La Belle, a 17th century French ship
After a centuries-long journey, the ship has come in
by David Denney, Director of Special Projects
In July 1995, Texas marine archeologists found what they had been looking for since 1978– the shipwreck La Belle. One of four ships in a 1684 expedition led by the French explorer Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (1643–1687), La Belle sank in a violent storm off the coast of Matagorda Bay in 1686.
La Salle had been commissioned by King Louis XIV of France to build a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River from which he could establish trade routes and plunder the silver mines in Spanish territory. The smallest of La Salle's four ships, La Belle was intended to make the 1684 crossing to North America in pieces as cargo on the ship Le Joly. Instead, it was built at Rochefort, France, because Le Joly was too full to carry it. Despite its small size, La Belle completed the perilous journey. A year later, it was La Salle's only remaining ship. When it sank in 1686, it took with it any remaining hope that La Salle's expedition might be a success.
More than 300 years later, archaeologists from the Texas Historical Commission found La Belle and began to excavate it and its contents. The Bullock Texas State History Museum was in the initial planning phase as the recovery of La Belle began. As the significance of La Belle was recognized, museum planners decided to build a permanent exhibition especially for La Belle once the preservation treatment of its hull and artifacts was completed.
It has taken over 13 years to finish the preservation of the ship's hull. A large tank to hold the ship's remains was built at Texas A&M's Conservation Research Laboratory in College Station so the recovered ship could soak in a solution of polyethylene glycol (PEG) to displace the water and preserve the wood. Over the first 11 years of the ship's preservation, the price of oil rose and with it the cost of polyethylene glycol. The conservation lab came up with an alternate plan to freeze-dry the ship, a process that was more economical and would shorten the preservation timeframe.
A gigantic freeze-dryer was built to remove more than 300 years of moisture from the hundreds of European oak and pine timbers and planks. The freeze-dryer, 40 feet long and 8 feet wide, is the biggest machine devoted to archaeology on the continent .
Preservation of the ship's timbers was completed in 2014, and what remains of the hull was reconstructed live at the Bullock Museum from October 2014 to May 2015. On May 21, 2015, the assembled ship was moved to its permanent location in the first floor gallery where it will be the centerpiece of the Bullock Museum for many years to come.
Property of France from the collection of the Musée national de la Marine. Courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission, Austin
Time Period: 1519 - 1689
Exhibit: La Belle
This artifact is currently on view.