Valley pioneer Juana Briones and the mystery of a photograph : Santa Clara Valley Lives

Courtesy of Point Reyes National Seashore Archives
Family members believe this photo to be Juana Briones. Briones’ descendant, Fred Imhoff, donated it to the Point Reyes National Seashore Archives.

Juana Briones was born near California’s Mission Santa Cruz in 1802, the daughter of Spanish, Mexican, Indian and African ancestors. In 1776, her parents were among the first civilians from Mexico to arrive in California.

During her lifetime, she was beloved for her kindness and care in nursing the sick and for her wisdom in business, but there is much more to her story.

A great deal of her life was spent in the Santa Clara Valley. With her husband, the soldier Apolinario Miranda, she lived for a time near Mission Santa Clara. In 1844, after many years living near the Presidio of San Francisco, she purchased Rancho La Purísima Concepción from Ohlone Indians José Gorgonio and José Ramon. The property, later often called Rancho de Briones, would one day include most of Los Altos Hills and parts of Palo Alto.

The 4,400-acre ranch gave Juana room to expand her dairy and cattle business, increasingly cramped near the Presidio. But that is not the only reason she moved. Her husband was an abusive drunk. Beginning in 1840, when Juana was pregnant with their last child, she reported her husband repeatedly to the Presidio magistrate for assaults so severe that Apolinario was often put in jail. Moving down the Peninsula meant moving to safety.

In H.H. Bancroft’s “California Pioneer Register and Index,” he adds next to Apolinario Miranda’s entry: “In ’43 in trouble with his wife.” It was in 1843 that Juana went to the priest at Mission Santa Clara and sought a legal separation. Although there is no record it was granted, afterward she is often referred to as the “widow Briones.” Apolinario made it official when, in 1847, he mercifully died at the age of 54.

Mystery photo

Juana lived a long life on her ranch and prospered, moving to Mayfield in 1884, only in her final years. Mayfield was an early Palo Alto district, which developed along what is now California Avenue. Juana, born into a world of adobe houses with dirt floors, lived in Mayfield in a wood frame home, down the street from the train station and around the corner from an innovative kindergarten founded by her neighbor, Mrs. Leland Stanford.

Juana Briones y Tapia de Miranda died in Mayfield in 1889 and was buried in Menlo Park’s Holy Cross Cemetery.

For many years, there were no known images of her. Then, in 2007, descendants of the Garcia family, into which Juana’s family married, donated a 19th-century photographic studio portrait to a Marin museum, saying it had been passed down for seven generations and was believed to be Juana Briones.

“There is debate as to whether it is her, both in her looks and in the medium of the portrait, which is a platinum print,” said Carola DeRooy, archivist and collections manager at the Point Reyes National Seashore Museum, which owns the photograph. “They only came into vogue in the early 1890s, after her death.”

One expert suggests that it may be a later reprint of the original, which would explain the medium and the circa 1850 clothing. DeRooy believes the photo does bear a resemblance to known photos of Juana’s brother Gregorio and a niece, also named Juana.

Author Jeanne Farr McDonell first published the photo in her biography of Juana Briones in 2008. The California Historical Society has used it, too – but always with the proviso “believed by the family to be Juana Briones.” Historians hope with greater dissemination of the image, another will surface – to contrast with or confirm the one in hand.

Is the photo Juana Briones? It is possible. For now, it is one of the many mysteries of a fascinating life of an early settler in the Santa Clara Valley.

Local resident Robin Chapman is the author of “California Apricots: The Lost Orchards of Silicon Valley” (History Press, 2013). Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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