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June 22, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Guest Opinion: Saving a part of our past: the Juana Briones' House legacy Guest Opinion: Saving a part of our past: the Juana Briones' House legacy (June 22, 2005)

by Albert Camarillo

Driving along Old Adobe Road in the gently rolling hills just off Arastradero Road in Palo Alto sits an abandoned old home, badly damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and unoccupied since 1997.

In a neighborhood of beautiful, multi-million dollar homes, this old, uncared for structure stands out because of its historic architecture that takes us back to the beginning of the 20th century. But if one were to probe the inner sanctums of the home, the history of the structure takes us even further back in time.

If the property and house could speak to those unknowing motorists or pedestrians passing by, it would open the door to a fascinating history and an equally fascinating story about the original owner of this important historical site. For inside the walls of the existing house at 4155 Old Adobe Road lies the original structure that was home to Juana Briones de Miranda, owner of Rancho La Purísima Concepción.

The old house will surely be demolished in the next few years unless measures are taken to save it. The Juana Briones Heritage Foundation, a group I recently joined, is attempting to purchase the property before the historic structure is destroyed. The challenge to raise the funds to purchase the property from its current owners, to restore the structure, and to develop an educational program for children is a formidable one indeed. But it must be achieved!

Why save the home that contains the remnants of Juana Briones' original rancho structure? Briones is a figure of great historical value to all Californians. As land-grant owner, pioneer of San Francisco and Santa Clara County, enterprising businesswoman, humanitarian and healer, Briones's historical legacy provides a fascinating window into three eras of California's past: Spanish, Mexican and early American.

If the Juana Briones Heritage Foundation can save the house from destruction, Bay Area children will someday be able to visit the site and learn from a hands-on educational program about the life and times of Briones and the three different societies of which she was a part.

Born in 1802 in Santa Cruz to a mixed-race couple (European, Mexican, African, and Indian), Juana married a soldier at the San Francisco Presidio at age 18. Years later, to escape an abusive relationship with her husband, Juana moved with her eight children to an area now part of North Beach and there launched a successful small farm.

In addition to selling fresh vegetables, eggs and milk to travelers by land and sea (clipper ships that harbored in the bay while trading with local rancheros), Juana developed a reputation both as curandera (a folk healer who used medicinal herbs) and as humanitarian.

Stories about her nursing the sick to health and giving sanctuary to American sailors that "jumped ship" are part of the lore of this respected, remarkable woman. In 1997, a state historical plaque was placed at a corner of Washington Square in North Beach commemorating Juana Briones as a pioneer settler of Yerba Buena -- the first such marker in San Francisco to identify the contribution of a woman.

In 1844, Briones purchased a tract of land in present-day Palo Alto, resettled her household, and soon constructed a home on her 4,400-acre Rancho La Purísima Concepción. As rancher/pioneer of northern Santa Clara County, Juana -- like most Spanish-speaking landowners of the time -- faced huge challenges to prove title to her land after California was annexed from Mexico by the United States.

Despite the legal and financial hardships that had caused most Mexican rancho owners to lose their lands, Juana persisted heroically and was finally issued formal title to her rancho grant in 1871. One of the few Mexican women of early California who owned a rancho in her own name (not as inherited property of a deceased spouse), Juana's life story is a model of personal integrity, economic self-sufficiency, compassion for others and success as a landowner against great odds.

To destroy the last physical vestige of Juana Briones' legacy will be to erase an incredibly valuable part of our collective history.

The unoccupied old home in Palo Alto that sits atop a hill overlooking Silicon Valley is a reminder to us all that this was once a fertile land of farms and ranches, populated first by Ohlone people and later by native-born Spanish and mixed-race Mexicans -- such as Juana Briones.

To allow an important part of this history to be demolished is to allow a part of our common humanity to be obliterated. My historical research confirms unequivocally, despite some claims otherwise, that the house on 4155 Old Adobe Road -- purchased from Briones's daughter in 1900 by Charles Nott and modified by him and subsequent owners -- contains within some of its walls the original structure built and lived in by Juana Briones.

I joined the board of the Briones Heritage Foundation last year not as a historian but as a concerned local resident who wanted to help preserve the house and transform it into an important educational site. The City of Palo Alto's protection of this historic property under the state's Mills Act will expire in January 2008. After that date, the demolition of the house can no longer be prevented. The foundation is seeking to purchase the property from the owners at a fair-market value. We hope that when the owners, who have never lived in the house, understand its importance to women's history and our state's Latino roots, a mutually agreeable deal will be reached.

We owe it to ourselves, our children and future generations to save this piece of history, of ourselves.

Albert Camarillo is professor of history and the Miriam and Peter Haas Centennial Professor in Public Service at Stanford University. The Briones Heritage Foundation Web site is Camarillo can be e-mailed at

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