Texas archaeologists part sea to recover La Salle's ship $4 million excavation under way to raise 300-year-old wreck

September 12, 1996|By HOUSTON CHRONICLE

PORT O'CONNOR, Texas -- The French explorer La Salle got lost. His ships sank. His own men deserted him, poisoned his food, and eventually shot him in the head.

But during an incredible, if ill-fated, adventure in the New World, La Salle and his crew charted the Great Lakes, discovered the mouth of the Mississippi River and claimed half the American continent for their homeland.

And, through their blunders and miscalculations, they altered the course of Texas history.

In Matagorda Bay

So when divers and archaeologists from the Texas Historical Commission found the wreckage of La Salle's ship, the La Belle, in the murky waters of Matagorda Bay last summer, they began an adventure of their own. Their mission is to bring up the 300-year-old ship -- at least the 20 percent that's left of it -- and to study and display its artifacts.

Standing in their way are tons of muddy seawater and the threat of bad weather of the kind that sunk the La Belle three centuries ago and has downed hundreds of ships since. So they will do what has never been attempted before.

They will move the mighty ocean out of the way.

"It just seemed the most logical and practical thing to do," said marine archaeologist Barto Arnold, who is leading the $4 million excavation. "To do any kind of decent archaeology, you have to be able to see."

This summer, as brown pelicans flew overhead and dolphins swam nearby, workers aboard three barges worked under the oppressive sun, welding together the massive steel supports for a huge cofferdam, a watertight structure that will surround the La Belle and allow archaeologists to excavate on relatively dry land.

A similar strategy was used once before in a shipwreck excavation in the late 1970s for recovering a Civil War ship sunk in the James River in Virginia. In that excavation, however, the water was not drained from the cofferdam. Instead it was filtered and chemically treated to improve visibility.

The La Belle excavation marks the first time a cofferdam has been built around a shipwreck in ocean waters and the first time archaeologists will pump the water out to conduct a dry-land excavation.

'Not a treasure ship'

A roof protects the site from the sun and rain, and for a barge alongside the cofferdam houses a field lab, offices, restrooms and sleeping quarters for some crew members who live at the site.

An observation deck allows the public to dock boats and watch the six-month excavation, which began by early August.

"This is not a treasure ship. There's no gold or silver or jewels," explained Arnold. "The treasure is in its historical value and in what it can tell us. Our whole purpose is to bring it to the public, so we're glad people are going to be able to see some of the dig take place."

The ship was originally given to Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, by King Louis XIV of France after the explorer had discovered the mouth of the Mississippi, tracing the river southward from Illinois. The La Belle was one of four ships La Salle and 300 soldiers and settlers sailed back to the New World in 1684. The goal of their expedition was to reach the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico and to start a permanent French colony.

After one ship was seized by Spanish pirates, the rest of the fleet landed in the West Indies, regrouped, then set sail for the Mississippi.

Relying on hypothetical maps of the uncharted territory, La Salle overshot the river by hundreds of miles and mistook Matagorda Bay for the western estuary of the Mississippi.

The La Belle successfully navigated the hidden sandbars and entered the bay, but the La Aimable, which carried the colonists' food, medicine, tools and other supplies, ran aground and broke up on a reef.

The third ship, the La Jolly, returned to France, leaving La Salle with limited provisions and 180 settlers, many of whom were sick and ready to desert.

La Salle and his party eventually founded Fort St. Louis at the head of Lavaca Bay on the bank of Garcitas Creek.

Bad luck followed them, however. Some of La Salle's followers ate poison berries, died of snake bites, were attacked by alligators and killed or captured by Indians.

La Salle pressed on, exploring the bay in 1686 and then marching west for more than two months, determined to reach the Mississippi by land.

By the time he returned, later than promised, the La Belle -- protected by a handful of amateur sailors fond of the bottle -- had run aground in a squall.

Survivors had assembled two makeshift rafts and headed for shore. One, loaded with La Salle's papers and some supplies, made it to dry land.

A year later, La Salle set out for the Illinois River, hoping to convince French settlers there to help his stranded colony and eventually make his way back to France by way of Quebec. His men killed him en route. Indians later attacked Fort St. Louis, killing everyone but a few children who were later rescued by Spanish expeditions and taken to Mexico.

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