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Plat of the Rancho La Purisima Concepcion, finally confirmed to Juana Briones: [Santa Clara Co., Calif.] / As located by the U.S. Surveyor General. Courtesy of The Bancroft Library.

Plat of the Rancho La Purisima Concepcion, finally confirmed to Juana Briones: [Santa Clara Co., Calif.] / As located by the U.S. Surveyor General. Courtesy of The Bancroft Library.

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 The California Historical Society in San Francisco was founded in 1871. The society will host what may be their first bilingual exhibition (English / Spanish) titled, Juana Briones y su California ~ Pionera, Fundadora, Curandera (Pioneer, Founder, Healer). An opening reception was held on January 26 and the exhibit will run until June 8, 2014.

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Stanford Historian Albert Camarillo, who spoke at the reception, is serving as a guest curator. In Stanford News, Professor Camarillo said “The exhibition offers new perspectives on California’s history as well as an appreciation for a little known historical figure, whose stories reflect some of the best qualities we as people possess.”Doña Juana Briones de Miranda was born at Villa de Branciforte (Santa Cruz, CA) in 1802 and died in Mayfield (Palo Alto, CA) in 1889. In her early life, she was a poor and single-parent mother of 11 children (8 lived to adulthood). She went on to be a major landowner and leading citizen of Northern California.

Doña Juana’s grandfather and father came to California with Gaspar De Portola’s 1769 expedition. Her mother and future mother-in-law came with Juan Bautista de Anza’s expedition in 1776. In 1778 her grandfather moved his family to San Jose and helped assign house lots here. Spanish records of the time, indicate that the race and ethnicity of the families may have included mulato (Spanish and African) and mestizo (Spanish and Indigenous / Indio) heritage.

She married soldier Apolinario Miranda in 1820 and they moved to land called Ojo de Agua de Figueroa near the Presidio, and later received a land grant for the property. In 1835, she and her family obtained the first of several lots inYerba Buena, and in 1836 they received a land grant for the lots which included the present San Francisco neighborhoods of North Beach and Washington Square.

She raised cattle and vegetables which she supplied to the many ships in the bay. She was also a partera (midwife). As a curandera (healer), she nursed many sick and mistreated sailors from the ships and did not charge them for her services. In 1840, Doña Juana brought a suit against her husband after repeated incidents of domestic abuse and petitioned for ecclesiastical separation from him. That same year she purchased Rancho La Purisima Concepcion, over 4,400 acres of today’s Palo Alto. In 1842-1843, she built a house on the property and moved her family there, which today is at 4155 Old Adobe Road.

San Jose Storyteller Olga Loya performs a dramatic and historically accurate monologue and dialogue with audiences and uses her spellbinding storytelling skills to bring Juana Briones to life. She said “ After performing Juana Briones chautaqua for thirteen years, I found it moving to see this exhibit. I especially loved meeting her great, great, great grandchildren and decedents of her brothers and sisters. I felt like I was meeting my own family”.

The City of Palo Alto declared the house a historic monument in 1987, but in 1998, new owners of the property applied for a permit to demolish the historic residence. This began a decade-long  battle by various preservation groups to save the house. In 2007, Friends of Juana Briones House filed their first lawsuit. In  2010,  the California courts ruled in favor of the property owners’ request to demolish the house. Various university and preservation groups filmed, photographed and preserved some of the house’s stone and wood building materials.

A published source states that some of Doña Juana’s descendants live in Santa Clara County and visited the house to say their good-byes. One of them wrote, “The house is being dismantled, piece by piece, board by board. There goes much of our California history–por qué?”  The wreckers started demolishing the house on Friday, May 2011 and soon 169 years of history was gone. According to Clark Akatiff who worked on the lawsuits “ …an 8-foot-by-8-foot section of an original wall was purchased…..for $30,000”. This piece of the Mexican past has been placed at the entrance to the current exhibition.

According to society, the wall fragment  “ … reflects the transition in California architecture from adobe masonry to the use of wood framing…The objects you will encounter reveal the influence of events and people on Juana as she adapted to the tumultuous challenges of nineteenth century California”.Also attending the reception was Jeanne Farr McDonnell, author of Juana Briones of 19th Century California which was published in 2008. For more information on the exhibition and tickets, contact The California Historical Society at: 415.357.1848 or visit their website at: http://www.californiahistoricalsociety.org/exhibitions/upcoming_exhibitions.html

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