Researchers in Texas are freeze-drying the remains of French ship that, when it sank more than 320 years ago, ultimately altered the course of North American history.
The La Belle was captained by Rene-Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle, who had hoped to colonize Texas for France.
When the 54-1/2-foot vessel foundered in 1686 in a storm on Matagorda Bay, about midway between Galveston and Corpus Christi, La Salle’s colony was fated for oblivion.
“When La Belle sank, that doomed La Salle’s colony and opened up the door for Spain to come in and occupy Texas,” said Jim Bruseth, who led the Texas Historical Commission effort to recover the remains.
By placing the ship in a constant environment of up to 60 degrees below zero, more than 300 years of moisture will be safely removed from hundreds of European oak and pine timbers and planks, according to The Telegraph.
The operation, taking place at the old Bryan Air Force base several miles northwest of College Station, Texas, is the first such undertaking of its size.
The freeze-dryer is 40 feet long and 8 feet wide – the biggest such machine on the continent devoted to archaeology, according to The Telegraph.
Researchers plan to rebuild the vessel, which will become the centerpiece of the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.
From a historical perspective, it’s “an icon of a small event that dramatically changed the course of Texas history,” Bruseth said.
Texas Historical Commission archaeologists found the La Belle in 1995 after a search of more than a decade. It was located in 12 feet of murky water.
The ship was then recovered through a process that involved building a coffer dam around the site.
“After the water was pumped out, teams dug through up to 6 feet of mud in the Gulf of Mexico seabed to retrieve the nearly intact ship and some 700,000 items, from swords, cannons and ammunition to beads and mirrors intended for trade,” The Telegraph reported.
“Archaeologists also found one skeleton, believed to be a crew member or settler among the some 40 people aboard,” it added.
The La Belle rebuilding will start late next year at the Bullock Museum, according to The Associated Press.
La Salle was the first European to travel the Mississippi River south to the Gulf, claiming all the land along the Mississippi and its tributaries for France in 1682.
In 1684, he sailed from France with more than 300 colonists aboard four ships, including the La Belle, in a bid to establish a settlement at the mouth of the Mississippi.
However, maps of the time show he believed the river was closer to Mexico, and his expedition missed the Mississippi by hundreds of miles.
His team established a colony near Matagorda Bay, but it succumbed to disease and Indians.
Three years later, La Salle led a handful of survivors inland in search of the Mississippi. In the end, La Salle’s few remaining men mutinied and he was murdered near the site of present Navasota, Texas.
(The hull of the La Belle at the Texas A&M University Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation in Bryan, Texas. Photo credit: The Associated Press.)