Sieur de La Salle was a French explorer from the 17th century who successfully sailed the Mississippi River from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico (Roberts 1997). With this voyage, he laid claim to the land that surrounded the Mississippi River for the French and named it Louisiana after the then king, Louis XIV (Roberts 1997). Two years after his inaugural journey, he and 300 others sailed on a secret mission through the then owned Spanish Gulf of Mexico to re-enter the Mississippi to establish a new settlement about 200 miles inland (Roberts 1997). If successful in establishing the new fort, he planned to recruit 15,000 Native American allies to strike against the Spanish forts and silver mines in northern Mexico (Roberts 1997). However, La Salle made a critical navigation error on his journey through the Gulf of Mexico and ended up in Matagorda Bay, some 400 miles always from the Mississippi River (Roberts 1997). Determined to find it, he set out on foot, leaving his ship La Belle anchored in the bay (Roberts 1997). A violent storm came through while he was away that ended up sinking La Belle where it was continually covered with muddy sand until it was discovered over 300 years later in 1995 by the Texas Historical Commission (THC) (Roberts 1997). The THC went to unprecedented measures by building a double-walled cofferdam around the shipwreck and then pumped out the water to uncover the wreck, turning it into more of a land excavation than an underwater one (Bullock Museum 2019). The ship and artifacts uncovered now reside at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin and is one of the main exhibits. But questions still remain of why this shipwreck is important to Texas history when Texas’s narrative is primarily built on Spanish settlement. This essay aims to examine the significance of the shipwreck discovery, but also dives deeper into the story of La Belle and questions why it is portrayed as an important piece of Texas history.
Shipwrecks preserve a large amount of material and artifacts that weren’t intended to be deposited (Gibbons & Adams 2001) and La Belle is no exception. The gray mud in which La Belle was buried served as an almost perfect anaerobic environment to preserve not only artifacts but also the wooden hull of the boat (Roberts 1997). Adams reinforces this fact by noting that organic materials are dramatically better preserved in wet environments than land ones (Adams 2001). The artifacts that are retrieved give researchers a high-resolution picture of past activity, both in terms of the object found but also the relationships between individual objects (Adams 2001). Some artifacts that were retrieved from La Belle include the hull of the ship as well as a bronze cannon, muskets, goods that were to be traded with Native Americans including axe heads and glass beads, pieces of the ship’s rigging, and tools for farming and carpentry (Bullock Museum 2019). These artifacts give us insight on the purpose of the journey, reinforcing La Salle’s mission of establishing a fort and growing crops with the farming tools to provide sustenance for the 300 colonizers that went with him. La Salle only brought axes heads since handles could easily be crafted from the available wood in the New World and these, along with the glass beads could be traded to the Native Americans (Roberts 1997).
La Salle did not give up when he realized he had missed his intended destination of the Mississippi River and the sinking of La Belle. Determined to save his mission, he had established Fort St. Louis thirty miles inland from Matagorda Bay and when he located himself southwest of the Mississippi, he set off on foot with 17 other men in an effort to reach a French fort on the Illinois River so he could send a message back to France (Roberts 1997). However, a dispute broke out between the crew somewhere in Texas between the Brazos and Trinity Rivers (Roberts 1997). Two men rebelled against the crew and murdered a few as well as La Salle before shooting each other (Roberts 1997). Seven survivors of the incident continued on until they reached their intended destination on the Illinois River (Roberts 1997). Meanwhile, back at Fort St. Louis, the 20 colonists waited for rescue ships they thought were being sent by the King, until the Karankawa natives unleashed an attack on the fort and killed all of the adults (Roberts 1997). Even though La Salle had preached friendly relationships with natives by gift giving, the crew had made the Karankawa angry by stealing canoes and when the Karankawa heard that their leader was no longer at the fort, they organized their attack (Roberts 1997). The five children that survived were taken and adopted into the tribe (Roberts 1997).
The La Belle and associated artifacts now reside at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, Texas. It is one of the main exhibits there and the hull of La Belle has been reconstructed as the centerpiece. However, the exhibit seems to be focused very much on products of the shipwreck. On their website, the overview provides a brief history of La Salle and that his mission was to find the Spanish silver mines. It glances over the fact that La Salle was actually there to strike against them and attempt to take over the Spanish land in the New World. The website also has a section titled “How La Belle Changed History” (Bullock Museum 2019). However, given the more in-depth review provided by Roberts in 1997, it appears that the Bullock Museum romanticizes his mission and is only focused on the artifacts recovered. While I am personally very interested in shipwrecks and the accompanying history with them, the question of how this actually relates to Texas history needs to be asked. The aim of this paper is not to question the integrity or scope of La Salle’s voyage, but it does challenge whether or not this event shaped Texas history in a meaningful way. Overall, it was a voyage that did not end up where it was supposed to. La Salle had no intentions on landing in Texas and the main purpose of his mission was to overthrow the Spanish silver mines. La Salle established a fort that no longer exists today and provided very little, if any at all, French influence on the already Spanish-owned Texas.
From this limited examination of the Bullock Museum, it appears that the museum is focused on products rather than the process of the actual history of the shipwreck. Over the past twenty years of maritime archaeology, a case has been made to shift from a traditional products viewpoint in museums to a more process-oriented one (Day & Lunn 2003). What this means is discussing the process which heritage and history have developed, rather than physical artifacts from a certain time period. It challenges the maritime history industry to look at the larger picture surrounding the artifacts, including social, political, and environmental context in which maritime history has been given importance (Day & Lunn 2003). In the case of La Salle and La Belle, the story could be framed to talk more about what was discovered about the Karankawa tribe from the discovery and the context of Texas and the world at the time. The recount provided by Roberts also neglects to dive deeper into the larger picture of Texas’s political and environmental landscape during La Salle’s time there. In a more process oriented viewpoint, if La Belle actually shaped Texas history, it could be discussed of why this is actually a case as compared to just a catchy museum headline. Adams notes in his 2001 article (Adams 2001) that climate change, agricultural innovation, invasions, social collapse and technological revaluation have all been offered to explain the transitions of Europe from the Bronze to the Iron Age around 1200 BC, but the shipwrecks recovered during this time period do little to try and understand these larger questions (Adams 2001). Likewise, what questions could La Belle answer about the time period that could help us better understand the past and better prepare us for the future? What Texas history is the museum actually teaching visitors? Will the museum exhibit evolve over time or will the same history be taught for the next hundred years?
While the discovery of La Belle was certainly a historical event and an engineering feet in itself to recover the hull and associated artifacts, it seems as if the history provided through the museum is one that is focused only on the artifacts rather than the larger story it could tell about missing pieces of Texas history and the world during that time period. Plainly, La Salle was a French explorer who made a navigation error and ultimately does not appear to have had a large French influence on Texas which is contrary to the story told at the Bullock Museum. The museum could benefit to take a new look at the history and retell the story through different lenses, focusing on the process of the history rather than the products.
Adams, J. (2001). Ships and Boats as Archaeological Source Material. World Archaeology, 32(3), 292–310. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/827924?seq=1
Bullock Museum. (2019). The Ship La Belle | Bullock Texas State History Museum. Retrieved December 18, 2019, from Thestoryoftexas.com website: https://www.thestoryoftexas.com/la-belle/the-exhibit
Day, A., & Lunn, K. (2003). British maritime heritage: carried along by the currents? International Journal of Heritage Studies, 9(4), 289–305. https://doi.org/10.1080/1352725022000155045
Gibbins, D., & Adams, J. (2001). Shipwrecks and Maritime Archaeology. World Archaeology, 32(3), 279–291. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/827923?seq=1
Roberts, D. (1997). Sieur de la salle’s fateful landfall. Smithsonian, 28(40–53). Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/docview/236865291?accountid=135943