Unsolved Mysteries and the Making of an Exhibit
By Maritza Urquiza
B.A Candidate in History
Read about our summer research projects on the OutWest student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.
Anyone who has been around me this summer has surely heard me talking, perhaps rambling once in a while, about Juana Briones. A friend commented on how I talk about her as if I had once known her. For the past seven weeks, I have been getting to know this incredible historical figure through my internship with the California Historical Society (CHS). I have been working with Marie Silva, an amazing CHS staff member, to research and locate primary sources for a future exhibit on the life and times of Juana Briones. Juana Briones was a fascinating nineteenth century California pioneer, who was also humanitarian, a landowner, a healer, and an early feminist, just to name a few words that would describe her.
My summer has consisted of asking a wide range of research questions, uncovering sources and searching for clues that shed light on Juana Briones’ incredibly complex and captivating life. I have visited numerous repositories throughout the Bay area, searching through mission records, lithographs, maps, portraits, legal and land transaction documents, as well as translating nineteenth century Spanish manuscripts. Since sources that relate directly to Juana Briones are limited, I often have to search for other material that would shed light on an aspect of Juana Briones’ world. For instance, a potential visual that I found searching through a CHS collection includes an 1847 account book of Indian sailors (pictured above). Juana Briones was known for her humanitarian aid to sailors and this source can give us a clue to some of the sailors that Juana Briones might have come in contact with and even harbored in her house.
Learning about Juana Briones and her times has complicated my understanding of nineteenth century California. Juana Briones lived through Spanish, Mexican, and finally American California, successfully navigating her way through these periods of dramatic social, economic, and political changes. Extensive legal documents demonstrate how Juana Briones was able to retain her land properties in San Francisco and Santa Clara County, in the midst of squatter problems and while the most powerful men were struggling to keep their land holdings. Juana Briones’ life also gives us a window to various facets of nineteenth century California history and my research questions have revolved around a wide range of topics such as race relations, gender norms, religion, herbal remedies, and demographics. On a different level, this internship has also opened my eyes to the intricacies of putting on a museum exhibit, from conceptualizing the exhibit to searching for visuals to engage a public audience. After this internship, I can definitely see myself continuing this type of engaging work.
As my internship wraps up, I have a list of unsolved mysteries that I will do my best to solve in the time that I have left, including figuring out whether a portrait of a man was Juana Briones’ relative and whether a letter was signed by Juana Briones herself, even though she was thought to have been illiterate. I would have never thought that I grow to feel this close to a historical figure, yet Juana Briones has captivated me as I hope this future exhibit will one day captivate the attention of a wide range of public audiences.
Read more at the Out West Blog for Summer Interns »