Women Pioneers of Alta California

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The remarkable stories of Maria Lopes Carillo, Joana Briones and Nancy Kelsey.

MARIA LOPEZ-CARRILO’S DAUGHTER DONA BENICIA CARILLO de VALLEJO
MARIA LOPEZ-CARRILO’S DAUGHTER
DONA BENICIA CARILLO de VALLEJO

Maria Ygnacia de la Candelaria Lopez-Carillo (1793-1849) was one of the most accomplished and remarkable early native-born Californio women. She was born on January 31, 1793. On September 3, 1809 Maria married Joaquin Victor Carrillo at Mission San Gabriel. She raised twelve children. Her three daughters were all great beauties who married well. Her daughter Francisca Benicia married Mariano Vallejo the most powerful man in northern California. The city of Benicia is named after Francisca.

Upon the early death of her husband Dona Maria Carillo moved to Sonoma with the nine children still living at home and forged a new life. She learned to farm on land leased to her by General Vallejo. In 1841 Governor Manuel Jimenez granted her 8.800 acres of land in her own name. With the help of her sons she ran Rancho Cabeza de Santa Rosa successfully, learning the native languages of the area so she could converse with the vaqueros.

Under Maria’s leadership the family raised 3000 head of cattle and cultivated acres of grains, fruits and vegetables. The Carillo Adobe is now an historic site.

JOANA BRIONES
JOANA BRIONES

Joana Briones (c. 1802-1889) was another remarkable Spanish era pioneer woman. Joana was born near Santa Cruz at a time when Spain still controlled Alta California. She married Apolinario Maranda, a soldier at the San Francisco Presidio, but he turned out to be an abusive drunk so she left him. In 1836 Joana moved with her eight children to Yerba Buena, the settlement that would become San Francisco. Here she raised cattle and grew produce which she sold to the crews of visiting ships.

PORT OF SAN FRANCISCO c. 1853
PORT OF SAN FRANCISCO c. 1853

Joana also developed an extensive knowledge of medicinal herbs, and became known as a healer. In 1844 this successful businesswoman purchased the 4,400 acre Rancho la Purisima Concepcion (in what is now Palo Alto and Los Altos Hills). Her title to these extensive holdings was confirmed by the U.S. Land Commission.

NANCY KELSEY
NANCY KELSEY

Nancy Kelsey (1823 -1896 ) was the first white woman to reach California by journeying overland and the first to cross the Sierra Nevada. At the age of 18 she and her husband joined the Bidwell-Bartleson Party, making an arduous seven month journey to California by wagon train in 1841.

Nancy carried her infant daughter Martha Ann much of the way on the journey to California. Asked why she took the trip she is said to have declared: “Where my husband goes I can go. I can better stand the hardships of the journey than the anxieties for an absent husband.” She was described by a fellow traveler Joseph Chiles as “having a cheerful nature and kind heart.”

Nancy and her husband Ben settled in California where Ben Kelsey participated in the Bear Flag Revolt. Nancy, known as the Betsy Ross of California, is credited with creating the first Bear Flag, using a piece of 3x5 foot unbleached cotton cloth, a strip of red flannel from a petticoat and berry juice for ink which was used to print "California Republic.”

Cecilia Holland wrote an historical novel of Kelsey’s life entitled An Ordinary Woman.

It would take decades of struggle before women won the right to vote in 1920, with the ratification of the 19th amendment to the constitution. “Out west” Dona Maria Carillo, Joana Briones and Nancy Kelsey helped show the way.