Presidio of San Francisco (March 23, 2012) -- Pioneer. Landowner. Entrepreneur. Healer. Even by modern standards for working moms, Juana Briones was a remarkable woman, one who challenged the gender conventions of her time. One of the most influential women in the Bay Area, her impact was felt far beyond the era in which she lived.
Today her legacy is interpreted at the historic site of El Polín Spring in the Presidio. The area dates back to the earliest settlements when the Spanish flag flew over the Presidio. In 2003, researchers from Stanford University unearthed what is believed to be the foundation of the Briones family’s adobe home. The area has since undergone extensive restoration. New bilingual interpretive signs, the first in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) that are in both English and Spanish, invite greater public understanding of and participation in the area’s history. Visitors can learn more about the life of Juana Briones by exploring these interpretive materials, including the only wayside in the GGNRA dedicated to an individual woman.
Presidio Trust archaeologist Kari Jones will be leading walking tours of El Polín Spring the last Saturday of each month through June. This month’s tour is scheduled for Saturday, March 31 at 11 AM.
“Juana was an important and impressive historical figure who left a legacy all around the Bay Area,” says Jones. “We’re fortunate to have a small but evocative piece of that legacy here in the Presidio.”
Briones, who would have celebrated her 210th birthday this month, was one of three original settlers of Yerba Buena, the pueblo that would become the city of San Francisco. Born in 1802 in present day Santa Cruz, Briones lived in the Bay Area under the flags of three nations. Her mother and grandparents traveled 1600 miles from Mexico as part of the de Anza expedition in 1776. Her father moved the family to El Polín after the death of Juana’s mother.
Juana lived at the Presidio from 1812 to 1830. She and her sisters ran a prosperous business farming at the Presidio and selling produce, dairy and eggs to Yerba Buena residents as well as to ships docked in San Francisco’s port.
She was also known as a “curandera,” or traditional healer and served as a nurse and midwife to the growing community. Using herbal medicine learned from Mexican traditions and from her native Californian neighbors, Briones tended to those in need—sailors, Mexicans, Native Americans and English. Despite having no formal medical training, Briones set broken bones, delivered babies, treated scurvy and even helped manage a smallpox outbreak in Marin County in the 1830’s. One local legend even has Yerba Buena taking its name from her healing mint tea.
Juana married a Presidio soldier, Apolinario Miranda, at the age of 18 and gave birth to 11 children, though three did not survive infancy. She died in 1889 and is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Menlo Park.
The Presidio Trust was established by the United States Congress in 1996 to administer the Presidio of San Francisco, an urban national park site that is located at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. The areas overseen by the Trust include expansive open space and spectacular views, a 300-acre historic forest, and rare and endangered plants and wildlife. The park comprises nearly 6 million square feet of buildings, including 433 historic structures that contribute to the Presidio's status as a National Historic Landmark District.