A metal detecting friend and I decided to hit a local plot of land where we have permission to detect in South Orange County, California. Being that the plot of land is surrounded by tract homes, and that the city was incorporated in the early 1990’s, the finds on the property are usually modern 1980’s to 1990’s, sprinkled with some older coins from the 1960’s. It is interesting to note, however, that during the 18th and early 19th centuries, the area was ranch land.
We were only metal detecting for about 20 minutes, when I dug up a branding iron. Both my friend and I did a double take because it’s unusual to find relics while metal detecting in and around South Orange County. Most metal detecting is done at beaches and newer parks in neighborhoods built in the 1980’s and 90’s. To metal detect for older items, one usually has to drive an hour or more away to the hills, desert or even old Los Angeles. Southern California also has a lot of detectorists locally, so even if you go to an old park, beach or plot of land, those areas have probably been pounded by other metal detectorists pretty hard. Therefore, finding the branding iron was pretty much a surprise to me and other metal detectorists in the area.
The branding iron was found about 8 inches down. It was weathered but actually wasn’t in that bad of shape. Right away, my curiosity led me to wonder which ranch it was associated with. To prevent the branding iron from deteriorating further, I did electrolysis on it, removed the rust and then preserved it using a product called Renaissance Wax.
To help identify the branding iron, I immediately started posting it on local Facebook groups and beyond. I thought it would be an easy answer, but no one knew anything about it. As I continued to clean it up, I would update the threads with newer photos. Along the way, recognized historians, web sleuths, friends, and even strangers got involved trying to figure out the branding iron’s origins. We have done all the basics: we reached out to local brand inspectors and looked at the 2007 and 2010 California brand catalogs and so on. However, to this day, we have still come up empty-handed to the exact ranch it might have belonged to.
I’m not giving up in trying to find the background of the branding iron. To help me in my search, I have listed below what has been done and what has been found. I will continue to update this article as more is discovered, in hopes this mystery can be solved regarding what ranch the branding iron is registered to.
Please share in the comment section any updates or theories that should be added or considered in narrowing down the mystery, such as where to find older branding catalogs to look at, who to talk to (any branding historians, branding experts or inspectors), or any other suggestions.
It has been really beautiful to see how the metal detecting community, local community, friends, historians, history buffs, investigators and web sleuths have all come together to try and identify the mysterious branding iron.
More Photos of the Mysterious Branding Iron found Metal Detecting
Below info updated: 9/23/2021
Found: In Southern Orange County, California around Lake Forest/Mission Viejo. (out of respect for the property owners, the exact location will not be disclosed)
Date Found: September 11, 2021
Depth Found and Type of Metal Detector: Around 8 inches down with a Minelab Equinox 800
Age of the Iron Brand: A blacksmith in a FB group who has a strong grasp on the history of metalsmithing said it could date between 18c to early 19c and suggested the iron was sourced from San Juan Capistrano
Design or the Iron Brand Stamp:
- Indicates it is 18c or early 19c Spanish or Early Mexican
Historians I have asked:
- Several people tagged Chris Jepsen, Archivist, and Local Orange County Historian. We are in contact. He has looked through his paperwork and reached out to branding inspectors. He has yet to place which ranch it came from.
- Several people have suggested contacting the Heritage Museum in Lake Forest. While there are several brands on display there, none of them matched this find. The office gave a printout of local Mission Iron Brands from the 18th century, and again, none of them matched.
Associations I have reached out to:
- California Cattleman Association’s (CCA) Executive Vice President, Billy Gatlin. He didn’t know anything about this branding iron but suggested I reach out to the Laguna Hills Civic Center which has a display of old local brands. I did look at all of their brands, and it didn’t match
Museums & Historic Venues I have contacted or visited:
- Heritage Museum – Lake Forest, CA
- Laguna Hills Civic Center – Laguna Hills, CA
- Rancho Mission Viejo – Orange County, CA
- National Cowboy Museum – Oklahoma City, OK (See Response Below)
Branding catalogs that have been looked through:
- The 2010 California Brand Book
- The 2017 California Brand Book
Brands that have been discovered to be similar:
- A local Orange County Mission Ironing Brand. This has been debunked as it doesn’t fit any of the local missions in Orange County.
- It fell off a wagon or horse that came from another state or Mexico.
- A movie prop. Detectorists in and around Los Angeles regularly find blank bullets specifically designed for tv and movie sets in areas where western movies were filmed.
- A smaller ranch that was not documented as much.
What has been ruled out:
- It isn’t listed in current editions (2010 & 2017) CDFA, The California Branding Book
- It doesn’t look like any of the iron brand stamps from the well known Southern Californian Missions
- Except for number 62 which is slightly similar the stamp doesn’t look like any of the brands in the article title “Mysterious Brands” from from Jan 12, 2011 written by Chris Jepsen
- Using Google Lens to identify the iron brand. Muliple people as well myself tried.
Facebook Groups I or others have posted it in:
- Mission Viejo Connection
- Orange County California History
- Focus Speed Metal Detecting Group
- California Metal Detecting
- Metal Detecting, Southern California Only
- ID ME
- Women Diggers
- Women ONLY Metal Detecting
- Zero Discrimination
- Metal Detecting Finds
Other resources read and noted regarding branding irons:
- Smithsonian Magazine, Decoding the Range: The Secret Language of Cattle Branding – April 30, 2013, Author Jimmy Stamp
Responses from historians:
Howdy Ms. Laznicka:
Thanks for your email and query. That’s quite a story with your iron. Had you still had images of the iron before you took the rust away, it may have been easier to determine the approximate age of the artifact. Do you still have photos pre-cleaning?
A brand this elaborate often indicates a Spanish or Mexican brand. American brands tend to be much simpler. Typically, on American ranches, a brand has to be registered annually with the county in which that brand is used. This can vary some by state, but usually, that’s pretty hard and fast. Contrary to popular belief, brands could be used in multiple counties in multiple states. So, there should be Orange County brand books from the 19th century somewhere (hopefully).
If this is a Spanish or Mexican brand, it would have been registered with the mesta (livestock or cattleman’s association) in Alta California more than likely. Those records would either be in Spanish or Mexican archives unless they were retained and preserved in California after the Gadsden Purchase of 1848.
I hope this helps a little. I am afraid you have your work cut out for you. Good luck.
Michael R. “Cowboy Mike” Grauer
MICHAEL R. GRAUER
MCCASLAND CHAIR OF COWBOY CULTURE | CURATOR OF COWBOY COLLECTIONS AND WESTERN ART
& WESTERN HERITAGE MUSEUM®
The West Begins Here™
1700 Northeast 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK 73111
Further Correspondence from Michael:
- Thank you for the images. I would lay money that this is Spanish or early Mexican. Do you have a photo of the handle? (Pictures Sent)
- Thanks. I still lean toward Spanish or early Mexican.