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Mission artifacts pay homage to ‘founding mother of San Francisco’
January 15th, 2014
By Christina M. Gray

There are no known images of Juana Briones (1802-1889), one of early California’s most important Hispanic female pioneers and possibly the first non-native resident of San Francisco (when it was a settlement called Yerba Buena). But she left behind a vivid picture of herself, according to a California Historical Society exhibition that uses maps, paintings, handwritten church records and other historic artifacts to tell her story.

The bilingual exhibition opens Jan. 26 at the society’s San Francisco headquarters and runs through June 8. In partnership with Stanford University and the UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, the exhibition presents Briones as a multidimensional woman – mother, landowner, businesswoman, healer, midwife, humanitarian and faithful Catholic – who was undaunted despite obstacles including illiteracy and marriage to an abusive man.

“She was a humanitarian and folk healer, a woman who cared for sick and needy people regardless of their ethnic, racial or class background or whether they spoke Spanish, English or some other language,” said Stanford University history professor Al Camarillo, guest curator of the exhibition.

Camarillo said Briones lived at a pivotal time when California evolved under three flags, those of Spain, Mexico and the United States. The exhibition, created in collaboration with collections from 13 lenders around the state including those from the Archdiocese of San Francisco archives and Mission Dolores, reveals that transformation.

Briones’ ancestors migrated from what is now Mexico in what have been called the “California Mayflower” expeditions. She moved north from the area now known as Santa Cruz to the Presidio area after the death of her mother and married a soldier. The couple had 11 children, three of whom died in a single month during an epidemic in 1828.

At some point Briones left her abusive husband. She defended and won her land claims at a time when other Spanish-speaking Californians were being cheated out of them by Americans and when a woman’s possession of land came only through her husband. She did this without the ability to read or write.

Later, Briones operated a dairy ranch in what is now Washington Square, selling milk to the crews of visiting ships, housing wayward sailors and nursing sick or orphaned Indian children.

In the absence of doctors in the new settlement, trained local women and even mission priests filled medical roles. Trained as a “curandero,” or healer, Briones used herbs and other native ingredients that Indians, her mother, other family members taught her to use and was a midwife. She delivered and was provisionally able to baptize many babies before their death.

On a trip to Mission Dolores last week to collect artifacts borrowed for the Briones exhibition, Marie Silva, archivist and manuscripts librarian for the historical society, talked with Catholic San Francisco as curator Andy Galvan used white-gloved hands to turn fragile, handwritten pages in ancient registers to search for Briones’ marriage date and the death dates of her children.

“Juana Briones had a deep and long relationship with the Mission,” said Silva, who noted that the mission was where Briones worshipped, where she was married, where her children were baptized and where her 20 or more godchildren were baptized.

The archdiocese is also lending the exhibition Briones’ testimony in the canonization proceedings for the first California missionary proposed for canonization, Father Magin Catala of Mission Santa Clara. Silva says it was recorded that tears gushed from her eyes when she spoke of Father Catala’s holiness and virtue.

“Juana Briones y Su California: Pionera, Fundadora, Curandero,” Jan. 26-June 8, 678 Mission St., San Francisco.



From January 17, 2014 issue of Catholic San Francisco.


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