Ysadora Tapia y Hernandez, who arrived to California as a young child on the Anza colonizing expedition of 1775-76. There are many other connections between Juana and members of the Anza expedition. After all, there were only 30 or so families that came with Anza, and their stories were eventually interwoven into the tapestry of history through marriage and daily life on the northern frontier of New Spain.

These families formed the core of the group that would later come to call themselves Californios. From the perspective of New Spain, Juana’s family were fundadores (founders) of Northern California.

The lives of Juana and her extended family mirror the experiences of many of the Anza expedition’s children and grandchildren. Anza expedition members were strongly encouraged to marry so that their families could be strong anchors for towns and presidios in Alta California. (A document on display at the CHS exhibit affirms that expedition recruits Gregorio Antonio Sandoval and Ignacio Anastasio Higuera were single and free to choose wives. It is signed by Juan Bautista de Anza.)

Juana’s father, Marcos Joseph Briones y Padres, may have greeted his future wife as the Anza expedition passed through Mission San Luis Obispo or Monterey in March of 1776. Marcos would have been a teenager at the time. Together with his sister and father, Vicente, Marcos had come to Alta California earlier, likely with the 1770 expedition of Gaspar de Portolá. (The CHS exhibit includes a document from January 1, 1775, signed by Fernando Xavier de Rivera y Moncada, that lists Vicente Briones as a soldier from Mission San Luis Obispo.)

The CHS exhibit gives some idea that race was viewed differently in New Spain compared to English or American societies of the same period. The terminology is best illustrated by the casta paintings shown at the Briones exhibit. If a person of Spanish origin married an Indian, their children would be called mestizo. A child of European and African descent was mulato. The 1790 census for Monterey listed Marcos Briones as mulato and Maria Tapia as mulata.

The Spanish spread across the New World through “colonization by conversion”. A person’s racial background and heritage was ascertained for military records and at each census. Their heritage affected their status in society, but not to the same degree as in the English colonies or in early America. This is best exemplified by Juana's father, who was a mission escort soldier (soldado de la escolta) in his early years and later held a position of authority as a comisionado at Branciforte in 1812, combining the duties of sheriff and civil administrator.

Early Life

Juana was born in 1802 or 1803 in what is today Santa Cruz, but what was then known as Villa de Branciforte. As a young girl, she would have heard about settlements and towns nearby, including Monterey (then the capital of Alta California), the Pueblo of San José, and the areas around Misión Santa Clara de Asís and Misión San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores).

Following the death of Juana’s mother in 1812, the Briones family moved to the site of El Polín Spring, now on the grounds of the modern-day Presidio of San Francisco. This was one of the first Spanish homesteads in San Francisco outside the presidio’s boundary. The site was re-discovered back in 2003 when Stanford University archaeologists uncovered the foundations of an adobe home dating back to 1810. It is now believed that the home belonged to Marcos Briones and his family.

Juana grew up and married Apolinario Miranda y Gutierrez in 1820. Apolonario was a soldier serving in San Francisco. He was born at the presidio in 1794 and must have also been accustomed to military life. His mother, Maria de los Santa Guitierrez y Osuna, was also an Anza expedition member. Both of Apolinario’s parents were listed as Indians in the San Francisco census of 1790, although their tribal origins were from Sinaloa and Sonora in what today is Mexico.

Juana and Apolinario settled on land they called Ojo de Agua de Figueroa (eye of the water of Figueroa) that bordered the presidio of San Francisco. They had many children, but life on the frontier of what was by then Mexico was harsh and unforgiving. In February 1828, the couple lost at least three children to an epidemic. They lost another child in 1829.

Juana’s marriage to Apolinario was anything but harmonious. She made numerous complaints to government officials regarding domestic abuse, both verbal and physical. Her community rallied around her and in a somewhat rare example, the church and state granted an ecclesiastic separation.

Juana adopted at least two Native Californian children. One of them, named Cecelia, married an Anglo sailor John (Jack) Cooper, a cousin to the famous Juan Bautista Cooper, whose adobe in Monterey is well-visited and protected.


Around 1835, Juana moved to the western foot of Loma Alta, now called Telegraph Hill. She was one of the first non-Indian settlers in the area now known as North Beach. Juana constructed an adobe there, believed to be the first private house built outside the areas of the Presidio and the Mission Dolores. She was thus a pionera, a pioneer. As the CHS exhibit documents, she held the title of the land in her own name. She sold milk, herbs and vegetables to crews of the ships coming into the port of San Francisco, and she also served as a nurse, doctor and midwife to the growing community.

Juana was a curandera, a person who knows how to use herbs, wisdom, and knowledge to treat those around her. This brings her closer to me, since my grandmother’s grandmother, Encarnacion Cáceres de Escobar, was a curandera who lived near San José’s New Almaden mines. Like many curanderas of her time, Juana treated diseases such as smallpox and scurvy. She delivered babies and set broken bones. One of her medicinal herbs was abundant in the area; yerba buena is a mint native to California. It was so popular, the area where Juana settled -- the young town that would become San Francisco -- was named Yerba Buena.

Ranching Life

Times were changing fast in San Francisco, and documents show that life was getting crowded, volatile and at times violent. In 1844, Juana Briones de Miranda purchased a 4,400 acre piece of land from a Mission Santa Clara Indian family. It was called Rancho la Purisima Concepción, and she used it to enter into the cattle ranching business in what is today Los Altos and Palo Alto.

The rancho would have been a refuge far away from her past troubles and the growing town of San Francisco. More land would also give her children opportunities to earn a living. Juana Briones did all this without her husband. He died in 1847, and it is clear she had separated from him several years before that.

The California Historical Society features a wall saved from the house Juana built on her rancho. In the back of the exhibit, there is a video that conveys the pastoral, remote and open character of the land to which Juana moved her family. Olga Loya, a storyteller who performs as Juana at events (including those at the CHS), told me this video especially impressed her.

The Struggle to Save Juana’s Adobe

My exposure to Juana includes time spent on her la Purisima land in 2007 holding a tape measure to determine the length of the dimensions of her house (about 50 x 15 feet). It was under threat of demolition, and there was a desire to document it before things were lost. I was a volunteer for Corri Jimenez who was working on HABS (Historic American Buildings Survey) documentation.

The highlight of this work for me was standing in the basement, a feature that was likely dug after Juana’s time, to see the adobe bricks at the base of foundation for the walls. They seemed to serve no structural purpose, and were certainly suggestive of an earlier period. I dug around a little bit and found bone fragments, marbles and things cast aside long ago. There were places in the yard that were littered with dish fragments, some of which date to Juana’s time. It became clear that this truly was a very old site.

In fact, it may have been older than Juana’s occupation of it. She purchased the ranch from a family of Mission Santa Clara Indians. The diseño (map) for Rancho la Purisima Conceptión shows it was given to José Gorgonio and his family around 1834. It also shows their casa. Perhaps the adobe bricks that we saw were from the Gorgonios’ home; one cannot yet be completely sure.

We found one other tantalizing piece of evidence with our casual archeology. That was an olivella shell ground at the ends so that it could be used for a bead or money. These bricks and artifacts are currently on loan and are being analyzed by Linda Hylkema, a professional archeologist at Santa Clara University.

After a lengthy legal battle, the city of Palo Alto allowed the demolition of Juana’s la Purisima house, which over the course of time had undergone many additions and modifications. The story of that battle is too long for this text, but it’s partially told at the CHS exhibit in an alcove that features a video made by Dr. Al Camarillo of Stanford University, the guest historian of the Briones exhibition. Those interested in the legal aspects of this story can search the web using key words, “Juana Briones and CEQA” and see the many news articles published during the process.

When the deconstruction commenced in July 2011, I came to the site again and met with the man in charge of the deconstruction. He and the owner of the property granted me, and my small group, permission to save and conserve the earthen materials (as well as some of the smaller artifacts and redwood). Ruth Stevens documented this and the home’s deconstruction in an online photo essay.

In an interesting, and perhaps appropriate twist, the deconstruction crew, which included many Mexican Americans, was overseen by a man with Californio ancestors. He carefully saved two walls of Juana’s casa that were made using a unique construction called encanjado. This uses a frame made of wood into which mud is placed for insulation.

Gil Sánchez, an architect hired years ago to examine the house, says it should not really be referred to as "rammed earth" construction. It does not appear that the soil was tamped. It is actually "post and beam" construction with infill soil, and clods placed between the redwood laths.

Arastradero Road marks the northern boundary of Jauana’s rancho and was used during her time, and for many years, to bring redwood from the hills to a spot along the bay where it could reach markets.

The encanjado of Juana’s house represents characteristics from both Hispanic and American building traditions, perhaps as a result of Juana’s well-documented work as a curandera for the people from many backgrounds who came through her life.

Some of the redwood from the house was sold but much of it still exists, along with the knowledge of how the casa was constructed.

Rising from the Rubble

Many people maintain hope that it may someday rise again from the rubble. The Juana Briones exhibit at the California Historical Society allows visitors to touch and consider that possibility.

Gil Sánchez and I spent a morning and early afternoon looking at the Briones earthen materials that I kept with me in San José. I gave him hardened dirt and mud collected from between the walls, together with square nails used on the casa and some of the redwood lath. With this, Sánchez repaired the wall now exhibited by the California Historical Society.

A January 25, 2014, San Francisco Chronicle article highlights how the wall came to be at the exhibit and some history of its preservation. Visitors can even touch the wall displayed at the exhibit. It was an honor and a pleasure for me to spend time with Gil Sánchez, since he was also the one who restored my ancestor's adobe (the Luis María Peralta Adobe) and the Roberto-Sunol Adobe, both of downtown San José.

Fortunately, when it came time for the casa of Juana Briones to be deconstructed, the ground where additional artifacts might be found was left relatively undisturbed. I hope that after all the strife and legal battles fought by Juana and by the later owners of her land its new owner will be happy and find peace there.

Exhibit Through June 8, 2014

And so the story of Juana Briones continues, told in part by the exhibit at the California Historical Society and part by visitors who pass it on. The exhibit will run until June 8, 2014, and there are many special events, organized by the society, connected to it. Its web site provides photos of many of the items displayed at the exhibit.

The Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail runs through the site of the Presidio of San Francisco, where she spent part of her childhood and early adulthood and it’s also near the site of Juana’s rancho (travel via the El Camino Real). Those interested in more can visit the nearby Esther Clark Preserve, managed by the City of Palo Alto, and find a plaque commemorating Juana, her life and her casa. Although it is surrounded by multi-million dollar homes, I visit the park frequently and have been treated to coyotes emerging into the tall grass from the dry creek bed and mating pairs of red-tail hawks circling and dancing overhead.

Closing my eyes, I expect Juana or one of her kids to come running by at any moment. I encourage visitors to the California Historical Society’s exhibit to come to the Preserve to become drawn into the world of the Californios, past and present, including Juana Briones.


Author's note: For children today, there’s a wonderfully illustrated paperback book, The Stories of Juana Briones: Alta California Pioneer, written by Glenda Richter and published by Bookhandler Press.

For those who want to delve further into the heritage of Juana, American Indian families in California and the Californio families, the Huntington Library's Early California Population Project can be consulted. For example, entry number 80 in the Mission San Luis Obispo baptism book made on September 11, 1774, shows that young Marcos Briones was a padrino (godfather) to a 7-year-old Indian boy, also named Marcos. Entry number 50 made in the Mission San Luis Obispo marriage register on November 30, 1776, describes Vicente as a testigo (witness) to a marriage. His own second wife, Mariana, Juana’s step grandmother, was Chumash Indian from that Mission.

More on the author is found here:
To view his photo album with photos from the exhibit and its opening, as well as photographs obtained during his experiences studying Juana Briones, go to:


Briones Descendants
Descendants of Juana Briones pose before the reconstruction of her adobe wall at the California Historical Society, January 26, 2014.

Greg Bernal-Mendoza Smestad, Ph.D.
The author, descendant of several members of the Anza Colonizing Expedition of 1775-76, giving a school presentation about the Anza Trail. (Photo Credit: Greg Bernal-Mendoza Smestad, Ph.D.)

Briones Exhibit Opening Reception
The California Historical Society exhibit on Juana Briones is open through June 2014. (Photo Credit: Greg Bernal-Mendoza Smestad, Ph.D.)

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