A Map of Strange Border in the Presidio thanks to the industrious and take-charge attitude of Juana Briones

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A Military Coup

The compromise in this otherwise rigidly-straight former military border is thanks to an amazing woman and early San Francisco pioneer named Juana Briones. I'm embarrassed to admit that I wasn't aware of her sooner given my interest in San Francisco history and having run the nearby Lyon Street Steps many times when I lived in the neighborhood.

Juana Briones was born in Santa Cruz of Mexican-born parents in 1802. She grew among the Native American Indian tribes and learned about healing and natural herbs from them. A skill that became part of her identity. The family then moved to San Francisco in 1812 and took up residence inside the Presidio which was then more of a fortified village than strict military base. They lived in a small community next a spring known as El Polin above what is now Tennessee Hollow. In 1820, she married a military calvaryman and together, the couple built a new house on the border of the Presidio at another spring known as El Ojo de Agua Figueroa. That location is the setting for this map. It soon became clear that her husband was an abusive drunk and Juana started plans to leave him and gain her own financial independence. She built another adobe house near present day North Beach. She was among the first westerners to settle there in Yerba Buena (what would become San Francisco). Juana would eventually acquire multiple ranches and properties in the area of Palo Alto. By the time California became US Territory in 1848, she had the means and the good judgement to hire a top lawyer to represent her interests with the newly installed US government. This allowed her to retain ownership of her properties including the house at El Ojo de Agua Figueroa. That house straddled the border between the military base and the rest of San Francisco. Juana now having official title, the military had little to do but alter the border to go around her property.

The wall separating the base from San Francisco is still there but no longer guarded. The Presidio is now part of the National Park System. Juana Briones' house is long gone, replaced by 6 mansions in today’s Lower Pacific Heights. The El Ojo de Agua Figueroa spring no longer flows but the strange border created by this bright, independent and pioneering woman remains. A sign that even an army and the US Government are no match for the will of a woman bent on controlling her destiny.

Sources: Stanford UniversityNational Park Service