In 1686, La Salle's last ship sank in Matagorda Bay; archaeologists will recover the historic vessel this spring

Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle
Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle
claimed Louisiana for France.

  • La Salle sailed from France to claim Louisiana for his king; today, his ship is being reclaimed
  • The recovery effort is expected to last six months.

  • The ship was found in 1995 in Matagorda Bay.

Texas was a hellhole for La Salle. When the French explorer and his crew landed in Matagorda Bay in 1685, they were battered by the elements.

Food supplies ran low.

"They were ... racked by disease, threatened by hostile Indians, assailed by mosquitoes and lots of deadly snakes," said Don Chipman, history professor at the University of North Texas in Denton.

"Just terrible, terrible conditions under which to live."

Compounding the group's misery, one of La Salle's ships, the Belle, sank in Matagorda Bay in 1686.

This desolate coastline that thrust so much adversity upon La Salle 311 years ago now brings joy for archaeologists.

In April, the Texas State Historical Commission will begin a $3.7 million effort to unearth the wreckage of the Belle.

"This is one of the most important shipwrecks that's ever been dug in this continent," said Barto Arnold, the state marine archaeologist who is organizing the excavation.

Said Chipman: "No one expected the ship to be found. When you find a vessel like that with the cargo somewhat intact, it's kind of a time capsule that tells you a lot about the French who intended to colonize the area.

The Belle
In January, 1686, a squall blew La Salle's ship
the Belle across Matagorda Bay, grounding it.
The ship, estimated to be 80 feet long, was found in 1995 in Matagorda Bay buried beneath sand and silt 12 feet below the water's surface about 12 miles northeast of Port O'Connor.

About 15 to 20 percent of the Belle's hull remains. All of the wreckage will be brought up bit by bit and pieced together for display in an as-yet-undetermined museum, said Arnold, who led the team that discovered the ship.

Everything archaeologists find will be important because little is known about this particular kind of ship, called a barque longue.

"Every nail, every fastening, every board, every piece of the rigging will tell us a story that's not known," Arnold said.

A cannon, pewter plates and other artifacts recovered from the wreckage last year are at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History. Conservation work on the cannon has been completed, and museum workers are preparing an exhibit for May to display it and the other artifacts.

Still underwater are well-preserved rows of wooden barrels and pottery, said Arnold, who is among divers who have seen the ship's cargo.

"They were right where the French put them before the wreck," he said.

Also likely on board are trade goods like bronze clothespins, small bells used for falconry, glass beads, and the wooden handles of tools.

To excavate the wreckage and artifacts, a steel structure called a cofferdam will be built in April to encircle the site.

Workers will pump tons of sea water out of the dam, leaving the wreckage on dry bay bottom. Beginning in May, archaeologists will be able to work in the open air while recovering the wreckage.

The recovery effort is expected to last six months -- give or take a few months.

What archaeologists find will not just explain dry details about ship construction and trade. It also will reveal details of the lives of La Salle and the stalwart individuals who accompanied the great explorer.

"It's quite a romantic find," said Kathleen Gilmore, a retired archaeology professor who lives in Dallas.

"Nearly all of the settlers at Fort St. Louis on Garcitas Creek were killed by the Indians," Gilmore said, referring to the settlement La Salle's company formed a few miles from Matagorda Bay.

Where it is "This will be a testament to their life."

La Salle's full name was Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle. Historians say La Salle was a visionary obsessed with finding a way to the Far East through the North American continent.

"La Salle was one of those complex leaders," Chipman said.

The explorer was admired by some of his contemporaries for his determination, his resilience, his skill at learning Indian languages.

"There was his smooth diplomacy with the tribes of the lower Mississippi, his ability to convince the King of France, Louis XIV, to back his expedition," Chipman said.

But some who traveled with La Salle despised him.

"He was mercurial," Chipman said. "He was given to ... spells of depression. I don't think most people really liked serving under La Salle."

"In Texas, he was so unreasonable ... he didn't accept any advice," said Robert S. Weddle, an authority on La Salle.

"No opinion was valid except his. (One of La Salle's men) said, `This is a man who's lost his mind,'|" said Weddle, a Bonham resident who has written several books detailing La Salle's exploits.

Before the ill-fated trip that landed him in Texas, La Salle led an expedition down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. He claimed all the land draining into the Mississippi and its tributaries for Louis XIV of France. He named the huge chunk of territory Louisiana.

Later, La Salle won permission from the king to sail from France to the mouth of the Mississippi River, fortify it and invade and conquer part of the Spanish province of Mexico.

About 300 soldiers and would-be settlers traveled aboard La Salle's ships as they sailed across the Atlantic.

They stopped in Cuba and later continued in a search for the mouth of theMississippi. But they sailed 500 miles too far west, ending up on the coast of Texas.

La Salle landed somewhere between what is now Matagorda Island and Corpus Christi.

"The aspect of the country was not cheering, with its barren plains, its reedy marshes, its interminable oyster beds and broad flats of mud bare at low tide," Francis Parkman wrote in his book "La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West."

Belle wreckage
The planned structure will consist of two braced steel walls with sand in between. Both walls are approximately 20 feet high, with 8 feet rising above the level of the water.
They got back in their ships and retraced part of their route, stopping at Matagorda Island.

La Salle and some of his crew made their way to shore and watched while one of their ships, a large supply vessel called L'Aimable, tried to sail through the shallow Pass Cavallo into Matagorda Bay. It ran aground, broke up and sank.

The Karankawa Indians stole supplies from the Europeans and kidnapped some of the group.

"What's puzzling to me is how (La Salle) was able to get along with the Indians of the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley regions and completely bomb out when he tried to deal with the Karankawas," said Weddle.

"He treated the Karankawas very high-handedly, and they didn't take kindly to it, according to some witnesses. They planned to destroy the colony almost from the moment of his arrival," Weddle said.

The settlers also were ravaged by disease, weakened by hard labor, even gored by buffalo. Death was common.

Despite their hardships, La Salle and his group established a settlement, Fort St. Louis, a few miles inland from Matagorda Bay, on Garcitas Creek.

In January 1686, a squall blew the Belle across Matagorda Bay, and the vessel ran aground.

La Salle's men couldn't dislodge the ship from the bay bottom, so they salvaged what they could and left it there.

"The loss was incalculable ... In truth, she was the last necessity to the unhappy exiles, and their only resource for escape from a position which was fast becoming desperate," Parkman wrote.

Spaniards took guns and rigging from the boat about a year later. After that, "she apparently just lay there and fell apart, because subsequent expeditions (by the Spanish) failed to find it," Weddle said.

By January 1687, death had claimed so many settlers that only 37 remained at the fort. La Salle and 17 men left the fort to trek to Illinois and bring back help.

One year later, with La Salle still gone, Indians killed everyone in the fort except a few children, whom the Indians took to raise as their own. Later, Spaniards discovered the children and rescued them.

In East Texas, somewhere between the Trinity and Brazos rivers, La Salle was murdered by his own men in 1687.

The trigger man was Pierre Duhaut, who disliked La Salle for several reasons.

Duhaut was a merchant, and he was angry to find himself with no way to make money in a harsh Texas wilderness.

La Salle had borrowed money from Duhaut, and Duhaut didn't think he was going to get it back.

Duhaut also blamed La Salle for the death of Duhaut's brother, who fell ill in an earlier expedition, headed back for Fort St. Louis and never was seen again.

No one knows where La Salle's body ended up.

Today, a statue of the explorer overlooks Matagorda Bay.

Weddle believes La Salle was probably manic-depressive. The manic phases likely fired La Salle, pushing him toward greatness, Weddle said.

"Just his hard-driving nature -- that in itself makes a man do great things and put out extraordinary efforts. ... They feel they can conquer the world."

A really big map of La Salle's Chronology, but worth it.

The Belle

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  • La Salle Shipwreck Project
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