She was a businesswoman, a landowner, a healer and a founding mother of a wild land that would become California. And she was a Spanish senorita. Juana Briones was the daughter of a ranching and military Spanish family that pioneered what is now San Francisco. She suffered from a poor marriage to an abusing drunkard who fathered her eight children. She left him and learned to survive and prosper–she sold milk and beef to crews of Russian, American and Spanish ships that docked in the bay. She threw lavish “fiestas” and sold cowhides known as “California banknotes.” She nursed the sick and taught all her children to work hard. And she adopted five orphans to add to her family.
Her husband wouldn’t let her alone and since she was legally married, he had access to any property she possessed. Divorce was prohibited by her Catholic father, but Juana did the unthinkable–she got a Bishop of the Catholic Church to give her a legal separation. With her freedom, she upped her business activities and eventually became an American citizen. With her earnings, she bought a 4,000-acre ranch in Santa Clara Valley and named it Rancho La Purisima Conception. It became a home, social hall and hospital all rolled into one.
When California became a state in 1850, it went after the Old Spanish land grants and Juana was threatened with losing some of her land. But she fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court—and had lots of help from her Anglo friends and neighbors—and eventually won. Juana died in 1889. Today, her beloved ranch is Palo Alto, California, and she’s remembered as “California’s Clara Barton.”