As Chuck Meide ran his hand over the rough, heavy, cylindrical metal object at the bottom of 12 feet of murky water in Matagorda Bay, his heart began to race. Was it a centuries-old cannon? Or was it something mundane and modern?
Unable to see in the muddy water, the Florida State University student archaeologist felt carefully along the cylinder until he found a lump, which he thought might be one of two handles used to lift a cannon. Then his hand found the second lifting handle, which confirmed that it was indeed a cannon, heavily encrusted with marine deposits from long years under water. The jubilant Meide reported his find to the waiting crew in the dive boat above. Carefully they raised the cannon to the deck of a barge and moved it to the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History for cleaning and further inspection.
Meide was part of a team assembled by the Texas Historical Commission. What they were searching for in the muddy Matagorda in the summer of 1995 was La Belle, a ship brought to the Texas coast by French explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, more than 300 years before.
The lifting handles that Meide had identified by touch were in the shape of gracefully leaping dolphins. Also decorating the barrel in bas-relief were two crests: One was an "L" surmounted by a crown – the crest of King Louis XIV of France; the other was the crest of the Comte de Vermandois. Vermandois was Louis' illegitimate son, who was two years old when Louis appointed him Admiral of France in 1669. These features confirmed to the anxious investigators that they had found La Salle's ill-fated ship.
The find on July 5, 1995, marked the high point of a 17-year on-and-off search for historic shipwrecks by state marine archaeologist Barto Arnold, who led the team that discovered the shipwreck site. It also marked the beginning of a painstaking, time-consuming effort to excavate what remained of the historic French ship, which had lain encased in muddy silt at the bottom of Matagorda Bay for three centuries. It is, according to many archaeologists, the most important shipwreck discovery in North American waters to date.
Who was La Salle and Why Was He in Texas?
Born in Rouen, France, in 1643, the adventurous La Salle arrived in the French area of Canada in the 1660s, from which the young Frenchman launched several fur-trading and exploration ventures. La Salle was perpetually in debt from his habit of overspending his resources.
In 1682, accompanied by about 50 fellow Frenchmen and American Indians, he canoed down the Mississippi River from a base camp in Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico. Arriving at the mouth of the Mississippi in April, La Salle claimed the entire Mississippi basin in the name of France and King Louis XIV. The drainage basin of the Mississippi includes almost half of today's continental United States. He named the area Louisiana to honor the king, then retraced his steps to Illinois. In November 1683 he returned to France.
The following year La Salle persuaded Louis to finance an expedition to find a sea route to the mouth of the Mississippi with the intention of establishing a permanent settlement there. Spain considered the Gulf of Mexico to be exclusively Spanish territory, off-limits to all non-Spaniards. Louis welcomed the opportunity to established a French presence there, especially since it was believed to be very near the silver mines of northern Mexico.
La Salle was ill-suited to be a leader. One of the colonists, Henri Joutel, kept a detailed diary of the journey, from which historians have gained substantial understanding of the events of the colonization effort as well as of La Salle himself. Joutel deplored his commander's wild mood swings and erratic behavior, which alienated many of the officers and men. An engineer named Minet, who also journeyed to Texas, described La Salle as brooding, suspicious, secretive, paranoid, headstrong and egotistical. "This is a man who has lost his mind," he wrote in his journal.
Some modern historians believe that La Salle may have been a manic-depressive.
On August 1, 1684, La Salle set sail for the Gulf of Mexico with about 300 people in four ships. La Belle, a barque longue or light frigate, was a navy ship assigned to La Salle for his exclusive use. She was built at Rochefort in 1683 and had a crew of 27. The Belle was accompanied by the 180-ton storeship, L'Aimable; a 34-gun man-of-war, Le Joly, which was to transport the colonists to their new home, then return to France; and the ketch Saint-François, carrying additional supplies.
La Salle's group included supposed artisans and craftsmen, some of whom did not have the skills they claimed to have. Recruited from the human dregs of French port towns were 100 soldiers. There were also six French missionary priests and at least a dozen women and children.
Just before the small fleet made a stop in the West Indies in late September, Spanish pirates seized the Saint-François, along with the supplies it carried.
At Cuba's western cape, a sudden squall caused the Belle to tangle rigging with the Aimable. The Belle lost one of her two anchors, a loss that later proved most unfortunate. In late November, the three ships continued their attempt to find the mouth of the Mississippi.
Probably because he was relying on highly inaccurate maps, La Salle overshot the Mississippi by some 400 miles. On Feb. 18, 1685, the Belle entered Matagorda Bay, about halfway between present-day Galveston and Corpus Christi.
Two days later, the Aimable ran aground and broke up while attempting to enter the bay through a narrow channel. Many supplies were lost, including arms, medicines, trade goods, numerous casks of wine and brandy, bacon, beef and much of the clothing. The Joly returned to France in mid-March as planned; on board were a number of would-be colonists who had taken one look at the Texas coast and wanted no part of it. This left about 200 people to establish the French colony on the Gulf. They constructed a temporary camp on Matagorda Island.
Still believing that he had reached a western arm of the Mississippi, La Salle, accompanied by 52 men in five canoes, left the temporary camp on March 24 to find a site for a colony. He chose a spot on a low hill a league and a half (about four and a half miles) inland from the mouth of Garcitas Creek in today's Victoria County. In April, construction began. In mid-June, 70 settlers arrived at the colony, which La Salle had named Fort St. Louis to honor the French king. La Salle drove them mercilessly on short rations to finish the structures. Felled by diseases, poisonous berries, poisonous snakes and malnutrition, half the colonists were dead by July.
In October, La Salle and 50 men departed in canoes to search for the Mississippi. He ordered the Belle again loaded with items that would be needed in the new colony: trade goods for the natives; a forge; hand tools; muskets, cannon and barrels of powder; foods; and even a litter of piglets. Wooden chests packed with clothing, utensils, plates and dishes were stowed in the hold, as well. The Belle, with 27 aboard, was to follow La Salle's party. There was no contact between the two groups for a month, while La Salle pursued a band of hostile Indians.
In December, La Salle returned to the Belle, to find that the pilot and five men had been murdered by Indians while they were sleeping ashore.
In January 1686, La Salle once again left to explore, this time by land. He ordered the crew to stay on board ship until he returned, which was supposed to be in about 10 days. Instead, the group did not return to the coast until two months later, after a long trek which may have taken them far into West Texas. The Belle was nowhere to be found.
On May 1, a group of six survivors from the Belle arrived at Fort St. Louis, telling a tale of death and destruction. Shortly after La Salle and his party had left, a group of six from the Belle, who had gone ashore for water, failed to return, leaving the ship without a boat.
The lack of drinking water aboard the Belle became critical, but the ship's drunken master refused to move the ship. The unskilled crew, although weak from thirst and disease, tried to sail the Belle toward Fort St. Louis. When a stiff north wind came up, the ship, dragging her one remaining anchor, was blown across the bay and driven stern-first into Matagorda Peninsula.
Although the crew unloaded as much as they could into a canoe that had drifted across the bay, much of the cargo remained on the ship, some of it submerged. All the crew except the six were dead; the survivors had stayed on the peninsula near the wreck for three months.
By this time, the colonists numbered fewer than 40. At least four had deserted to live with Indians. In mid-January 1687, La Salle left with 17 men to find a post on the Illinois River that he had established in 1683 as part of his trading empire. About 20 people, mostly women, children, the sick and misfits, remained behind at Fort St. Louis.
Several of the men accompanying La Salle grew mutinous as they made their way slowly to the northeast. On March 17, at a spot probably a short distance west of the Trinity River, three of La Salle's group were murdered by several of their comrades. Two days later, La Salle was lured into an ambush by some of his men and shot dead.
Only five members of the group, including Joutel, finally reached French Canada; some remained behind among the Indians. The pitiful remnants of the colony at Fort St. Louis were finished off by Karankawas in January 1688. The Indians took a few children captive; these were later rescued by the Spanish and taken to Mexico. The French threat to Spanish domination of the Gulf of Mexico was temporarily ended by disease, nature, Indians and the French themselves.
The Spanish found the remains of the Belle on April 4, 1687. The Spanish pilot Juan Enríquez Barroto's diary describes the ship's condition at the time: The Belle was heeled over on her starboard side, with the deck and the prow submerged. Shipworms had cut down the masts. The Spanish carried away several cannons and the anchor, along with tools and rigging. The rest was left to rot.
Although La Salle failed miserably at establishing a French colony at the mouth of the Mississippi, his attempt to do so changed history. When Gen. Alonso de León's expedition found the remains of Fort St. Louis on April 22, 1689, the Spanish government became alarmed at this proof of French intention to lay claim to Spanish territory. The French threat goaded the Spanish to establish missions and settlements in East Texas.
The Search for La Belle
Barto Arnold's search for the Belle began with careful historical research. In the early 1970s, he read the diaries kept by some of the survivors of La Salle's expedition, including Henri Joutel, as well as the journals of Spanish explorers who found the Belle aground. This helped Arnold narrow the area of Matagorda Bay in which he might expect to find what was left of the ship.
In 1978, the Texas Historical Commission launched a search, using helicopter, boat and magnetometer. A magnetometer detects distortions, called anomalies, in the Earth's magnetic field. A ship that contains large amounts of iron will distort the magnetic field, producing a detectable anomaly.
While magnetometers can signal the presence of iron, they cannot identify the ages of the objects. The muddy Matagorda's shifting sandbars have claimed at least 200 ships over the years, so searchers often check out anomalies that turn out to be modern wreckage or trash.
During his early searching, Arnold found some interesting old wrecks, but not the Belle. The search was postponed.
By summer 1995, Arnold was able to put together enough donations from foundations, organizations, companies and individuals for a two-month project, and he narrowed his list of promising anomalies to about three dozen. Arnold explains that one of the "givens" in archaeology is that you always find the most important artifacts on the last day of the dig, when you are out of money and out of time. On the first dive on the first anomaly, a site designated 41MG86, one diver found a hand-made wooden plank. The team speculated that it couldn't be old, because wood exposed to sea water for a long time would have disintegrated.
The second dive yielded some cast-lead shot, which could have been made after the Civil War. The third dive brought up a bronze belt buckle of a type common before the 1800s.
Then, on the fourth dive, Chuck Meide found the cannon while groping around in the murky water, doing what he calls "archaeology by Braille." The cannon was a bronze, six-foot-long four-pounder, weighing 793 pounds. Even better, the elaborate decorations on the barrel, Arnold says, "made it seriously old."
And the discovery of this cannon, which would firmly establish the shipwreck as the Belle, adds Arnold happily, "was before lunch on the first day."
In addition, the divers found and took to the museum in Corpus Christi a number of ceramic vessels of various sizes and designs; a stack of 22 pewter plates; hawk bells and straight pins, possibly intended for trade with the Indians; several wooden staves from barrels; and personal objects, including the hand guard from a sword.
Once the artifacts were positively identified as being from the Belle, the problems of excavating the ship were considered – and the fund-raising went into high gear.
Because of the low visibility of the waters of the Matagorda, attempting a complete archaeological excavation by "Braille" is almost impossible. However, those murky waters are only 12 feet deep at most. The Texas Historical Commission contracted with marine engineers to build a $1.3 million octagonal, double-walled cofferdam around the shipwreck in the summer of 1996.
Sixty-foot long, three-foot wide sheets of steel piling were hammered 40 feet into the floor of the bay to create the inner octagon. Then a second octagon was built outside the first, creating a structure 148 feet long and 118 feet wide extending about eight feet above the surface of the water. The space between the two walls was filled with 10,000 tons of sand, to stabilize the structure and slow water seepage. The sand was covered by eight inches of gravel to help support a crane and to provide a walkway for workers and visitors. Almost 500,000 gallons of water were pumped out of the center of the cofferdam, and a steel canopy was constructed to protect both workers and artifacts from the relentless sun.
The cofferdam was complete in September 1996, and the excavation began. The Belle team essentially did dry-land archaeology in their man-made hole in the middle of Matagorda Bay.
The team of archaeologists that came from all over the United States to excavate the Belle operated from a warehouse in Palacios, about 15 miles, and an hour's boat ride, from the Belle site. There were 16 to 20 at work on the site at any one time. The project director, Dr. Jim Bruseth, is deputy state historic preservation officer with the Texas Historical Commission. The assistant project director was Toni Carrell, on leave from the Ships of Discovery at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History. The Ships of Discovery organization is involved with the conservation and display of materials relating to ships of the exploratory period of North American history.
What The Archaeologists Found
The team found that about two-thirds of the Belle's hull – the part that was above the mud – had disintegrated. The bottom third was still packed with barrels and chests of 17th-century goods in remarkably good condition. Because the mud in which the Belle was buried is an anaerobic environment, wood, leather, metal and other substances that would have rotted, rusted or disintegrated in 300 years of exposure to sand and salt water have survived in extraordinarily good shape.
The Belle is not a "treasure ship" in the common meaning of the word. Her hold contained no precious metals or jewels.
But to archaeologists and historians, her cargo – as well as the remains of the ship itself – was a treasure much more valuable than gold or silver. Since they were not merely passing through, as explorers, but expected to settle in the New World, the colonists brought with them everything that they would need to live. As Bruseth told The Dallas Morning News' Bryan Woolley in 1997, "This ship is sort of a colony kit. Many colonies were established in the New World, but the stuff that people brought with them is gone. . . What we have on the Belle is a good inventory of what a country in Europe felt was important for establishing a colony in the New World."
Out of the 80 or so barrels and chests in the Belle's hull came such everyday items as pewter plates and bowls; cooking pots and utensils; chess and backgammon pieces; buckles from clothing; nested brass pots; clay pipe stems; navigators' instruments; candlesticks; a whisk broom; a shoe last; a brass powder flask; and a stoneware jar still containing traces of grease, perhaps for cooking. Some of the pewter dishes were stamped with a maker's mark and the initials of their owners, making it possible to match some of the items with known colonists.
There were also items that were intended for trade with the natives. Archaeologists found more than half a million tiny Venetian glass beads, as well as bronze hawk bells, brass straight pins, iron ax heads and brass finger rings. They were not merely cheap trinkets: The hawk bells were fine enough to bear makers' marks. The metal items were particularly prized by the Indians of the New World, who had little metal of their own.
Two additional cannons bearing decorations identical to the first one were pulled out of the bottom of the ship's hold in January 1997. The Belle carried four bronze cannons in her hold; the fate of the fourth is unknown.
Although dry-land archaeology has its benefits in such muddy waters as Matagorda Bay, there are also problems. Foremost among these is the rapid deterioration of objects suddenly exposed to dry air after several centuries in a watery environment. To keep the artifacts wet, the areas where the archaeologists were working had to be continuously sprinkled with sea water from a garden hose. Exposed areas of the dig were kept covered by wet burlap bags or plastic tarps, and they were sprinkled during periods when they were not being worked.
As the artifacts were extricated from their resting places, the sand and mud that came up with them was put through a fine screen to check for tiny bits that might have escaped the eye. Everything that could be found was excavated, even rat skeletons and cockroach eggs. Except when they were being cleaned or coded, all artifacts were kept immersed in salt water. Most of them were placed in containers of fresh water for their transfer to the conservation lab.
One of the most touching finds was a complete human skeleton. Investigators say that the unfortunate man, found curled in a fetal position on a coil of rope, must have been in pain from arthritis and a badly abscessed tooth, but the most likely cause of death was dehydration. A pewter porringer bearing the name "C. Barange" on its underside was found next to the skeleton. Dr. Gentry Steele, a forensic anthropologist at Texas A&M University, discovered that the skeleton was that of a Caucasian male of about 30 years of age. In addition to the dental problems and arthritis, said Steele, "He had a broken nose and a fracture of the temple area. These were not the cause of death, however. Both wounds showed signs of some healing."
The skull was taken to Texas Scottish Rite Hospital in Dallas for a computerized axial tomography (CT) scan to create a three-dimensional image. Using the scan data, CyberForm, a Richardson company, produced a resin cast of the skull. Dr. Dennis Lee, a forensic prosthetics specialist at the University of Michigan, has used the skull replica to produce facial features, which has given researchers an approximation of the victim's facial appearance.
Additionally, genetic analysis may be possible using tissue from the bones or from the brain matter that was, amazingly, still preserved in the cranium, leading to the possibility of eventually finding the person's nearest living relative.
Other isolated human bones were also found scattered in the wreckage.
When all the contents were finally removed, the Belle's hull was exposed, still resting on its starboard side, as reported by the Spanish pilot Enríquez Barroto in 1687. The Belle was surprisingly small: 51 feet long and 14 feet wide – about the size of a modern shrimp boat. The historic ship was carefully dismantled and the timbers were prepared for conservation. Study of the construction of the two-masted ship will be of great value to historians, since shipbuilders of La Salle's era rarely drew plans, and most of the ships of the period have long since disintegrated. Because of the fragile nature of the wood, conservation and stabilization may take eight to 10 years.
The excavation was completed in April 1997.
Conservation of the Artifacts
The first items to be excavated in 1995 were conserved and prepared for exhibit under the direction of Dr. Donald H. Keith of Ships of Discovery at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History. The items excavated in 1996 and 1997 from the Belle were taken to the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University in College Station, where Dr. Donny Hamilton is the director. There, in a former fire station at a World War II-vintage air field, conservators begin working on each article by carefully cleaning and identifying the item or items. The artifacts were placed in vats of fresh water for several weeks – the amount of time was determined by the type of material – to soak out the salts and to keep them from drying out. Some were further treated with chemicals to keep them from deteriorating when exposed to the air. This step is especially critical for such organic materials as rope and wood. The hundreds of feet of rope brought up from the Belle is being treated using two different new techniques: silicone oil polymerization or polyethylene glycol. These substances stabilize the rope and keep it as pliable as it was on the day it was procured for the voyage.
Any number of concretions were excavated. Concretions form around metal objects that are exposed to sea water for a long time. Corrosion of the metal triggers a chemical reaction with the seawater that forms a hard, solid covering over the entire surface of the item. Conservators X-ray the concretion to determine whether the object survives inside. If it does, they carefully remove the mineral deposits from the surface. If the item is no longer there, they inject epoxy resin into the natural mold formed by the concretions. When the resin cures and the concretions are removed, they have a duplicate of the original, complete with all surface details. This duplicate can be used for display.
Curtis Tunnell, executive director of the Texas Historical Commission, estimated that it would take about five years to analyze the more than 700,000 artifacts excavated from the Belle and write the project's final report. A budget of $5.5 million includes the field work already finished, conservation, analysis of the artifacts and writing the final report, an educational project and an expanded traveling exhibit. A traveling exhibit of the first items recovered, designed and built at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History, has toured parts of the state.
Fort St. Louis Found
The site of Fort St. Louis, although documented by both the French and the Spanish at the time, was lost over time.
In 1950, Glen Evans, under the sponsorship of The Texas Memorial Museum in Austin, conducted an investigation at a promising site on the south bank of Garcitas Creek in Victoria County. This site, officially designated site 41VT4, is also known as the Keeran site. Evans' search yielded a large number of European artifacts, including various types of ceramics and metal objects, but did not prove the presence of French colonists.
In 1973, archaeologist Kathleen Gilmore further analyzed the objects that had been excavated in the 1950 investigation. Although she determined that some of the artifacts were of French origin, there was not enough evidence to prove actual French occupation of the site. She felt confident that the Keeran site was the site of Fort St. Louis, however, and recommended further investigation, but no action was taken at that time.
While the Belle was being excavated in 1996, a Victoria County ranchhand exploring the Keeran site with a metal detector found an old buried cannon. Searchers from the historical commission dug at the spot and eventually found eight cast-iron cannons – the French cannons that had been found at Fort St. Louis in 1689 by De León's expedition and buried. They are currently undergoing conservation at the lab at A&M, along with the Belle artifacts. That the Keeran site was the location of the ill-fated French colony had been proved.
Excavation of Fort St. Louis began early in 2000 as a two-tiered project. In 1722, the Spanish built the presidio Nuestra Señora de Loreto de la Bahía squarely atop the remains of Fort St. Louis. Today's archaeologists will be excavating two historic sites at once and will have the task of sorting out which objects were associated with Fort St. Louis, which with the presidio, and which were left by indigenous people who had acquired European goods from earlier expeditions.
The Belle artifacts, along with the objects excavated at Fort St. Louis, will be installed in a museum eventually for public viewing. At press time, the location had not been determined.
— written by Mary G. Ramos, editor emerita, for the Texas Almanac 1998–1999.
The French Thorn: Rival Explorers in the Spanish Sea 1682-1762 by Robert S. Weddle; Texas A&M University Press, College Station, 1991.
The La Salle Expedition in Texas: The Journal of Henri Joutel, 1684-1687; Foster, William C., ed.; translated by Johanna S. Warren; Texas State Historical Association, Austin, 1998.
La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf: Three Primary Documents; Robert S. Weddle, et al. (eds); Texas A&M University Press, College Station, 1987.
Magazine and newsletter articles:
"La Salle Shipwreck"; Special Issue of The Medallion, Texas Historical Commission, Summer, 1996.
"La Salle's Last Voyage" by Lisa Moore LaRoe; National Geographic, May 1997, Vol. 191, No. 5.
"Sieur de La Salle's fateful landfall" by David Roberts; Smithsonian, April 1997, Vol. 28, No. 1.
On the Internet:
• For information on the Texas Historical Commission's Belle project: www.thc.state.tx.us/belle/
• For information on the conservation of the artifacts at the Conservation Research Laboratory: