By Pat Mercado-Allinger, THC Archeology Division Director and State Archeologist
This season, THC staff is expressing our gratitude to the Friends of the Texas Historical Commission, a nonprofit organization that assists our agency with our mission to identify, preserve, and protect Texas history. By raising private funds, the Friends of the THC has enabled many projects that could not have been completed without its support. During this week leading up to Thanksgiving, join us in “Giving Thanks to our Friends!”
From historic maps and journals it was known that the wreck of La Belle, one of the ships of Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle’s fleet, was lost in a storm in February 1686. The wreck of La Belle, believed to have occurred in Matagorda Bay, was an important contributing factor to the failure of La Salle’s colony, which was to have been established at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The precise location of the wreck was unknown until 1995, when THC archeologists conducted a magnetometer survey in Matagorda Bay. Divers examining the location of one of the anomalies (magnetic signatures) encountered an array of French Colonial artifacts, including a decorated bronze cannon with the imprint “Le Compte de Vermandois”—the admiral of the French Royal Navy at the time of the expedition. La Belle had been located!
The wreck site was a vulnerable target for looters. Thus, the THC decided to recover the wreck and its contents. Because of murky conditions, it was not feasible to excavate La Belle using underwater archeological methods. It required the construction of a cofferdam to remove the water and recover the wreck using dry-land techniques. Also, wood, leather, metal, and other artifacts that had been preserved in the mud required conservation to prevent deterioration.
This all required substantial financial resources beyond what was available from the State of Texas. To accomplish the required fundraising, the Friends of the Texas Historical Commission was created as a nonprofit organization. With the assistance of Friends, funds were raised for the Belle project from numerous foundations, corporations, and individuals. These donations, coupled with state funds, helped the THC accomplish the recovery and conservation of La Belle.
Merci beaucoup*, Friends!
*French translation for “thank you very much!”
View the preserved hull of La Belle and learn more about this story at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.