The fences have been mended. The roads have been patched. Our front gate is finally fixed. There is plenty to do when sheltering in place on a remote cattle ranch, and during the week my husband and I have been busier than ever. But our lazy Sundays at our place in Hidalgo County still offer the same three options: lie on the couch and watch sports (that’s him), lie on the couch and watch someone watching sports (that’s me), or hop in our truck and cruise the land hunting for artifacts.
Rural social distancing has heightened my curiosity about other people living in isolation. With everyone at home and communicating through Zoom, we have all become hungry voyeurs: we scrutinize other people’s garage offices and kitchens, and we study the bookshelves that serve as teleconference backdrops. But in less populated communities like mine, we can also acquaint ourselves with the intimate lives of the neighbors who lived out here before us, by excavating the relics they left behind.
On a recent Sunday my husband and I headed to my brother’s property, also in Hidalgo County. Aided by our family and the beep boooop bip bip of a metal detector, our searching yielded a particularly good bounty. By the afternoon, my husband had already dug up some ancient Lone Star Beer pull tabs and spark plugs, what we suspect were a Confederate soldier’s heel taps, coffee grinder parts, and a chunky clothing iron that was missing its handle. My ten-year-old niece was sifting sand with her dad when she found a flintlock rifle hammer that we later learned was manufactured between 1816 and 1830. I found three white glass ointment jars and stumbled across a knobby pre-HD television set that appeared to have been shot and set on fire.
The author artifact-hunting.
Photograph by John Davidson
A collection of relics.
Photograph by John Davidson
But amid the jetsam, we invariably find one artifact more often than any other: pieces of ceramic dinnerware manufactured in England in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Rancher friends from the Coastal Bend to Jim Hogg County report the same findings on their land. We come across these pieces of porcelain far more often than the Mexican pottery that I’d expect to unearth this close to the border. Agriculture, weather, and animal traffic have moved the pieces over wide areas, so surface-level ceramic shards can only show us approximately where people resided. We usually use metal detectors to sleuth out rusted artifacts buried in the dirt, uncovering ceramic fragments as we dig. Sometimes, when agricultural machinery has exposed them, the pieces lie right on the surface, scattered across the red sand and glinting in the sun. Occasionally, if we catch the setting sun at the right angle after a good rain, a scintillating mosaic of British traditional industry stretches from under our snake boots all the way to the horizon.
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During that particular Sunday treasure hunt, I compared my findings with what my brother had collected that day. He was winning. He’d found three fragments of ceramic dinnerware with maker’s marks stamped on the bottom. Maker’s marks can tell us not only where the piece was manufactured, but when. One piece had part of a brand name stamped on it: “Mellor”—likely from Mellor, Taylor & Co. of Staffordshire, England—but nothing else. The rest of the identification had chipped off, possibly broken by a tractor disc blade. My spotty rural cell service kept me from identifying the origins of the marked piece in the moment, and I looked forward to doing an internet investigation once I got home.
Collecting bits of English china in the brush is a major plotline in my childhood memories of treasure-hunting with my metal-detecting dad. And south of the Rio Grande, where my husband and his friends combed the ranches of northern Mexico when they were young, they found just as many bits of broken English china. (Kristi Miller Nichols, an archaeologist for the Alamo Trust, told me that professional excavations at the mission have also turned up the same abundance of English tableware.) But I’d never really pondered the provenance of these relics until, when the pandemic forced us to reduce our trips to town, the empty weekends suddenly stretched out before me.
I generally use the internet and the authoritative Godden’s Guide to English Porcelain to identify my findings. The majority of the broken pieces I find are called hard-paste porcelain, or refined earthenware. Most of them are transferware, which is ceramic tableware printed with decals, many depicting romantic scenes of history or legend. There are thousands of patterns of transferware, but the most famous example is Willow, recognizable by a chinoiserie landscape with a bridge and two birds flying across the horizon. As a food photographer, I know that fried okra or pinto beans presented on a blue-and-white Willow plate immediately communicates a place and time in Texas history.
Susan Snow, an archaeologist for San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, said that the presence of English china such as Willow indicates the rise of a consumer culture in Texas in the 1800s. South Texas produced plenty of regional pottery then, but the durability of inexpensive English dinnerware was its selling point. Mass production in superhot coal-powered kilns and technological advances in clay formulas patented by English manufacturers delivered a dinner plate that frontier Texans couldn’t produce. English tableware was an affordable investment.
Transporting these ceramics to South Texas and Mexico also became much more efficient in the nineteenth century. One of my metal-detecting buddies, South Texas history enthusiast Rod Bates, explained the importance of the port of Brazos Santiago, the precursor to Port Isabel. Here, goods delivered from New Orleans were dispersed to traders on both the U.S. and Mexican sides of the Rio Grande. Bates also mentioned that during King Ranch founder Richard King’s tenure as a riverboat captain, in the mid-1800s, he had improved the design of steamboats so they could more easily navigate the shallow waters of the river, a conduit for imported goods. King had a near-monopoly on goods imported into Brazos Santiago, so his riverboats likely delivered shipments of English transferware that were subsequently sold in both U.S. and Mexican markets.
Through the years we have amassed crates full of these English dinnerware shards. We store them in plastic baggies and note where and when we found them. Many times I have been tempted to leave the pieces in the dirt—there are so many. But once I am home examining my day’s collection, looking up their Staffordshire maker’s marks or identifying their patterns in Godden’s Guide, a narrative unfolds. By ignoring the smallest piece, I may be overlooking the biggest story.
I love what these shards can tell us about history, but more than that, I love to think about their owners, those silent members of my community. As we shelter at home, I wonder how they were able to navigate their minds through a more extreme isolation. I imagine a child daydreaming about the pastel-colored worlds of castles and pagodas depicted in the designs of these dishes, the way I am now contemplating a pointed shard in my hand.
The Texans who used these dinner plates, teacups, and sugar bowls are all my predecessors. All endured the loneliness of early ranch life. I do my best to gather the fragments of their history that lie scattered in the dust.
Melissa Guerra is a self-taught culinary expert and James Beard Award finalist for cookbook writing. She is the former owner of an eponymous kitchen store in San Antonio.
This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Ghosts in the Dirt.” Subscribe today.