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Sketch of Juana BrionesJuana Briones, her sisters, and their
lived at El Polín Springs during the early and mid 1800s. This conjectural portrait, based on family resemblances, shows what Juana may have looked like as an early adult when she lived at El Presidio of San Francisco. Many people are interested in Juana Briones’ life because she played an important role in the founding of the Pueblo of Yerba Buena (which became the City of San Francisco) and because she was an astute businesswoman, healer, and rancher who challenged the gender conventions of her time. One account of her life is reproduced below. More information is available at the Juana Briones Heritage Foundation.

The Briones Sisters: Guadalupe, Juana, and María de la Luz

(Excerpted from Chapter 9, “The Presidio Landscape,” in The Archaeology of El Presidio de San Francisco: Culture Contact, Gender, and Ethnicity in a Spanish-colonial Military Community [Barbara Voss, 2002, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley]. © 2002 Barbara L. Voss; do not reproduce or distribute without written permission.)

In the often impersonal reports produced to document archaeological projects, the people who created the archaeological record sometimes fade from view, becoming phantom presences lurking behind and around texts about field methods, laboratory analyses, and artifact descriptions. When known, the life stories of the people who lived and worked at the sites that we study can be used to personalize the past, and can help archaeologists to begin to understand the diverse and contradictory aims of the people whose daily routines inadvertently produced archaeological sites.

The Briones sisters lived at El Presidio de San Francisco for substantial periods of their lives. They also lived and worked away from the presidio, and so their biographies illustrate the broader spatial connections between El Presidio de San Francisco and other locales in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Briones sisters were somewhat unusual in that their lives and achievements are fairly well documented in comparison to other non-elite colonists, especially women. One of the sisters, Juana Briones, was a prominent personality in 1840s San Francisco and many of those with whom she associated left written accounts of their interactions with her. Additionally, she was an astute businesswoman who engaged trusted advisers to transcribe her correspondence and legal documents. Although she was unable to read or write (or even to sign her own name – she marked her personal and business correspondence with a cross), her words, mediated by the hands of the literate persons who penned them, have claimed a place in the historical record.

Guadalupe, Juana, and Maria de la Luz Briones[1]

The Briones sisters – Guadalupe, Juana, and María de la Luz – were first-generation Californios (colonists who were born in California), all born into a soldiering family stationed at El Presidio de Monterey. Their parents were mulatos (people of mixed African/Hispanic descent) who had immigrated to Alta California from towns in present-day Mexico: their father, Marcos Briones, was from San Luis Potosí, and their mother, María Ysiadora Tapia, came from the Villa de Culiajan. Marcos and María Ysiadora had many children, including Guadalupe, Juana, María de la Luz, Felipe Santiago, Maria Agueda, Gregorio and Isaica.

In the 1810s, when they were in their teens and early twenties, all three sisters came to live at El Presidio de San Francisco and made their home there for several decades. Guadalupe married a soldier named Candelario Miramontes during the 1810s, and she and her husband are the first recorded residents of El Polín Springs.

In May 1820, Juana[2] married Apolinario Miranda, age 27, the son of Alejo Miranda and María de los Santos Gutiérrez. Both of Apolinario’s parents were listed in census records as indios from the Mexican towns of Pótam and Culiacán, respectively (Mason 1998:102). Apolinario’s father had served as a soldier at El Presidio de San Francisco since at least 1790. In 1810, at age seventeen, Apolinario enlisted at El Presidio de San Francisco as well after working for some time as a herdsman. Like the Briones sisters he was also illiterate and signed his filiación (enlistment papers) with the mark of the cross. His commander described him as olive-skinned with black hair and eyes and with a broad thick nose (Argüello 1810)[3]. Juana and Apolinario initially lived in the main quadrangle of El Presidio de San Francisco. Sometime during the first few years of their marriage, they joined Juana’s sister’s family at El Polín Springs. The third sister, María de la Luz, also made her home with Juana and Guadalupe during most of her adult life[4].

The Briones sisters and their families maintained residences at El Polín Springs into the early 1850s. Juana and her husband, Apolinario, requested an additional land grant for the site of El Ojo de Agua de Figueroa in 1833 on the grounds that Apolinario was about to retire and that they had already built a house there. The land grant was half a mile from the extended family’s El Polín residences and expanded the Briones’ sisters gardening and ranching enterprises. Juana developed the land into a farm with fruit tree orchards and a cattle corral.

Shortly afterwards (possibly as early as 1835), Juana Briones obtained a lot in the newly established pueblo of Yerba Buena (present-day North Beach in San Francisco) and built an adobe house there. Her house was located right on the trail leading between Yerba Buena and the presidio, and it appears that over the next five years Juana and members of her family alternated living at Yerba Buena, El Polín Springs, and El Ojo de Agua de Figueroa, developing a prosperous business marketing fresh milk, meat, and vegetables from their farms to sailors and merchants on visiting ships. Juana also developed a reputation as a healer and midwife during this time.

With the proceeds from her business, in 1844, Juana Briones purchased yet another piece of land, the Rancho Purísima Concepción, located in present-day Palo Alto and Los Altos hills. The land grant had been held by two Native Californians from Mission Santa Clara, José Gorgonio and his son José Ramon. Juana paid them $300 for the deed and permitted them to continue living on the property after her purchase. She began developing the ranch throughout the 1840s and eventually moved her children, her sisters, and other members of her household there in the 1850s and 1860s during their land tenure disputes with the U.S. Government. She purchased additional land in Santa Clara in 1852, and later bought several residential lots in the town of Mayfield (now part of Palo Alto) in 1883, where she, two of her daughters, her sister Guadalupe built homes (María de la Luz may have died by this time). As Juana’s health declined in the mid 1880s, she moved to Mayfield permanently, although her grandson recalled that she never resigned herself to town life: “She always liked the Ranch better. She used to Say town was no place to have [unintelligible] She liked Horses and cattle and everything that goes with ranching” (Mesa 1937). Juana died on December 3, 1889.

Residential Strategies

As farmers, businesswomen, landowners, and healers, the Briones sisters (especially Juana) have been lauded by historians and educators as some of the most preeminent women of Spanish-colonial and Mexican Alta California. Their land holdings are evidence of their collective prosperity and their business acumen. But for Juana Briones, who unarguably led the family in their real estate acquisitions, the Spanish-colonial and Mexican-era landscape of El Presidio de San Francisco also provided opportunities to negotiate personal difficulties through residential strategies.

Juana and Apolinario’s marriage was a troubled union. Apolinario Miranda was a heavy drinker and physically abused Juana and their children (between 1821 and 1841, Juana bore eight children and adopted a ninth[5]). As the abuse worsened, Juana sought protection from military officials, but Apolinario ignored the reprimands he received. Finally, in 1844, Juana petitioned for ecclesiastical separation from her husband. As she was unable to read or write, her petition was transcribed by one of the priests at Mission Santa Clara. In her petition, she wrote,

…I do not fear to shoulder the conjugal cross that the Lord my Father and my Mother the Holy Church have asked me to bear, being in a state that I have freely chosen. What I truly fear is the loss of my own soul forever, and what is more, I fear the destruction of my unfortunate family due to the scandal and bad example of a man who has forgotten God and his own soul, whose only concern is drunkenness and all the vices that come with it, and who no longer cares about feeding his family, a burden that I alone carry with the labor of my own hands, a fact that I can prove with testimonials of exceptional strength if necessary. Moreover, my own labor and the labor of my poor family sustain my husband, providing him not only with clothes and food, but also paying for his drunkenness. As to how much damage he brings home to me and my family, well, as soon as he is a little tipsy he begins to utter his blasphemies, swear, and to put into practice his abominable behavior, not only publicly and imperiously demanding the conjugal debt from me, but also wanting to abuse it, as he has tried to do several times with my daughter María Presentación, who fortunately is already married.

Your Lordship, none of the blows, beatings with clubs, and grave dangers that I have seen in my life, nor the brutality and cruelty with which I have been treated, merit consideration because, if my sufferings were mine alone, I would not bear them with pleasure, but at least I would accept them as divine will […] Your Lordship, my husband is the greatest obstacle placed before my children, because from him they learn nothing but swearing, blasphemy, and ugly, lewd, and dissolute behavior. How will I excuse myself before God, if I do not seek, as much as I can, all possible means of ridding my family of such as bad example? (Briones 1844)[6]

Although no record has been found of whether the Church approved or rejected Juana’s petition for a separation, from that point forward, Juana ceased using her husband’s name and was referred to by others as a widow. She continued to conduct her business affairs independently and in association with her sisters and her daughters, living, as Bowman writes, “with no help from a worthy mate, no aids of sons-in-law, no assistance of note from her three sons, one of whom was mentally defective” (Bowman 1957:240).

Through her negotiation of the presidial landscape and the growing civilian communities beyond the military reservation, Juana Briones pursued a residential strategy that provided her with safe havens from a dangerous marriage. For nearly all of her adult life, Juana maintained at least two and as many as four places of residences, many of them only a short walk or horse ride away from each other. From the quadrangle, to El Polín, to El Ojo de Agua de Figueroa, to Yerba Buena, to the Rancho Purísima Concepción and her houses in Santa Clara and Mayfield, she used her landholdings to maintain close ties with her sororal kin and daughters and to create financial and spatial independence from her husband.

Additionally, the period in which the Briones sisters built their landholdings was a time when adult male Californios were building personal empires based on the material advantages of their military service, the status accrued to them as “Spanish” dons, the properties acquired through marriage alliances, and the political capital gained through social affiliations with other high-status men (Hass 1995, Monroy 1990, 1998). Barred from military service because of their gender, the Briones sisters pursued alternative strategies that stood in sharp contrast to the gendered and racial practices of these seigneurs. The sisters formed pluralistic households that not only blended their African heritage with the Mexican Indian heritage of their husbands, but also adopted at least one Native Californian orphan and incorporated adult Native Californians into their extended family through baptismal sponsorship, intermarriage, and long-term labor and land-sharing relationships[7]. This ethnic pluralism may be reflected in the archaeological materials found at El Polín Springs, which included groundstone, flaked lithics and glass, worked shell artifacts, glass trade beads, and locally-made ceramics along with British-produced whitewares and other imported goods. Most significantly, the Briones sisters centered familial and economic power not in a male head-of-household but in what seems to have been a sororal partnership, one that allowed one sister to remain unmarried throughout her adult life and that supported a second in divorcing her abusive husband.

The residential strategies of the Briones sisters thus highlight the variability within military society in Alta California during the early and mid 1800s. Without repudiating the trend towards “seigneurial” patriarchal[8] control of land, women, Native Californians, and livestock, the biographies of women such as the Briones sisters expose diversity within the presidial settlement and engender more complicated, nuanced interpretations of the archaeological record. While the presidial community was reviving and expanding its main quadrangle in the late 1810s, Guadalupe Briones and her family moved out of the quadrangle into the adjacent valley. At a time when “respect and honor prevailed between the patriarch and the rest of this family… [and] wives were not to be abused” (Monroy 1998:186), and when gendered relations were becoming increasingly central to the formulation of Californio ethnic identity, the case of Juana’s troubled marriage exposes the vulnerabilities of the adult women who lived at colonial settlements like El Presidio de San Francisco. It also demonstrates that, despite the growing power of family patriarchs, at least some of the wives of presidial soldiers actively sought independent remedies to their problems and took action to advance their own interests, and that, at least in Juana’s case, these actions were intimately tied to manipulations of landscape and space. Perhaps not all of the presidial residents fully participated in the adoption of a “Spanish” Californio identity with all its implications. Additionally, in some cases colonists may have actively incorporated Native Californians into their households rather than sought to distance themselves from the indigenous people of the region.

Certainly, the case-study of the Briones sisters is notable in great part because their lives stand in contrast to the written accounts left by the military and religious elite of Alta Californian military society. But rather than being seen as an exception to a larger rule, the Briones sisters illustrate that within the military hierarchy, the patriarchal ideology, and anti-indigenous practices of Spanish-colonial and Mexican presidial society, non-elite subjects were able to create physical spaces in which to advance their own and their families’ interests and to protect themselves, to some measure, from the abusive excesses of their social superiors.


Arguello, L.
1810 Filiación de Apolinario Mirana, July 1, 1810, M.G. Vallejo Documentos para la Historia de California (BANC MSS C-B 2, XV:47). The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Bowman, J. N.
1957 Juana Briones de Miranda. The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly XXXIX(3):227-241.

Briones, J.
1844 Letter, July 10, 1844, to Señor don Francisco Garcia y Moreno, Most Honorable Bishop of the Californias. The Archives of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Mission Hills, California.

Coleman, S.
1997 Juana Briones: A Feminist Pioneer in North Beach. Feminista! The Online Journal of Feminist Construction 1(7).

Hass, L.
1995 Conquest and Historical Identities in California 1769-1936. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Loya, O.
n.d. Juana Briones: Extraordinary Woman of the Nineteenth Century. California Council for the Humanities.

Mason, W. M.
1998 The Census of 1790: A Demographic History of Colonial California. Ballena Press, Menlo Park.

Mesa, T. D.
1937 Letter, August 13, 1937, to J.N. Bowman. In File 11, "Notes on Juana Briones," J.N. Bowman Papers regarding California History (BANC MSS C-R 18). The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Monroy, D.
1990 Thrown Among Strangers: The Making of Mexican Cultural in Frontier California. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.

1998 The Creation and Recreation of Californio Society. In Contested Eden: California before the Gold Rush, edited by R. A. Gutierrez and R. J. Orsi, pp. 173-195. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Zinko, C.
1999 152-Year-Old Home Stands in the Middle: Palo Alto Property Owners Say House Needs to Be Razed. In San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco, California.


(1) The most comprehensive published biographical information about Juana Briones and her sisters was written by Jan Bowman (1957). In writing this chapter, I draw on his article and research notes; on accounts written by Loya (n.d.), Zinko (1999), and Coleman (1997); on educational materials compiled by the Juana Briones Heritage Foundation; and on archival records at the Diocese of Los Angeles and in the Vallejo collection at the Bancroft Library. In March 2002 I was privileged to become acquainted with Jeanne McDonnell, a board member of the Juana Briones Heritage Foundation, who is currently researching and authoring a biography on Juana Briones’s life. Jeanne very generously discussed her research with me and kindly reviewed an earlier draft of this chapter. Some of Jeanne’s findings contradict Bowman’s accounts, and where appropriate I have included footnotes indicating these points of divergence.
(2) There is some confusion about Juana’s birth year and age. Bowman stated that she was 24 years old when she married, which would have meant that she was born in 1796. McDonnell’s research indicates that Juana was born in 1802, and was 18 years old at marriage.
(3) Physical descriptions of each enlistee were recorded to help track deserters should the situation arise.
(4) Bowman states that María de la Luz never married, but again McDonnell’s recent research contradicts this. A descendant of the Briones family has told McDonnell that María de la Luz married, at age 19, to a man over 50 years her senior. According to McDonnell’s informant, María de la Luz’s husband died in 1817, at which point she resumed use of her maiden name. It is presumably at this time that she would have moved to El Presidio de San Francisco to live with her sisters. Regardless, it appears that during the time that María de la Luz lived with Juana and/or Guadalupe, she was unmarried.
(5) Cecelia Chochuilhuala, an orphan of deceased Native Californian parents (Bowman 1957: 230).
(6) Translated with assistance from Nicole Von Germeten.
(7) That the Native Californians were perceived of as “family” rather than servants is supported by accounts of visitors to the Briones’ homes, who listed the Indian members of the family along with Juana Briones’ children and grandchildren (Bowman 1957:237)
(8) I use this term in its historically specific meaning relating to the rights and privileges of senior male head-of-households, rather than in its broader transhistorical use as a synonym for sexism.