La Belle

The Ship That Changed History

This exhibition explores the historic voyage, consequences, and groundbreaking successes that changed the course of Texas history.

Making History

In 1684, French King Louis XIV sent explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, across the ocean with four ships and 400 people to North America. The explorer was to land at the mouth of the Mississippi River, establish a colony and trade routes, and locate Spanish silver mines. That plan was never realized. Instead, in a series of remarkable circumstances, La Salle lost ships to pirates and disaster, sailed past his destination, and was murdered by his own men. In 1686, La Belle, the one remaining expedition ship, wrecked in a storm and sank to the muddy bottom of Matagorda Bay where it rested undisturbed for over 300 years. In 1995, archaeologists located the 17th century ship and began a decades-long and often unprecedented process of excavating, recovering, and conserving the ship's hull, along with more than 1.6 million artifacts. La Belle is the central artifact in the Museum's first-floor galleries, and introduces new scholarship on early Texas history through the 17th-century ship, select original artifacts, and a multi-sensory film. The story of La Belle continues in Becoming Texas with new opportunities to discover and interact with the 17th century ship through augmented reality.

The Artifacts: Excavated Stories

In addition to the ship, recovered artifacts tell the stories of La Salle, the French sailors and colonists aboard La Belle, and the regional American Indians who encountered them.

See the finger rings, hawk bells, colored glass beads, and knives that the French brought to trade with the American Indians. Discover how brass pots, a colander, a ladle, and a draw knife for wood carving shed light on 17th century European domestic culture and new colony settlement. Examine weaponry including muskets, powder horns, and an early explosive device called a fire pot.

Make sure to see the bronze cannon with lifting handles shaped like dolphins. It was this cannon with its unique design that convinced archaeologists that the ship they had discovered submerged in the mud of Matagorda Bay was indeed La Belle. This artifact is also part of the second La Belle story told in the exhibition— that of the ship's historic excavation and groundbreaking preservation treatments.

The Film: A Multi-Sensory Journey

Be a part of the colonists' journey aboard La Belle and their struggles to establish a settlement in south Texas in the multi-sensory film Shipwrecked, showing daily in the Texas Spirit Theater. This dangerous and often surprising story is told by Pierre Talon, a young boy who was one of the few real-life survivors of La Salle's failed Texas expedition. The film’s runtime is 26 minutes.

Take history home with a companion catalogue about La Belle and its artifacts, excavation, and preservation, available online and in the Bullock Museum Store.


How La Belle Changed History

Excavation and Preservation