Dona Polonia Montanez of San Juan Capistrano, 1829-1917

 

 “I declare to you that woman must not depend upon the protection of man, but must be taught to protect herself and there I take my stand.”

Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), the pioneer in the U.S. Woman Suffrage Movement

Polonia Montanez

Dona Polonia Montanez kneeling in her garden circa 1910.

Polonia Montañez was born in the pueblo of San Juan Capistrano during the Mexican period of California’s history. Despite the Mission San Juan Capistrano’s secularization by the Mexican government between 1833 and 1865, when President Lincoln restored the Mission to the Catholic Church, Polonia’s family was, and remained, closely connected to the Mission for several decades into the 1900s.

Histories about San Juan Capistrano often erroneously note that Polonia’s father was Tomas Gutierrez. Gutierrez, a farmer and a carpenter for the Mission, was, in fact, her grandfather. Polonia’s parents are rarely mentioned and died in 1851 or earlier, and their names do not appear in the 1850 census. Polonia’s parents were Jose Maria Montaño who was a Mazatlan Volunteer, and Josefa Gutierrez.[1] The 1850 census did not state the relationship of other persons in a household to the head of household, so family relationships are not clear. However, according to Saddleback Ancestors, Polonia, along with her younger sister Maria and brother Bruno, was living with her grandparents in 1851. This is supported by the 1850 census for San Juan Township.[2] Polonia was married and widowed three times, outliving all of her husbands but bearing no children. She was married in 1853 to Francisco Cañedo for seventeen years before he died in 1870. In Father St. John O’Sulivan’s stories about life in Capistrano, he relays a tale told to him by Polonia about an omen of bad luck, an “ill sign,” that occurred on her wedding day to Cañedo: dropping his marriage gift of three reales (coins). To her, the bad luck was not bearing children.[3] Her second marriage to Juan Pablo Serrano was shortlived from 1873 to 1875 when Juan died.

Young girls seated below Mission bells, circa 1890s. Polonia Montanez taught children catechism lessons during this period when there was no priest residing at Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Polonia’s third husband was Isidore Marcello Simard, a naturalist from France according to the 1900 census record. They were married in 1880 and Isidore lived until 1912. Polonia’s younger sister, Maria, married Jose de Jesus Godines and had a daughter, Catalina Godines.[4] Catalina is recorded living with Polonia and Isidore as their step-daughter in the 1900 census, since Polonia’s sister Maria had died during the small pox epidemic in 1863.[5] Catalina later married a Yorba, and Polonia’s home and property passed into the Yorba family when Catalina inherited it upon Polonia’s death in 1917.

The census records generally show Polonia’s occupation as “at home” or “keeping house” or blank. However, Polonia was known to be a healer and worked as one of the village midwives. She was also entrusted with the religious education of the village children during those periods between 1886 and 1910 when Mission San Juan Capistrano had no permanent priest living in the mission grounds. These periods were actually fairly long, when priests visited but none actually lived there according to Father Englehardt.[6] This religious instruction and catechism responsibility earned Polonia the title of “Captain of the Pueblo” and she had a small chapel set up at the northeast corner of her adobe home. She is best known for the story of how, during a drought, she took the children to pray for rain over three days when they were finally rewarded with a deluge.

Montanez Adobe as it looked in the early 1900s when Polonia lived there.

Polonia was unlikely to have had much in the way of formal education in such a rural area, other than what was taught by the Mission. There were no colleges nearby, such as the homeopathic medical colleges that were established in the mid to late nineteenth century in the Midwest, South, East Coast and urban centers of the United States.[7] Polonia no doubt received natural talent and learned her skills and knowledge from her mother, grandmother and other female relatives. Polonia’s ancestors included families from Mexico and indigenous Juaneño, and one of her female relatives served as the official curandera (healer; herb doctor) at Mission San Luis Rey.[8] Oral traditions and learning were long established in San Juan Capistrano from the period of its pre-history before it was known as Capistrano by the first peoples of the area, the Acjachemen, later known as the Juaneño for their association as converts of Mission San Juan Capistrano. Old ways and traditions continued strong in the lives of the Juaneño as well as other immigrants to Capistrano from Spain and Mexico.

Polonia carved a niche for herself as an independent woman, bridging the worlds of Catholicism and native healing. Polonia’s last husband, Isidore, had moved from San Francisco to seek her out and learn the traditions of healing herbs. She worked and participated in those occupations, interests and activities that were open and available to her. Because there is little in the way of original primary sources to draw upon, much of what we know about Polonia is gleaned from census records, Mission records and some primary and secondary sources, as well as oral traditions passed down from generation to generation. However, her home still stands and appears much as it would have when she was alive. For more information, view the “Places and Spaces” page.



[1] The last name by which Polonia is known today appears to be the phonetic spelling of the plural form of her maiden name.  Her home, which still stands, was referred to as “Montaño’s adobe,” which is “Montañez Adobe” today.

[2] Orange County California Geneaological Society, Saddleback Ancestors: Rancho Families of Orange County California, Revised Edition (Orange, California: Orange County California Geneaological Society, 1998): 21-23.

[3] Charles Francis Saunders and Father St. John O’Sullivan, Capistrano Nights: Tales of a California Mission Town (New York: Robert McBride and Company, 1930): 15-16.

[4] Saddleback Ancestors: 23.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Zephyrin Engelhardt, O.F.M., The Missions and Missionaries of California: San Juan Capistrano Mission (Los Angeles, CA: The Standard Printing Company, 1922): 175.

[7] Wikipedia Contributors, “List of Medical Schools in the United States,” accessed April 25, 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_medical_schools_in_the_United_States#cite_note-AMA-2.

[8] Jerry Nieblas, personal communication (2012).