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.
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.
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.
Strange Kind of Dig
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. I
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. There
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.