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La Salle Ship Sighted Volume 49 Number 1, January/February 1996
by Jessica E. Saraceni

A ship sailed by French explorer René Robert Cavelier de La Salle in his search for the mouth of the Mississippi River has been found in 12 feet of water off the Texas coast. Accounts from French and Spanish historical documents, along with the recovery of a distinctive bronze cannon more than six feet long, weighing some 700 pounds, and bearing the crest of Louis XIV suggest that this vessel is the Belle, one of four ships provided by the French king in 1684 for La Salle's expedition. A team led by marine archaeologist Barto Arnold of the Texas Historical Commission has also recovered pewter plates, lead shot, several complete pottery vessels, a stoneware pitcher, a sword hilt, a brass buckle, bells, straight pins, glass trade beads, and an iron pike with remnants of a wooden handle. The artifacts are well preserved, having been covered in the sand and mud of Matagorda Bay.

The smallest of the four ships in the expedition, the Belle sank in January 1686, while La Salle was exploring eastern Texas. One of the other three was captured by the Spanish, one returned to France, and the third sank while entering Matagorda Bay. The Texas Historical Commission has been looking for this ship as well. La Salle was murdered by members of his crew, who mutinied during an attempt to find the Mississippi on foot. Sickness and attacks by Karankowa Indians killed all but 12 of 180 remaining crew members and colonists.

"This is the oldest French colonial shipwreck found in the New World, and represents a transition period in naval architecture," says Arnold. "Study of the hull will provide information on the shift from ancient to modern methods of shipbuilding, which is unavailable in documents." Artifacts, including the hull, will be conserved at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History and Texas A&M University.

* Check out the home page of the La Salle Shipwreck Project.
* Update: February 27, 1998.

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America