La Salle expedition wreck being restored

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.)

4 thoughts on “La Salle expedition wreck being restored

  1. I grew up in Navasota, Texas which is a crumbling little Southern-style hamlet where a really nice big statue of LaSalle – done by a French sculpture and presented to the town by the French government many years ago – divides the main street on a green “island,” with LaSalle facing downtown. It’s really aesthetically pleasing and adds to the enormous amount of Texas history and culture my little hometown contains. Of course a lot folklore grew up around the ghost of LaSalle and the storied old statue itself. A joke I first heard as a kid in the fifties was that a drunk was driving through town one night and wrecked out at the statue. When he came to the next morning he asked Dr. Ketchum (a local doc whose death pre-dated my own birth in 1950), “What happened, Doc?”
    “You ran into LaSalle,” Dr. Ketchum said.
    “How’s HE doin’?” the patient asked.
    “He’s stone cold dead but don’t worry about it,” doc supposedly said.
    Probably not true but made for one of those good local-yokel southern style stories.
    And of course we had to guard LaSalle in the week before the game with our fierce football rivals in the neighboring town of Brenham where they traditionally sneaked raiders in, sometimes successfully and sometimes being caught in which brawls ensued on the main drag, to trash LaSalle with their green school colors.
    Anyway, interesting story about the ship and one I obviously take a special interest in as a home boy.

    • Thanks for your note. It’s interesting that the French government would provide for a statue of LaSalle in a small Texas town. What a way for Navastota to set itself apart.

      One of the things that’s missing today is the addition of those larger-than-life statues of past legends that dot so many older communities. I’ve never really gone in for the modernist art that’s caught on in so many municipalities, places where in decades past a statue of a LaSalle or Lafayette or La Follette would have gone up.

      I think you build pride of place when you erect a statue to those who came before.

  2. AGreed. And always thought it was so interesting myself that a small Texas town would have that sort of French connection, way back when. And this is a really beautiful, shiny statue, not just the typical carving out of stone. A most unique thing for any town.

    • Think of how much education stemmed from that effort by the French – knowledge of LaSalle, of French efforts in the New World, of France itself, of Texas’ early history, etc. Even individuals who didn’t have a particular interest in history couldn’t have helped but have picked up something along the way because that statue was such a part of the town’s fabric.

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