Why does the nation of France have a major claim to sea treasure in Austin? Why is there a centuries-old shipwreck off the corner of 18th Street and Congress Avenue?
The La Belle, a 17th century sailing ship designed for the Mississippi River, is a key artifact from the struggles between European powers France, Britain and Spain for a piece of what would become Texas. This famous ship that sailed the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, never the Mississippi as intended, doomed the French explorer La Salle’s expedition. The shipwreck was finally found in 1995 after a century-long search, in Matagorda Bay between Corpus Christi and Galveston.
The La Belle is on exhibit at Bullock Texas State History Museum until May 17, 2015. If your interest isn’t piqued already, here are 7 reasons to see the La Belle shipwreck in Austin:
#1 See a Cool Shipwreck
La Belle means “beauty,” and visitors will confirm that the name was chosen well.
The ship is a barque, and critics questioned whether it could make a crossing across the Atlantic. It did, but only to meet its end in Matagorda Bay near Houston.
#2 Hang Out With Archeologists
James E. Bruseth, Peter Fix and Kate de Gennaro are working on the reconstruction of the wreck. However, they’ll gladly stop and talk with you if you have questions while they’re mulling over the ancient skeleton of La Belle. If you take the time to ask, you’ll find out why wood and ceramics survived but iron didn’t, and you might even learn about the body of a French sailor.
#3 Learn About La Salle
If you missed too many Texas history classes, La Salle was the most famous French explorer who travelled the Great Lakes and Mississippi River, and named what became the Louisiana Purchase and state of Louisiana after Louis XIV.
La Salle’s full name was René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle. Unfortunately, his last adventure ended badly. With the intention of establishing colonies at the mouth of the Mississippi, he overshot and landed on the Texas Gulf Coast where an ill-fated French colony was established.
#4 See the Ship Rebuilt Just Like a Model Ship
The La Belle was a “kit ship,” archaeologist Kate Genarro told me. “It’s like a paint by the numbers.” In fact, you can see the Roman numbers carved by French shipbuilders long ago along the keel of the ship where the matching cross timbers were placed.
You can even see where ship worms ate into the wood along the keel during its voyage across the Atlantic into the Gulf of Mexico, before it sunk into the mud of Matagorda Bay.
#5 See the Biggest Thing Ever Freeze Dried
La Belle is a pioneering archaeological feat in preservation. The timbers of La Belle are white oak, which were 100-200 years old at the time the ship was built in 1684. The timbers then survived more than three centuries under water in Matagorda Bay.
When the ship was excavated from under the water and mud in 1995, the challenge was to keep the wood from deteriorating. A petrochemical solution was used at first, but freeze drying was researched when the first method became too expensive.
The freeze drying process worked, a triumph of modern preservation. Now you can watch in person or online until May as the ship is put back together timber by timber, board by board, piece by piece.
#6 See Undersea Booty
Yes. Real life treasure. From a shipwreck. In Austin. Brass cannons, iron cannons, glass beads, long rifles…over one million artifacts have been recovered. While the nation of France actually owns all this, the state of Texas will possess it over the next century.
#7 Lost for Centuries, It’s Kept in Austin
The ship lay hidden for centuries after it was lost. Though the wreck was important to history, and people and governments knew the ship went down in Matagorda Bay, looking for a ship in a bay is harder to find than a needle in a haystack. For a haystack, you merely need an industrial sized magnet to find the needle.
Despite the challenges, La Belle was found and it’s here in our city. See it today at the Bullock Texas State History Museum at 1800 Congress Avenue, as it’s pieced back together in real time. Go back in May, when the entire ship will be moved to a massive atrium. You’ll be able to walk around and above it on plexiglass as it continues to be restored.
The La Belle represents a turning point in Texas history. The Spanish reacted angrily to this last venture of La Salle. While the French did not give up hopes of Texas dominance, La Salle’s shipwreck was a major blow to their strategy.
@theAustinot wants to know:
Have you visited the La Belle? If so, what did you think?
We always have unique content on the Austinot, and we love to give things away. You know, like CDs, event tickets and other cool stuff. We only send out our Best of the Austinot newsletter two times/month. It’s where we give you a recap of our best articles and give stuff away. Interested? Subscribe to Best of the Austinot here!