In the Museum, in the classroom, at home. Discover more about the ship that changed history.
For European countries, claiming land on the North American continent gained them at least three big advantages in an ever-changing and expanding world: more resources, more wealth, and more power. They gained access to furs, precious gems and metals, and other natural resources that weren't available on the European continent. Those new assets brought new wealth. Gaining land in North America could also change the balance of power among European rivals. France funded La Salle's expedition to claim land at the mouth of the Mississippi River in order to undercut Spanish dominance in the southern part of North America. If France had more land in that area than Spain had, the balance of power would swing toward France. France also saw an opportunity to increase national wealth by filling their coffers with silver from the Spanish mines in Mexico.
There was no GPS then, so planning a travel route was much more challenging for European explorers. Finding waterways they could navigate easily was very important. A relatively unchallenging travel route meant more trade opportunities and an increased ability to acquire natural resources, both of which meant more national wealth. Maps of the time weren't always accurate or reliable, so explorers based their routes on the night sky and their knowledge of latitude. They hadn't quite figured out yet how to navigate using both longitude and latitude.
Inaccurate maps and measurements were what doomed La Salle's Gulf of Mexico expedition. Stubbornness also played a role. Even though some of his crew thought they were in the wrong place, and argued with him about it, La Salle insisted that the Mississippi River was close by. In reality, La Salle had sailed right for the Texas coast. He had missed the mouth of the great river by more than 400 miles.
Expeditions were long, hard trips across a vast ocean. Sailors packed food and fresh water for themselves and the ship's passengers, but usually just enough for a one-way trip. They gathered fresh supplies when they stopped at islands along their route.
Since the goal of most expeditions was to establish a new colony for their nation, all those supplies had to be packed on the ship as well. "Colony kits" included everything new settlers thought they would need in their new homes in North America. For passengers on La Salle's ship, La Belle, that included cooking pots and candlesticks.
Getting everything loaded onto the ship for a long and crowded journey was no easy task. They couldn't just throw everything in, like most of us do when we pack for a trip. In order for the ship to sail well and efficiently, it had to be perfectly balanced. Packing had to be a well-planned effort. Heavy items were placed low in the cargo hold to improve the ship's stability. Some ships, like La Belle, even loaded rocks to help keep the ship balanced. Any large containers like barrels were packed carefully and secured tightly so they wouldn't roll around as the ship tossed and turned across the rough oceans waters.
That depended primarily on what past experiences the explorers and the American Indians tribes might have had. In La Salle's case, the relationship between the French and the local Karankawa were already strained due to difficult past interactions. The French built Fort Saint Louis at their settlement near present-day Victoria to protect themselves against Karankawa attacks, but ultimately, that didn't work. The few colonists at the fort who hadn't already died from disease and malnutrition were killed in a Karankawa attack. During the attack, the Karankawa kidnapped the surviving children. Many of them eventually became members of the tribe.You can watch the incredible true story of one of these young boys in the 4-D film, Shipwrecked, now showing at the Bullock Museum.
Now that's an exciting story. For 309 years, the remains of La Belle rested on the muddy bottom of Matagorda Bay. Scientists knew something was down there because historical maps marked the location of a wrecked ship. Other surveys showed the presence of metal materials under the water. But it wasn't until 1995 that diver Chuck Meide blindly grabbed the dolphin-shaped handles of a sunken cannon. When marine archaeologists raised the cannon to the surface, they saw two crests— one for King Louis XIV of France, and the other for the Admiral of France. That's when they knew. This was La Belle.
Scientists used a variety of technologies to excavate and preserve the ship. A huge cofferdam was constructed around the shipwreck as it rested on the floor of Matagorda Bay. Water was pumped out of the steel, octagonally-shaped dam structure, creating a dry hole in the middle of the bay. Archaeologists then excavated the ship as if it were on land. Almost two million artifacts — from axe heads to trade beads — were catalogued and sent to Texas A&M University for conservation. Scientists had to experiment with several different techniques to find the best way to conserve the ship and its contents. In the end, La Belle was freeze-dried. The artifacts were cleaned carefully, with some metal and organic artifacts undergoing chemical treatment.