Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle had an ambitious plan to establish a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River to maintain France's hold on the Louisiana Territory claimed in an earlier expedition. He also hoped to invade Spanish silver mines in what is now northern Mexico. With support from Louis XIV, La Salle led an expedition to the New World, but failed to locate the Mississippi and landed 400 miles away in Matagorda Bay. Thinking he was close to his destination, La Salle established Fort St. Louis in 1685 on the west bank of Garcitas Creek. But life at the colony was difficult and grim. After the sinking of their supply ship La Belle in a violent storm, the colony tried to survive solely from the bounty of this unknown land. From 150 original inhabitants who arrived at Fort St. Louis, the group dwindled to 40 by January 1687. La Salle then tried, along with 17 of the fort's able-bodied men, to hike to distant French forts in the Great Lakes region. The trek resulted in more tragedy, including La Salle's assassination by his own men.
Left at Fort St. Louis to fend for themselves, about 20 people, including women and children, eked out an existence until they were attacked by Karankawa Indians in t he winter of 1688-89. When the Spanish found the fort in 1689, they discovered and buried the bodies of three French colonists killed by the Indians. In 1722 Spain built a presidio directly over the remains of the French fort.
Much of our Hispanic heritage can be traced to Spain's reaction to the French incursion into Texas (New Spain) and to La Salle's establishment of a permanent settlement near present-day Victoria. In concert with imperial conflicts between France and Spain, there were early and significant cultural interactions between Karankawa and Caddo Indians and these two European nations, both of which were attempting to establish a permanent presence in Native American lands. La Belle and Fort St. Louis are emblematic of a unique chapter in North American history where these complex encounters came into play.
The discovery, excavation, and conservation of La Belle was funded by private donations to the Friends of the Texas Historical Commission. Entombed for more than 300 years, the discovery and excavation of the ship riveted the world’s attention on Texas. The remains of the last ship in La Salle’s ill-fated convoy to the New World became one of the most important archeological projects in North America. Coverage appeared in Smithsonian, National Geographic, The New York Times, Le Monde, The London Times, Texas Highways, and a myriad other publications around the globe. One of the most important shipwrecks ever discovered in North America, La Belle was found with her hold full of the cargo she had transported to the New World to support the fledgling colony – a “colony kit”. Archeologists came from as far away as China to view the excavations and witness daily revelations of a maritime explorer’s life in the 17th century. Texas Historical Commission archeologists made a number of exciting discoveries and unearthed tens of thousands of artifacts, including cannons, musket balls, gunflints, pottery, coins, hand blown wine bottles, and many other items used by the colonists. Thousands of visitors came to watch the recovery or saw traveling exhibits of the trove of treasures salvaged from the bottom of Matagorda Bay. The excavation of this beautiful little ship changed the face of Texas archeology forever.
La Belle also changed the course of history for Texas, America, and the World. The ship helps us understand our state in the larger context of world history, represents the impact of French heritage in North America, and exemplifies the conflicts and cultural exchanges of the period. Many people are unaware that the first European colony in Texas was French, not Spanish. The discovery, recovery, and preservation of La Belle, and Fort St. Louis, found and excavated shortly after the shipwreck, shape our cultural legacy. The story of La Belle is one of the most exciting chapters in our history, but also represents the leading edge of modern science and conservation efforts. La Belle is not only a time capsule of 17th century French colonial expansion, but is also an ongoing case study in how we preserve and understand the evidence of the past.
La Belle is listed in the marine archives in Rochefort as part of Louis XIV’s fleet, and thus, in accord with international maritime law, is an official French naval vessel. The treaty signed by the U.S. Department of State, the Republic of France, and the State of Texas, allows the ship and artifacts to remain in America, but we coordinate regularly and collegially with authorities at the Musée National de la Marine in Paris.
In 2013, the most important artifact – La Belle herself – was presented to the public for the first time in 300 years. After years of conservation, the Texas Historical Commission, The Friends of the Texas Historical Commission, and the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum joined forces to install the La Belle in her final resting place on the main floor of the Museum surrounded by a magnificent array of some of the 1,000,000 plus French Colonial artifacts recovered from the wreck of La Salle’s ship, La Belle, and from Fort St. Louis, the first permanent European colony in our state. Artifacts on display include a bronze cannon, glass beads, brass cooking utensils, metal hawk bells, pottery, weapons, wine bottles in various shapes, and even the skeleton of a crew member found on the ship.