La Belle was one of Robert de La Salle’s four ships when he explored the Gulf of Mexico with the ill-fated mission of starting a French colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1685. La Belle was wrecked in present-day Matagorda Bay the following year, dooming La Salle’s Texas colony to failure. For over three centuries the wreckage of La Belle lay forgotten until it was discovered by a team of state archaeologists in 1995. The discovery of La Salle’s flagship was regarded as one of the most important archaeological finds of the century, and a major excavation was launched by the state of Texas that, over the period of about nine months, recovered the entire shipwreck and over a million artifacts.
All of the artifacts were removed from the hull by the start of March 1997. From that point on, the archaeologists concentrated on the remains of the ship itself. The entire ship was disassembled, each timber being carefully recorded before and after its removal from the hull remains. Fieldwork was completed by May 1997. The recovered timbers were eventually reassembled in a special cradle and vat designed at Texas A&M University’s Nautical Archaeology Program, the institution in charge of the conservation of all the artifacts recovered from the shipwreck site after 1995. The hull is at present still being treated by long-term soaking in polyethylene glycol and freeze-drying, a process which will take over ten years.
A team from the CHC, including Director Bob Warden, Dr. Julie Rogers, Lonnie Champagne, graduate student Meredith Butler and recent graduate Jennifer Whisenhunt, documented La Belle with photography and laser scanning, working with the Nautical Archaeology Program.