Introductory note: At San Francisco Birth Center, we love the city’s long history of strong women doing amazing things. That’s why, when we were naming our birthing suites, we chose to honor two powerful women: Mary Ellen Pleasant and Juana Briones. In this second post of the two-part series, we’ll explore the story of Juana Briones. (If you haven’t yet, be sure to go back and read part one!)

Resourceful. Compassionate. Tenacious. Brilliant.

These are just a few words that describe one of San Francisco’s most influential women, Juana Briones. She
was a successful businesswoman, humanitarian, landowner, rancher, and healer.

We at San Francisco Birth Center admire Juana for many reasons, and we are proud to affix her name to one
of our birthing suites. But, we think it’s extra special — and fitting — that she was also a midwife on the side. Some historians compare her to Clara Barton, the Civil War Era nurse who founded the American Red Cross. Ready to learn more about Juana? Read on!

A brief history of Juana Briones

Juana Briones played an important part in the founding of what is now San Francisco, formerly called the Pueblo of Yerba Buena, meaning “Good Herb.” Like any good flavorful herb, Juana was both sweet and savory. She was concocting medicinal teas one moment and challenging the gender conventions of her time the next.

Born in 1802 near modern-day Santa Cruz, Juana was of mixed European, African, and Native American descent. Her mother and grandparents traveled 1,600 miles from New Spain (now Mexico) to California in 1776, hoping for opportunities to acquire land and prosper economically. Juana grew up in the Presidio, where her father, a retired soldier, was sent.

At age 18, Juana married cavalryman Apolinario Miranda. She birthed 11 children, eight of whom survived to adulthood, and adopted a ninth, an orphaned Native American girl. After establishing a farm in the Presidio, Juana and Apolinario purchased land in the area of San Francisco now known as North Beach. Juana had a keen business sense and proved to be a natural entrepreneur. She marketed her milk and produce to sailors in the whaling business and raised cattle for the hide and tallow trade.

Fueled by his alcoholism, Juana’s husband became abusive toward her and the children. This prompted Juana to challenge the church authority, and in 1844, she gained clerical separation.

From then on, she called herself a widow and moved with her children to the property in North Beach. To support her children on her own, Juana continued with her farming and ranching skills. She raised cattle, maintained a small vegetable farm, sold milk and vegetables, and participated in the international hide trade.

Juana’s ranching business was so successful that she needed more land. It was almost unheard of for women to own land in the 1840s, but Juana bought a 4,400-acre ranch in Santa Clara County anyway. She was determined to keep her multiple properties and persevered without the help of her husband or her sons. Although she could not read or write, she persisted, with assistance from attorneys and trustworthy people in her circle.

In addition to her business ventures and land ownership, Juana gained a favorable reputation for her skills in herbal medicine and midwifery. She treated sailors and local residents, even helping to manage a smallpox epidemic. Juana was especially gifted at setting broken bones. Although she did not have a formal education in medicine, Juana trained her nephew Pablo Briones, who became a doctor in Marin and cared for families there for 50 years.

California joined the union in 1850, bringing new laws that put many people’s land ownership in jeopardy. Juana was smart and carefully selected her representation at the U.S. Land Commission Hearings. She maintained her land, but the fight was not over. After her husband’s death, she battled to keep ownership of another property in San Francisco that rightfully belonged to her and her children. Once again, Juana persisted. She worked for 12 years as the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in her favor. During her lifetime, Juana owned five separate properties — a remarkable achievement in the 1800s.

Near the end of her life, Juana moved to a town south of today’s Palo Alto to be with her daughter. She died there in 1889; she was 87.

Juana Briones’ impact on San Francisco and our birth center

In the Bay Area, Juana’s memory is preserved in Juana Briones Elementary School, Juana Briones Park, and several street names incorporating her or her children’s monikers. A historical plaque in San Francisco’s Washington Square Park commemorates Juana. It reads: “Juana Briones, born in Hispanic California, was a preeminent woman of her time. In the 1830s and 1840s, she transformed an isolated cove in the then Mexican hamlet of Yerba Buena into her rancho. At the site of this park, she raised cattle and grew vegetables for sale to ship crews. She gave sanctuary to refugees and was revered as a healer and caregiver. She is honored as a humanitarian, astute businesswoman, community builder, and devoted mother of eight children.”

Wow! The tenacity that Juana Briones showed was completely outside the norm for her era. She displayed a strength of character and impulse for action that we should all hope to emulate.

At San Francisco Birth Center, the Juana Briones Birthing Suite is a cozy room, with a cocoon feel that many mothers like for giving birth. There is a large area in the middle of the floor, where mamas can move or dance or get into the position that is most comfortable for them. Just like the Mary Ellen Pleasant Birthing Suite, the one bearing Juana’s name has a bed, birth tub, and private bathroom. It also features a yoga swing that women can use during labor 

To see our birthing suites for yourself, join us for a Meet the Midwives Information Session. Register for one of these free sessions, which offer a chance to ask questions, tour the birth center, and meet us!