Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


From a Watery Grave

The story of La Salle's shipwreck, La Belle.

By E. Dan Klepper

The reign of Louis XIV is remembered as much for its New World land grab as it is for its gilt-laden excesses. The French monarch's foray across the North American continent, a program of wealth building and colonial expansion, is perhaps best illustrated by the adventures of Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle.

La Salle lay claim to the Louisiana Territory, a swath of the continent encompassing about one-third of the United States. History indicates that La Salle's efforts on behalf of the king were long on aspiration but short on results. However, through a remarkable series of events, Texans ended up with one of the most stunning shipwrecks in history – La Salle's barque longue known as La Belle.

The authors of From a Watery Grave - The Discovery and Excavation of La Salle's Shipwreck, La Belle (Texas A&M University Press) kick-start their story with events that took place during the final months of La Salle's doomed expedition. Greed and treachery within the expedition's ranks left La Salle with a bullet hole through his head and two of his ships wrecked along the Texas coastline. Ingenuity, a factor sorely lacking in the La Salle expedition, would finally enter this saga 300 years later once Texas Historical Commission archaeologists discovered the location of the sunken La Belle. Scientists succeeded in recovering the entire shipwreck, a nautical jewel with much of its hull and cargo still intact, from its resting place on the bottom of Matagorda Bay.

The authors have made an entertaining read out of the technical aspects of this unique excavation, one which required the creation of a dry, submerged island surrounded by a steel-reinforced cofferdam in the middle of the bay. But perhaps most compelling of all is the chapter listing the ship's cargo, a catalog of historic objects that would dazzle anyone with a love of ancient and beautiful things.

"One of our most striking discoveries was a box in the aft hold containing 568,798 tiny glass seed beads. ... The contents of this single wooden box probably more than doubled the number of French trade beads recovered from all North American archaeological sites." The ship's cargo included jewelry, swords, cannons, bells, pewter, glass, crucifixes, pipes, and muskets, as well as human remains. Lastly, the ship itself was recovered and preserved.

The authors have chronicled the entire project, from discovery to conservation, in a richly illustrated format. Visually appealing sidebars and informative call-outs fill From a Watery Grave, instructing and entertaining at once, gifting Texas readers with a nonfiction narrative that is designed for the masses but fit for a king.

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