A Mexican-American pioneer, businesswoman, healer, and landowner, Doña Juana Briones de Miranda (1802-1889) lived in the San Francisco Bay area under the flags of three different nations. She was one of the first three settlers in Yerba Buena before it became San Francisco.
Juana's mother and maternal grandparents traveled over 1600 miles to colonize California with the De Anza expedition in 1776. Juana was born in present-day Santa Cruz, then called Villa de Branciforte. Her father, a retired soldier, was a founding member of Branciforte, where a majority of the population was indigenous. Through her interactions with Native Americans, Juana developed an extensive knowledge of herbal medicines. Following the death of Juana’s mother in 1812, the Briones family moved to Tennessee Hollow, near the site of El Polin Spring in the modern-day Presidio. During Juana’s lifetime, the Presidio was a fortified military village used for farming and livestock grazing. Stanford University archaeologists are currently investigating the Briones house site where they have conducted an excavation over several years.
In 1820, Juana married Apolinario Miranda, a cavalryman stationed at the Presidio, and the couple settled on land called Ojo de Agua de Figueroa, which bordered the Presidio near today's Green and Lyon Streets. Apolinario and Juana eventually had eleven children, eight of whom lived to adulthood. After Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, commerce increased in the San Francisco Bay. While her family lived in the Presidio, Juana tended sick sailors and converted her attic into a sanctuary for deserting sailors while arranging for their passage to her brother's ranch in the East Bay.
In 1835, the Presidio was temporarily abandoned when Commandante Vallejo transferred his military headquarters north to Sonoma. By this time, Juana’s husband had become abusive and, with the aid of a local bishop and the mayor, she moved to the western foot of Loma Alta, now called Telegraph Hill. Here, Juana constructed a one-and-a-half-story adobe—the first private house built between the Presidio and Mission Dolores—and held the title in her own name. A savvy entrepreneur, Juana sold milk and vegetables to ships' crews and also served as a nurse and midwife to the growing community. Without formal medical training, she treated smallpox and scurvy patients, delivered babies, and set broken jaws. Juana also continued to employ her knowledge of medicinal herbs; it was said the community of Yerba Buena was named for her healing mint tea.
In 1844, Juana Briones de Miranda purchased a 4400-acre tract of land called Rancho la Purisima Concepcion to further expand her cattle and farming interests. A part of her adobe home still stands on Old Adobe Road in Los Altos Hills in what is now Santa Clara County. When California entered the Union and land holdings had to be confirmed by the United States government, many lost their territorial possessions. Juana, however, was highly respected in her community and was allowed to retain ownership of her property when many others were less fortunate. Juana Briones' later life is well documented, as she acquired several other properties during this time. She died in 1889 and was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Menlo Park.
Although there are no surviving diaries, letters, or photographs related to Juana, details of her life are dawn from the accounts of early travelers to the San Francisco Bay area as well as from legal papers, newspaper articles, maps and deeds, and old history books. Her generosity and reputation as a healer established her reputation during her own lifetime, when today's North Beach was called La Playa de Juana Briones. In 1997, the State Department of Parks and Recreation honored her with a plaque at her home site in today’s Washington Square. In Palo Alto, there is a park and a school named for her and the Juana Briones Heritage Foundation and other conservation groups work to preserve her house and heritage in Palo Alto.
Juana Briones Heritage Foundation J. N. Bowman, "Juana Briones de Miranda," Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, September 1957. (Both Stanford University and the J.B. Heritage Foundation cite this source.) Research at the Presidio Tennessee Hollow Watershed Archeology Project, Stanford University Vernacular Language North, 19th Century Architecture prior to 1906 Earthquake, 1860's-70's "North Beach". Courtesy Society of California Pioneers Artist's conception of Juana Briones by Robert Gebing, from Florence Fava's book Los Altos Hills. Gilbert Richards Publications, 1979. Courtesy of The Los Altos History Museum