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The Leal Rancho

Excavators at the Leal Rancho site uncovered a variety of household artifacts as well as quantities of mussel shell and bone. Mussels not only were a likely source of food; the shell was used in making lime for plaster and mortar. Photo by Jack Hughes, TARL archives.
Foundations of house located on Porcion 55, following excavations. Juan Antonio Leal, who was awarded the porcion in 1767, built at least four one-room houses close to the Rio Grande. Photo from TARL archives.
Foundations of house located on Porcion 55, following excavations. Juan Antonio Leal, who was awarded the porcion in 1767, built at least four one-room houses close to the Rio Grande. Photo from TARL archives.

Indian raids were a continual threat to settlers in isolated areas north of the Rio Grande.

Majolica plate-bowl from the site. Majolica and other fine-glazed wares were imported to the rancho settlements from Mexico. Photo by Milton Bell.
Majolica plate-bowl from the site. Majolica and other fine-glazed wares were imported to the rancho settlements from Mexico. Photo by Milton Bell. TARL Collections.

In 1951, archeologists from the University of Texas began emergency salvage operations along the Rio Grande river in advance of construction crews working on the Falcon dam. Earlier, UT survey teams under the direction of archeologist Jack Hughes had identified several sites threatened with imminent destruction.

One of the sites was located on Porcion 55, the westernmost porcion for the settlement of Mier, on the northern side of the Rio Grande. In 1767, that porcion had been awarded to Juan Antonio Leal. Spanning some 5,783.6 acres, the grant was considered to be about average size. Leal and his family built at least four one-room stone houses, set close together and about 350 feet away from the edge of the Rio Grande.

The archeologists identified those structures as well as two other one-room stone houses nearby; these were located closer to the river, about 100 feet from the banks. Both of the areas appeared to have been abandoned rather then destroyed, since there was no evidence of burning. Over time the walls had collapsed inward, leaving piles of rubble on top of the foundations. Both groups of houses had a midden, or trash heap, a common disposal area for refuse.

All of the exposed foundation walls were excavated, and several test pits and a trench were dug into one of the middens. The other midden had been nearly destroyed by dam construction crews before it could be investigated. From their excavations, archeologists recovered a variety of Spanish Colonial artifacts including household items and children's toys.

Construction techniques used for the rancho site structures were fairly typical for the area. The house walls had been made of sandstone blocks, probably quarried locally, and the gaps in between the large blocks had been filled with smaller stones. The rock walls had then been coated with a type of limestone plaster on both sides. The roofs probably were made of thatch and supported by wooden beams laid across the stone walls. There were no windows; the only openings were the heavy wooden door and small holes in the walls, used as gunports. The lack of openings was clearly a defensive measure; Indian raids were a continual threat to the settlers in the isolated areas north of the Rio Grande.

While archeological survey and excavation was underway, additional sites in the area were documented. Photographs of Spanish Colonial structures soon to be submerged were taken by Alex Krieger, Jack Humphreys, and Jack Hughes. Joe Cason of UT compiled three notebooks of data over the field season, including rough line sketches of structures, archeological notes, and genealogical information on the area. In 1961, this treasure trove of information was brought together by architect and UT-San Antonio professor Eugene George in a study of historic architecture of the Falcon Reservoir area. Many of the architectural elements he documented, from galerias to patios, still infuse south Texas architectural styles today.


Excavated walls of house at rancho site. All the houses were built close together, although the Leal property spanned more than 5,000 acres. Photo from TARL archives.
Excavated walls of house at rancho site. All the houses were built close together, although the Leal property spanned more than 5,000 acres. Photo from TARL archives.
The Ramireno house, an example of a flat-roofed, Spanish Colonial style house, was built circa 1810 in the rancho area; it was submerged in the reservoir. Photo from TARL archives.
The Ramireno house, an example of a flat-roofed, Spanish Colonial style house, was built circa 1810 in the rancho area; it was submerged in the reservoir. Photo from TARL archives.
Plan and elevation of old Ramireno house by Dr. Eugene George, professor of architecture at UT San Antonio. George's documentation of the architecture of the region, correlated with photographs and other archival records, is a key resource in understanding the rich borderland's heritage and a stark reminder of what has been lost.
Plan and elevation of old Ramireno house by Dr. Eugene George, professor of architecture at UT San Antonio. George's documentation of the architecture of the region, correlated with photographs and other archival records, is a key resource in understanding the rich heritage of the borderlands and is a stark reminder of what has been lost.