La Belle

The Ship That Changed History

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The 17th century French shipwreck La Belle is one of the most significant stories in early Texas history. It was on this ship that explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, set sail for the Mississippi River in 1684 to claim new territory for France. The ship instead sailed into Matagorda Bay, only to sink in 1686 where it was found 300 years later and underwent an extraordinary excavation and preservation beginning in 1995. La Belle now is at the center of the Museum's first-floor exhibition La Belle: The Ship That Changed History.

Texas's history would have been much different had La Salle's expedition been successful. A short film at the entrance of the exhibition provides an overview of La Salle's ambitious expedition and the consequences of the doomed voyage. Maps and graphic panels show the route La Belle sailed and a collection of artifacts found aboard the ship — including tools, weapons, trade goods, and cooking pots — provide insight into what objects Europeans considered important for establishing a new colony. Personal items including a shoe, a ring, and an engraved drinking cup reflect the lives of the 35 men, women, and children aboard the 54-foot ship.

Standing in front of the preserved hull is a 1:12 scale wooden model of La Belle, complete with masts and cargo-cutaways. Touchpads feature animations that explain more about the ship and provide interactive opportunities to use 21st century technology to master 17th century skills.

The highlight of the exhibition is the preserved hull of La Belle, reconstructed in the Museum over seven months. For a great view of the entire ship, look over the Museum's second or third floor gallery right into the hull. Get a close look at the ship on the first floor level, where you will see still-visible 17th century tool markings showing how the timbers fit together. The ground-breaking preservation of La Belle is also featured in the exhibition through original film footage from the ship's 1996 excavation.

Don't miss the accompanying multi-sensory film Shipwrecked, showing daily in the Texas Spirit Theater, which shares the true story of the expedition through the eyes of 14 year old Pierre Talon, who was among only a handful of survivors from La Salle's expedition.

La Belle: The Ship That Changed History is organized by the Bullock Texas State History Museum with the Texas Historical Commission, the Musée National de la Marine, and Texas A&M University. Support for the La Belle project provided by the State of Texas, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the Texas State History Museum Foundation, Bobbie Nau, John L. Nau III, and the Woody and Gayle Hunt Family Foundation.

Support for the Bullock Museum's exhibitions and education programs provided by the Texas State History Museum Foundation.