La Belle: The Archaeology of a Seventeenth-Century Ship of New World Colonization

La Belle: The Archaeology of a Seventeenth-Century Ship of New World Colonization

La Belle: The Archaeology of a Seventeenth-Century Ship of New World Colonization

La Belle: The Archaeology of a Seventeenth-Century Ship of New World Colonization


In 1995, Texas Historical Commission underwater archaeologists discovered the wreck of La Salle's La Belle, remnant of an ill-fated French attempt to establish a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River that landed instead along today's Matagorda Bay in Texas. During 1996-1997, the Commission uncovered the ship's remains under the direction of archaeologist James E. Bruseth and employing a team of archaeologists and volunteers. Amid the shallow waters of Matagorda Bay, a steel cofferdam was constructed around the site, creating one of the most complex nautical archaeological excavations ever attempted in North America and allowing the archaeologists to excavate the sunken wreck much as if it were located on dry land. The ship's hold was discovered full of everything the would-be colonists would need to establish themselves in the New World; more than 1.8 million artifacts were recovered from the site.

More than two decades in the making, due to the immensity of the find and the complexity of cataloging and conserving the artifacts, this book thoroughly documents one of the most significant North American archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century.


In late July of 1995, three words—“We found it!”—resounded repeatedly in the offices of the Texas Historical Commission (THC). the excitement derived from the fact that the hunt for the wreck of La Belle had finally resulted in a positive identification. the ship was one of the vessels damaged and lost to a winter storm in 1686 during the expedition led by Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle.

The search for La Belle was initiated by the thc in the 1970s, but it was not until decades later that divers, under the direction of then-State Marine Archeologist J. Barto Arnold, iii, investigated the location of a magnetic anomaly in Matagorda Bay and were able to confirm the presence of a wrecked ship’s hull containing historic artifacts of European origin. a short time later a cannon was recovered and found to be decorated with a French crest that provided—at last!—unequivocal proof that the ill-fated La Belle had been found.

Historians have long been aware of two ships lost during La Salle’s venture to the New World in 1685, including firsthand accounts and maps generated by expedition members, followed by observations and records made by the Spanish soldiers who were tasked with the job of locating the French settlement. Archives in Europe provided twentieth-century researchers with important indications about the location of La Belle. These clues, coupled with advances in magnetometry, were what finally led to the successful identification of the sunken remains of the historic wreck.

This was a colossal discovery worthy of celebration, and it garnered attention from the media, elected officials, educators, historians, maritime archaeologists, local residents, and others across the globe. Here was an unparalleled opportunity to study the material remains of a pivotal chapter in Texas history. Without a doubt, archaeological investigations of La Salle’s ship were warranted, but how extensively should the wreck be excavated? the perpetually murky waters of Matagorda Bay presented additional issues that had to be addressed. And, could the vessel be preserved and protected? Ultimately, the thc committed to a full-scale excavation of La Belle in order to safeguard . . .

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