A shipwreck that occurred in the 17th century is on its final journey from Bryan, Texas to Austin. The remains originally belonged to the famous adventurer, Rene-Robert Cavelier Sieur de la Salle of France. The ship, named La Belle, sank over three centuries ago off of the Texas coast and left Thursday for the Bullock Texas State History Museum.
Large structural pieces of the ship, including the keel, have been preserved in an enormous freeze-dryer at Texas A&M for two years. La Belle was loaded onto the back of a flatbed truck and made the 85-mile journey to Austin. The supply ship’s ill-fated voyage originally began in 1685 with the goal of finding the Mississippi River’s mouth. La Belle was constructed in 1684 and was 54-1/2 feet long and sank in the Gulf of Mexico’s Matagorda Bay during a storm. The sinking was the first in a sequence of events that prevented France’s objective to colonize part of the New World.
Archaeologists from the Texas Historical Commission discovered the shipwreck in 1995, located in 12 feet of muddy water. They built a dam around the wreckage and pumped the water out until it was dry. The researchers dug through nearly six feet of mud to recover around 700,000 items, including the nearly intact hull. They also found a slew of guns, swords, and ammunition, as well as three cases of rifles, and a cannon.
The archaeologists working on the shipwreck also discovered a skeleton which is believed to be the remains of a settler or a crew member. The mud that encased the hull prevented its corrosion from salt water or worms and bacteria. In most cases, wood will outlast iron if it is covered.
The 17th-century shipwreck made the first stop in its final journey in the summer of 2012 when it was hauled to the Texas A&M lab. Once there, the European oak wood was kept at 60 degrees below zero in the biggest archaeological freeze dryer on Earth so that it could keep the wood solid by removing 300 years of moisture. Originally, 400 pieces of wood were marked at the site. However, due to breakage during the recovery, that number became 600.
On Thursday, the challenge was to protect the fragile pieces with foam and wood frames, then lay them on an aluminum platform and limit any flexing or abrasion during the ride to Austin. Eventually, what remains of the ship will be pieced back together. The reconstruction is set to begin in the fall and should be completed by May of next year.
After La Belle sank, La Salle and his team established a colony close to Matagorda Bay, but it soon became ravaged by Native Americans, rattlesnakes, and disease. La Salle led a few of the survivors inland three years later in search of the Mississippi. He ended up being killed by his own crew before they left the area that is now the state of Texas. The ship currently remains French property. Under a treaty between France and the United States, French officials have veto authority over the conservation efforts. After more than 300 years, the 17th-century shipwreck is making the journey to its final destination.
By Laura “Addi” Simmons