by Sheli Smith
History is a collection of stories and facts. Stories are always told through the eyes of the storyteller. To get a clear picture of history, stories must be told through multiple lenses. In the telling of early women’s rights the story is often told as simply a list of facts and dates, but to the women of the time it was so much more complex. Juliana Pope, one of the earliest women settlers in the Napa Valley is a good example of how women gained and used their increasing rights in the mid-19th century but paradoxically sought out the protection of marriage.
Juliana was born in 1810 in New Mexico, a territory of colonial Spain. Spanish women could own property in their own name and act as witnesses, as well as bring lawsuits against others, as amply recorded in court records for the time (Tiggs & Salazar, 2015). These freedoms and rights were tempered by the pervasive belief that women were the weaker vessel and thus needed to be protected either by a father or husband (Fraser, 2014). Juliana’s story is an excellent example of both rights and beliefs at work.
By the time Juliana was of marrying age, Mexico had seceded from Spain, but the rights of women remained intact under the new nation. Juliana married Julian Pope, an American immigrant to New Mexico. The Catholic Church accused Pope of marrying Juliana for citizenship making their case by using the weaker vessel argument. Juliana petitioned the governor and the church standing by her husband and ultimately won the case leaving her marriage intact.
The Popes then moved to California and secured a land grant in 1841 for property in a small valley adjacent to the larger Napa Valley. Today the valley bears the Pope’s surname. In 1843 when Julian Pope suffered a fatal accident, Juliana petitioned the Mexican Government to make her the trustee of the land grant for her and Julian’s five children. At the same time local ranchers including George Yount pressured her to marry Elias Barnett, an American immigrant who did not have Mexican citizenship. Juliana married Barnett but did not relinquish or share her rights to Rancho Lo Coallomi with her new husband. Barnett got Mexican citizenship and Juliana was free to run the rancho for the next decade, which she did successfully.
With California’s entry into the United States, Juliana became an American citizen and the rights that she had grown up with were in jeopardy. Then in 1852, California legislature made it possible for women to own a business and trade in their own name. Juliana immediately petitioned the California State Lands Commission and the U.S. federal government for recognition of her Mexican land grant. A loop hole in the California law allowed land to be traded while it was still under consideration by the State Lands Commission, so in 1854 Juliana sold half of Rancho Lo Coallomi to her eldest son, and divided the other half up among her four Pope daughters as dowries. The children did not sell the property until 1856 when the State Lands Commission recognized the Pope land grant’s validity. As soon as Juliana sold Rancho Lo Coallomi, she left her husband and returned to Southern California, and ultimately New Mexico.
Over her 90 year life, Juliana was a Spanish, Mexican and American citizen. She exercised her legal rights to protect her marriage, secure valuable land rights, and manage a prosperous rancho. She also manipulated the law to provide citizenship cover for her fourth husband. On the other hand, Juliana was married at 15 and remarried four times producing a dozen children. After she left her last husband, she lived the rest of her life with one of her married daughters. Juliana’s story reflects how 19th century women balanced belief and rights carving out their own places in history.
Fraser, Antonia. (2014). The Weaker Vessel. Random House.
Tiggs, L. & Salazar, R. J. (2015). Spanish Colonial Women and the Law. Sunstone Press.