On a cold winter day in 1686, the Belle, flagship of the French explorer La Salle, hit a sandbar in Matagorda Bay, the victim of bad luck and a sudden violent storm. The Belle was part of a four-ship expedition led La Salle. The explorer had hoped to establish a trading port at the mouth of the Mississippi River (today, that would be at the city of New Orleans). There the French could have traded with the local Indians and sent furs and other items back to France. More importantly, the settlement would have given the French an advantage over the Spanish, who had already claimed vast tracts of land in the New World for Spain. And there were Spanish gold mines that La Salle had heard of, as well. La Salle hoped to launch an invasion of New Spain from his Mississippi port.
La Salle Misses the Mississippi
La Salle had grand dreams, but here's what happened. The expedition first suffered a pirate attack near Petit Grove in the West Indies, with the pirates taking one of La Salle's ships. Poor navigation and bad leadership marred the remainder of the expedition. Sailors of the 17th century had only crude instruments to steer by and even less reliable maps. In February, 1685, La Salle’s remaining three ships landed on the Texas coast. They had missed the mouth of the Mississippi and were almost 400 miles west of their intended destination!
Bad luck continued. La Salle's attempts to find the Mississippi River failed. Then the Aimable, the largest ship carrying most of his supplies, sunk in Matagorda Bay. The settlers traveling with La Salle were stranded and miserable on the beach. To provide temporary shelter and protection from the local Karankawa Indians, the small settlement of Fort St. Louis was established on the banks of a creek above the head of Lavaca Bay. The expedition was further weakened, however, when a group of unhappy colonists, soldiers, and crew decided to leave and return to France on La Salle’s naval vessel, Joly. Meanwhile, La Salle kept widening the search for the Mississippi River, leaving a small group of settlers at Fort Saint Louis and a few crewmen on the last remaining ship, the Belle.
Water, Water All Around
On board La Belle, supplies begin to run low. The crew was dying of thirst, and the ship's best sailors had been killed by the Karankawa in a failed attempt to go ashore to get water. Even though they were only about a quarter of a mile from shore, the sailors could not travel to land without boats or rafts. Most 17th-century European sailors did not know how to swim, even though they traveled over the deepest oceans! So they stayed on board, waited, and suffered. There was water all around them, but none they could drink!
On a blustery cold day, with fierce winds pounding the small vessel, the ship's pilot pulled anchor to sail across Matagorda Bay to get help—violating La Salle's orders. In short order, he lost control of the ship. Dragging its anchor, the ship was blown backwards until it smashed into a sandbar. As dawn broke, the crew of La Belle knew they were in trouble. The ship would never move again. The aft was driven firmly into the sandbar, and the front part (bow) of the boat was starting to sink. The crew was trapped and they did not have enough to eat or drink.
Sinking Ship, Failing Dreams
In desperation, several of the men made a crude raft of crates and barrels tied together with rope and wire. They set out for shore to get supplies, but the raft capsized. Many or all in this group drowned. Now there were just a few left on board. The captain finished off several kegs of brandy and would not leave, even though the remaining sailors made another raft and set off for shore. Meanwhile, another man lay in the bow of the boat. Perhaps he, too, had drunk too much brandy and passed out. Perhaps he was sick or already dead when La Belle ran aground.
Slowly, over several months time, the ship disappeared beneath the muddy waters if the bay. In a final twist of bad fortune, La Salle himself was murdered at the hand of one of his own men, an event which led the Karankawa to attack Fort Saint Louis and kill most of the remaining French settlers. A Spanish expedition, searching for the French men, found the remains of the fort, and the bodies of several of the settlers. The French threat on Texas' shores had passed. La Salle's dream had ended.
For 310 years, the Belle remained mired in the mud, untouched but not forgotten. Historians and archeologists knew it was somewhere in Matagorda Bay, but they could not pinpoint the exact spot. In 1995, after years of unsuccessful searching, Texas State Marine Archeologist J. Barto Arnold of the Texas Historical Commission finally found the prize. Working with an underwater scanning machine (called a magnetometer), a crew of divers began finding metal objects beneath the muddy bay waters. Finally, they brought up a brass cannon, an elaborately decorated gun that had the mark of Louis XIV, confirming the age and identity of the wreck. It was the French ship, La Belle!
But properly excavating the shipwreck would require one of the most extraordinary engineering feats ever attempted in an archeological excavation in Texas or anywhere else in the world. At a cost of over $1.5 million, a stout double-walled cofferdam was built around the sunken ship in 1996. This allowed archeologists from the Texas Historical Commission to pump out the wreck site and excavate the Belle almost as if they were on dry land.
An Amazing Excavation
The amazing excavation yielded equally astonishing results: gooey gray mud had encased the Belle and sealed its contents off from decay. Most of the ship's stores—wooden boxes jammed with trade goods, casks lined with muskets, miles of woven rope, cannons, dishes, and more—were found in remarkably good condition. Here, for the first time, was an intact 17th-century French colonizing kit containing everything needed to establish a trading post in the New World. Even the ship's hull and timbers were still intact, water-logged and fragile, but still looking very much like they did when La Salle last saw them. The timbers still bore the original numbers scrawled into each piece to aid the ship's builders in assembling the Belle.
In the bow section of the ship, archeologists uncovered a skeleton, lying face down on a large coil of anchor rope. A small barrel, perhaps at one time containing water or wine, was by his side. Perhaps he had fallen from a bunk or hammock in this area where sailors apparently went for rest. Perhaps he had died of thirst like several other sailors on board.
The Texas Historical Commission's excavation was completed in 1997. Since then, more than one million artifacts have been cleaned, analyzed, and conserved. At the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University, researchers conducted yet another "excavation," chipping away rust and heavy concretions from thousands of wooden and metal artifacts from the Belle. The ship's hull has been reassembled in a giant vat filled with water and a stabilizing compound that has replaced the water and hardened the wet wood. It has taken almost nine years, but the reconstructed Belle is almost ready for public viewing in the new Texas State History Museum in Austin.
In the meantime, you can visit www.texasbeyondhistory.net/belle.html to learn more about this lost ship and its sunken treasure. For archeologists and others interested in Texas history, the thousands of well-preserved artifacts and the ship itself represent a far more valuable treasure than gold bars and silver coins. (Those too, have been recovered from a shipwreck on the Texas coast, but that is another story.)