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LaSalle's Adventure

Hey! My name is Susan and I am going to take you on an archaeological expedition.  My Dad has been involved in archaeology for a long time and he always took me with him.  I love the outdoors and we always had a great time.  One of the most exciting "digs" he ever took me on was to work on LaSalle's ship La Belle.LaBelle

You may not know that LaSalle, a Frenchman, was an early explorer in Texas.  He landed in Matagorda Bay (near Victoria which is southwest of Houston) in 1685 by mistake, looking for the mouth of the Mississippi River.  When he realized this he knew he had to try and find the Mississippi.  First he had to build a small wooden fort, called Fort Saint Louis, for protection from the Indians.  During one of his explorations to the east, he had anchored La Belle and gone ashore.  A bad storm broke the ship loose and blew it across the bay where it sunk in about 18 feet of water.  LaBelle ModelLaSalle had already had lost of bad luck.  He had left France with four ships, one had been sunk by pirates, one sunk trying to come into the Bay, one had gone back to France and now the last one was lost.

Three hundred years later, archeologists found LaBelle, covered in mud and muck in the bay.  In order to investigate it, archaeologist Dr. Jim Bruseth and a crew from the Texas Historical Commission built a wall around the ship and pumped out the water.  Can you believe that?  They drove steel beams into the water in Matagorda Bay to create a "room" for the ship and then pumped out the water so they could have an archaeological excavation and recover the ship.

ApproachA Strange Kind of Dig

Anomaly FogI got to go and help on the excavation twice. We had to get up really early in the morning to ride on a boat called the Anomaly for what seemed like hours to get to the La Belle site.  On the last trip the weather was cold and foggy.  It was really spooky going out on the water in a boat when the wind was blowing and it was foggy.  By the time we got to the site the fog had cleared away.  Coffer DamI could not believe my eyes when I saw the "coffer dam" in the distance.  It looked like another big boat in the middle of all that water.  When I got off the Anomaly and onto the "shore" I saw that there were two steel walls and a ROAD between them!  What the archaeologists had done is to haul gravel out on barges and filled in between the two steel walls to make a border around the empty hole.  This kept the ocean water out so the archaeologists could dig.  When I looked down over the edge to see the ship, it was a STRANGE sight!!  There was the outline of a boat and a lot of people excavating in and around it.  BurlapThere were a lot of sight-seers that had paid for a tour of the famous site.  It was really neat to be able to go down in the hole and walk right up to where the archaeologists were digging.  I know the sight-seers wanted to be able to do the same thing.  It was really weird standing next to a ship that the famous explorer La Salle had been on 350 years ago.  The wood looked really old and wet, but not 350 years old. Cannon They had to keep the wood covered with wet burlap to keep the wood from drying out too fast and starting to rot.

My first trip was really exciting.  They found a cannon in the bottom of the ship!  I was not there when they took it out later, but I did get to see it when they had it cleaned up and shiny.  They had already found a lot of neat stuff like the big thick anchor rope, stuff to trade with the Indians like glass beads, bells and axe heads, and things that belonged to the men who came with La Salle.

Picking Out Pieces of History

ScreeningArtifacts on screenOnly professional archaeologists were allowed to actually work on the ship but I got to screen the dirt (mud really) that they removed.  They hauled the mud up in buckets and I dumped the mess into a screen and used water to wash it off.  That's when you could find artifacts on the screen.  I found beads and pins and musket balls and a ring.  I also found something metal that was so crusted you could not tell what it was.  It was sent to Texas A&M to be cleaned but I never found out what it was.  It is really weird holding things that are so old and part of the history of Texas.Roman Coin

The last trip was toward the end of the excavation.  They had been working on the ship for over a year and now they were removing the actual boards that made the ship.  They would mark each board so they could rebuild the ship after the wood had been treated to keep it from rotting.  That is happening at Texas A&M and takes years to do. Crane and Vats They put each board into a big tank of water and hauled it back to shore on the Anomaly to move it to A&M.  I still got to screen for artifacts but I also got help them get the boards into the tanks of water.

LaBelle HullBy the time you head back in the evening you are ready to take a shower and get clean and rest.  I was so tired and wet the ride home seemed to take forever.  The last time we were hauling two of the tanks of water with the long boards from La Belle so we had to go even slower.  But when I got cleaned up, ate supper and rested a while, I was really excited about what I had been able to do.  I even spent time with my friend Steward picking through some of the screened material looking for more beads.

A Sad Ending

Cleaned CannonI also found out that they have the actual diary kept by one of La Salles's men, Henri Joutel.  That is why we know so much about what actually happened during this expedition.  In 1687, after the La Belle sunk, La Salle (his full name is Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle) and 17 men (Joutel was one of these) decided to walk to the northeast to find the Mississippi and follow it back to an area where they knew they would find French settlers.  Just think about starting out, afraid of Indians, and planning on walking thousands of miles not really knowing where you are going.  Explorers had to be brave.  When they left France there were 300 colonists coming to America.  Now there were less than 40 left.Rings

The ending is really sad. La Salle never made it back to civilization.  He was killed by his men before he got to the Mississippi.  People think it was in East Texas somewhere.  The ones that stayed behind at the fort (about 20 women and children and the sick) were either killed by the Indians or taken to live with them.  Only 5 people including Joutel finally reached the French settlement in Canada.

CrucifixI hope you have enjoyed this trip.  That is one of the great things about archaeology (isn't it funny—archaeology can be spelled archeology also), when you find artifacts, they are part of the history of Texas and help tell a story.  Sometimes it is exciting and sometimes it is spooky but it is always important.  Someone told me once that if people destroy archaeological sites, they are tearing pages out of a history book.  If you find something important be sure and go tell an archaeologist. Don't destroy history.


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October 31, 2014