La Belle: The Ship That Changed History

La Belle: The Ship That Changed History

La Belle: The Ship That Changed History

La Belle: The Ship That Changed History

Synopsis

After two decades of searching for La Salle's lost ship La Belle, Texas Historical Commission (THC) divers in 1995 located a shipwreck containing historic artifacts of European origin in the silty bottom of Matagorda Bay, off the coast of Texas. The first cannon lifted from the waters bore late seventeenth-century French insignias. The ill-fated La Belle had been found.

Under the direction of then-THC Archeology Division Director James Bruseth, the THC conducted a full excavation of the water-logged La Belle. The conservation was subsequently completed at Texas A&M University's Conservation Research Laboratory, resulting in preservation of more than one million artifacts from the wreck.

An official naval vessel granted to La Salle by the king of France in 1684, La Belle is still considered a sovereign naval vessel belonging to the French government under international maritime law. A formal agreement negotiated by the French Republic, the Musee national de la Marine, the US Department of State, and the THC allows the ship and artifacts to remain in Texas permanently and to be housed in an exhibit at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, opening October 2014. This richly illustrated catalog will accompany the exhibit.

Excerpt

For more than twenty years, Texas Historical Commission (THC) archaeologists searched for La Salle’s lost ship, La Belle, in the shallow murky waters of Matagorda Bay. On a warm June day in 1995, thc divers under the supervision of then-THC State Marine Archeologist J. Barto Arnold iii, located a shipwreck containing historic artifacts of European origin. the first cannon to be lifted from the waters bore late seventeenth-century French insignias, proof that the illfated La Belle had at last been found.

To safeguard the wreck from storms and treasure hunters, in 1996 the thc embarked on a full-scale excavation of La Belle under the direction of then-THC Archeology Division Director, Dr. James Bruseth (also Guest Curator for the La Belle exhibit at the Bullock Texas State History Museum). Using a cofferdam to conduct an unprecedented dry excavation of a shipwreck in the middle of the bay, our archaeologists successfully unearthed the remains of the ship and its cargo. Our partners at Texas A&M University’s Conservation Research Laboratory ensured the expert preservation of more than one million artifacts recovered from the wreck.

Like La Salle’s expedition, the impact of this archaeological investigation extended far beyond the borders of Texas. After completing the excavation of the vessel, the French Republic officially claimed La Belle, citing archival documents listing the ship as one of King Louis XIV’s vessels. Under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, a flag state (in this case, France) maintains ownership of a governmental vessel lost on a non-commercial venture. Accordingly, France argued that La Belle was on an official mission for the king when lost, and therefore was still owned by the French Republic. the U.S. State Department agreed, and an international agreement was negotiated by the French Republic, the U.S. Department of State, the Musée national de la Marine, and the thc. the document was signed on March 31, 2003, giving ownership to France but allowing the ship and its contents to remain in Texas under the control of the thc. the agreement also assigned responsibility through a separate accord to the Musée national de la Marine . . .

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