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Mother of San Francisco: Juana Briones 1802-1889

by Lisa Harrington

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Sketch by Robert Gebing, from Florence Fava's book, 'Los Altos Hills.' Gilbert Richard Publications, 1979. Courtesy of The Los Altos History Museum.

No diaries of Juana Briones exist to tell her story, but testimonies of people she doctored, fed, and gave sanctuary to speak volumes. One of the first residents of Yerba Buena, Juana has been called the “Mother of San Francisco.” Compassionate and resourceful, she was renowned for caring for the sick and for the medicinal tea she made from the Yerba Buena plant. She had learned healing practices from her Native Californian friends, and later became expert as both a bone-setter and midwife, training others including her nephew who became the first doctor in Bolinas. Historians have compared her to Clara Barton, the Civil War nurse who founded the Red Cross.

The sketch on the right is often used to portray Juana Briones, though it is believed to be that of her niece Juana, who bore a striking resemblance to her aunt.

Juana’s life was a difficult one and required courage and foresight. When her husband began abusing her, she sought a Church-sanctioned separation and moved her children from their home near the Presidio to her own rancho in what is now North Beach. There, she raised dairy cows and made her living by selling fresh milk and vegetables to sailors, and, when necessary, helping them take “French leave” (escape) from their torturous lives on whaling ships.

Lacking formal education and unable to read or write, Juana was nevertheless brilliant. She was among the few women in California of her time to own property in her own name, and became a skilled farmer, rancher, and businesswoman in the City and Santa Clara Valley.

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Memorial for Yerba Buena pioneer Juana Briones. California Registered Historical Landmark No. 1024

Her biographer Jeanne Farr McDonnell writes of Juana’s death in 1889: “…it was not the end of an era. She was of many eras. She inherited a way of life and bestowed another. If one word had to be chosen to express the essence of her life, it should be continuity. ”

North Beach walks by City Guides often pause at the state memorial to Juana Briones in Washington Square Park. The official plaque was placed in 1997 by the State Department of Parks and Recreation in cooperation with the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, the Women’s Heritage Museum, and the Bay Area Network of Latinas. It reads: “Juana Briones, born in Hispanic California, was a preeminent woman of her time. In the 1830s and 1840s she transformed an isolated cove in the then Mexican hamlet of Yerba Buena into her rancho. At the site of this park she raised cattle and grew vegetables for sale to ship crews. She gave sanctuary to refugees and was revered as a healer and caregiver. She is honored as a humanitarian, astute businesswoman, community builder, and devoted mother of eight children.”

The Briones Family Timeline

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Photo by Lisa Harrington: Juana Brione’s descendents who gathered at the opening of the Juana Briones Y Su California: Pionera, Fundadora, Curandera exhibit at the California Historical Society in January. Behind them is the original adobe and lathe wall that was preserved during the demolition of Juana’s home.

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