Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


Picture of the cover to the September 2006 magazine

Tragedy’s Treasure

The story of La Salle’s ill-fated expedition continues to unfold as archeologists examine artifacts from the La Belle shipwreck.

By Dan Oko

In March 1687, at the age of 43, one of the greatest, if least lucky explorers Texas has known, Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, was murdered by his own men not far from the present-day town of Navasota, about 70 miles northwest of Houston.

Two years earlier, La Salle had arrived in the New World on behalf of King Louis XIV in order to establish a French colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River, and to seek his own fortune. Seventeenth century maps of North America incorrectly showed the Mississippi flowing through the heart of Texas. After 20 years of sailing, La Salle’s final miscalculation turned out to be fatal not just to his person, but likewise to France’s ability to compete with the Spanish in this part of the world.

If La Salle had succeeded in his mission, Lone Star cuisine might consist of crepes and cordon bleu instead of enchiladas and barbecue; Paris, Texas, could have been the name of the state capital; and newcomers would not be so hard pressed to remember why the French tricolor gets counted among the state’s six flags.

But, according to scholars, from the very beginning of his final trip it was clear that La Salle, who in his twenties had made his name sailing down the Mississippi from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, would need plenty of skill and not a little luck to succeed. Like Captain Meriwether Lewis, who set out to map North America two centuries later, La Salle was apparently manic depressive. He was reputedly a poor leader, yet somehow he managed to face down pirates in the Caribbean and, initially at least, befriend distrustful members of Texas’ fierce, indigenous Karankawa tribes. By the winter of 1686, when storms in Matagorda Bay sank La Belle — the last of four ships that had sailed from France two years earlier — it was plain that in this deadly, real-life version of television’s Survivor, La Salle was destined to be voted off the proverbial island.

Three hundred years later, the tragedy turned to treasure when major portions of La Salle’s ship La Belle were rediscovered by a team of Texas archeologists in 1995. The discovery led to one of the most incredible shipwreck excavations ever undertaken in the United States. From October 1996 to April 1997, at a cost of nearly $6,000,000, archeologists under the supervision of the Texas Historical Commission worked to unearth more than a million artifacts — including cannons, a significant portion of the ship’s hull, ropes and even a skeleton — from the bottom of Matagorda Bay.

Today, while conservation work continues on many relics at the Nautical Archaeology Program at Texas A&M University in College Station, state history buffs and curious travelers can take part in the La Salle Odyssey, a multi-museum effort spread across south Texas from Bay City to Corpus Christi. “It was one of the only places in the world where we had all the examples of the objects that it would take to establish a colony at that time,” says Jim Bruseth, who leads the archeology division at the THC and oversaw the excavation of La Belle through 2002.

As the lanky, rusty-haired archeologist describes the physical and mental challenges of recovering the find, it’s easy to imagine that Bruseth’s crew of hardy, modern-day treasure hunters could have held their own aboard La Belle during its Atlantic crossing. The bay where the shipwreck was found was only 12 feet deep, which allowed engineers to erect a watertight cofferdam around the site. In turn, they pumped out nearly 400,000 gallons of seawater so that the researchers could stay dry while digging below sea level. Winter storms emerged as a serious threat and funding was limited, so Bruseth and company had to work quickly. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime archeological excavation,” says Bruseth. “Just like La Salle when he set sail, we were making history.”

Taking in a portion of that history at the charming Matagorda County Museum in Bay City, where the exhibit focuses on the La Belle excavation rather than the expedition, it was intimidating to stand on the edge of a three-quarter-scale model of the cofferdam. While the other museums on the THC La Salle Odyssey route tend to focus on various aspects of La Salle’s voyage, such as daily life on the ship and the challenge the French posed to Spanish dominance in the region, this large diorama is about the work of contemporary scientists in figuring out the Frenchman’s legacy. Anyone who has fished the sandy shores of the Texas Coast in rough weather knows that the sea can be a treacherous mistress, but standing before the replica walls made an indelible impression. It offered a concrete perspective on Bruseth’s remarks: “I had to pinch myself. My office was in a cofferdam at the bottom of Matagorda Bay.”

A Promising Start

This first expedition to Texas, albeit accidental, was not La Salle’s first trip to what the Europeans called the “New World,” a term that the Karankawa Indians and Caddo tribes would no doubt find puzzling. By the time he was 23, La Salle had already traveled across New France, a span of eastern Canada that extended from Newfoundland to Lake Superior. La Salle even had been part of a 1682 expedition that chased the mighty Mississippi from the Great Lakes to its mouth in what the French would claim as Louisiana in honor of their king. If La Salle could establish a colony at the Mississippi Delta, the French might control trade on the river, and he would line his pockets as well.

“We all have high hopes of a favorable outcome,” La Salle wrote to his mother on July 18, 1684, just days prior to departing France. “We are not going by way of Canada, but through the Gulf of Mexico.”

Instead of traveling down the Mississippi to get to the mouth of the river, he planned to get there from the ocean side. The La Belle was just one of four ships that set sail on July 24, 1684 with a crew of nearly 300 colonists. Among those on board were La Salle’s brother Abbe Cavelier and his nephew Colin, and teams of lowly sailors who had been recruited from church doorways and waterfront taverns in French towns along the English Channel. The other boats were Le Joly, L’Aimable and Le Saint-Francois, which was seized by pirates prior to the fleet’s arrival at the Caribbean colonial port of Santo Domingo in September. By January 1685, the three remaining ships made landfall. The Spanish, whose imperial settlements spanned the region from Florida to the silver mines in Mexico, called the French “the thorn which has been thrust into the heart of America.”

As we now know, Spain didn’t have much to fear from these newcomers. In short order, La Belle sank in Matagorda Bay, while L’Aimable ran aground trying to follow the smaller craft past the barrier islands protecting the cove. Demoralized, wracked by illness, low on supplies and some 500 miles off course, the crew of Le Joly returned to France just a month later, leaving La Salle and about 180 would-be colonists to carve out a new home in the mosquito-ridden Texas wilderness. La Salle managed to survey South Texas from the Brazos River to the lower Rio Grande Valley before his compatriots lost patience and killed him.

Despite all the setbacks, judging from the work still underway at the Texas A&M Conservation Research Laboratory (part of the Nautical Archaeology Program), La Salle remained dedicated to his mission right up until his murder. A&M graduate student Michael West has spent the past four years sorting through items in a so-called “mystery box” found during the excavation of La Belle. The contents, ranging from woodworking items to farm implements to decorative sword hilts, have illuminated the captain’s goals and provided clues to the identity of his remaining crew. “This was a microcosm for the whole expedition,” explains West, who believes that most of the items contained in the chest probably came to belong to La Salle after other members of his party died.

Eventually, West’s report and others will be collected by the Texas Historical Commission and published in a companion volume to Jim Bruseth’s excellent 2004 book From a Watery Grave: The Discovery and Excavation of La Salle’s Shipwreck, La Belle, written with Toni S. Turner.

Despite his shortcomings, La Salle deserves to be remembered as one of the first in a long line of bold and reckless adventurers who helped shape the culture of Texas.

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