It’s been a ship restoration like none other in Texas history – spanning 17 years, using more than 100 staff, volunteers and graduate students in two different locations – but efforts to restore the La Belle, a French ship that sank off the coast in Matagorda Bay during the winter of 1686, have been completed by researchers at Texas A&M University’s Conservation Research Laboratory.
Dr. Peter Fix, watercraft conservator at the Lab, under the direction of Lab director Dr. Donny L. Hamilton has managed the project from its early stages and the ship now rests far from the choppy waves of the Gulf of Mexico. It is preserved in the Bullock State History Museum in Austin where thousands of visitors can learn about the ship’s colorful past.
“It’s been exciting, a huge headache and a huge frustration at times, but I love old ships and in particular this one,” says Fix of the preservation work. “Needless to say, it’s been a challenging emotional ride.”
La Belle is considered to be one of the most important shipwrecks ever found in North America.
It was one of four ships under the command of the famed explorer La Salle, and the 300 settlers on board the ships were to colonize the Gulf Coast area and expand French influence in the New World. He left France on Aug. 1, 1684, but within two years all four ships – Le Joly, L’Aimable, St. Francois and La Belle – either returned to France, sank or were captured by pirates.
The La Belle (meaning “the beautiful”) was constructed in France in 1684. Its original measurements were 54 feet long and 14 feet wide and was specifically designed with a shallow draft to navigate coastal and river waters, such as the Mississippi River.
Unfortunately, due to faulty maps, the small fleet missed their intended target — the Mississippi River delta — and landed over 400 miles away on the Texas coast. When a severe storm grounded the ship during the winter of 1686 and a second storm a few days later caused the ship to sink further into the soft sediments of Matagorda Bay, La Belle had to be abandoned and its life ended after only two years of service.
Records show that at the time she wrecked, there were 27 people on board, but only six would eventually return to the French settlement (Fort St. Louis) on Garcitas Creek (located southeast of present day Victoria, Texas).
La Salle himself was killed a year later in 1687 when some of his crew mutinied near present-day Navasota, Texas while he was leading a group to Canada in hopes of fostering a rescue for his colony. La Salle’s mission ended in failure but eventually charted a course for the creation of Texas, or as the Texas Historical Commission notes of the La Belle sinking, “With the ship went a famous explorer’s dreams and a king’s ambition to expand his empire to the New World.”
“La Salle used the ship as a sort of floating warehouse,” explains Fix.
“When excavated, the archaeological site was found full of merchandise – everything requisite to form a colony and establish trade — knives, axe heads, pottery, tiny glass beads, bottles and brass pins — there are hundreds or in some case thousands of samples. Personal items including clothing, combs, and even a signet ring were found, and also weaponry such as long guns, lead shot, sword parts and three bronze cannons, which were extraordinarily well preserved.”
Archaeologists from the Texas Historical Commission discovered the wreck in 1995 and a small number of artifacts were brought to the surface at that time. Although the site was only in about 13 feet of water, the visibility underwater was so poor that the Historical Commission chose to construct a temporary dam around the wreck so that water could be pumped out and excavations undertaken in a wet, muddy environment. The Commission’s work to excavate the shipwreck began in September 1996 and lasted until April 1997.
In all, archaeologists recovered approximately 1.6 million items from the ship – among the largest ever – to give a never-before-seen glimpse of how French colonists were to plan and construct homes and buildings, trade and live in a newly colonized land during the 17th century.
Except for the small sample of artifacts brought to the surface in 1995, all of the 1.6 million artifacts have been conserved at the Conservation Research Laboratory’s Bryan (Texas) facility, and La Belle is the largest and most complex artifact in that collection. Fix says that work on the La Belle has been an invaluable educational tool for the 83 students – the overwhelming majority of them Texas A&M graduate students from the university’s Nautical Archaeology Program – who have helped preserve and reconstruct the ship. In all, he says around 125 people have worked on the ship’s preservation and installation in the museum.
“The reason the project took as long as it did was due to the nature of the material and artifact that had to be stabilized,” adds Fix.
“La Belle’s timbers had become waterlogged and heavily degraded during the 300-year immersion in Matagorda Bay, some even had the consistencies of a wet sponge, and we had to employ methods that would slowly displace the water and strengthen the wood.”
To accomplish this work conservators at the Conservation Research Lab had to “freeze dry” each timber and then gently remove the remaining water. “Had we not used this method, the timbers most likely would have shrunk and distorted so much, they could not have been used to reassemble the ship,” notes Fix.
Under the leadership of the Texas Historical Commission, three state agencies brought their own particular strengths to the project to make it a resounding success. “It is gratifying to know that we have completed one of the most important restoration projects in the history of Texas,” Fix says.
While La Belle will always be “Texan,” ownership of the collection was settled by an international treaty between the United States and France. France owns the artifacts, including La Belle, but they will remain in Texas indefinitely under the stewardship of the Texas Historical Commission, Fix explains.
A book on the La Belle is available from the Texas A&M University Press here.
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