New exhibit features 1686 wreck of French ship La Belle

Visitors to the Bullock Museum will be able to watch as experts reassemble ship’s hull.

Coming soon to a museum — or computer — near you: A team of experts, rebuilding a 17th-century shipwreck found along the Texas coast.

Starting Saturday, visitors to the Bullock Texas State History Museum will be able to watch curators and technicians reassemble the hull of the French ship La Belle, which sank in Matagorda Bay in 1686. The work, which will be broadcast live via webcam, is part of a new special exhibit called “La Belle: The Ship That Changed History.”

The job should take about seven months. Next May, crews will wheel the hull into the museum’s main gallery, tilt it to the 21-degree angle at which it was discovered, replace its cargo, encase the whole thing in glass and build a ramp around it so visitors can look inside. The main gallery will be closed starting in February to prepare for the permanent exhibit, which is expected to open in fall 2015.

“I call it as rare as hen’s teeth. I don’t know anyplace else in the world where anyone is putting together a 17th-century shipwreck timber by timber,” says guest curator Jim Bruseth, who led the excavation of the ship in the mid-’90s.

The Bullock Museum has long known it would get La Belle. The building was designed with movable walls and reinforced floors to accommodate the wreck, which will one day become its showcase exhibit.

“The permanent exhibit will be a world-class final resting place for La Belle that tells the story of (Robert Cavelier de) La Salle coming to the New World, losing La Belle and how that changed world history,” Bruseth says.

The 54-foot vessel was one of four French ships led by La Salle that departed in 1684 on an expedition to establish a French colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The voyage went awry when pirates attacked one of the ships, then the fleet overshot the Mississippi by 400 miles and wound up off the Texas coast, where the sailors scrapped with local Karankawa natives. La Belle sank in a storm, and La Salle was eventually murdered by his own men.

Researchers started looking for the wreck in 1975 using an old Spanish map. Twenty years later they realized the map was wrong because Matagorda Peninsula had shifted.

“Once they figured that out, they found her on the first dive,” says David Denney, director of special projects at the museum.

Archaeologists from the Texas Historical Commission discovered the wreckage in 13 feet of murky water in 1995 at a spot where fishermen and shrimpers had long reported an underwater “snag” when dragging their nets. She was excavated in 1996 and 1997 using a steel cofferdam. Researchers dismantled the ship plank by plank and sent the timbers to Texas A&M University, where they were preserved through freeze-drying.

Bruseth, former director of the archaeology division of the Texas Historical Commission, calls La Belle one of most significant shipwrecks in North America, describing it as on par with the wrecks of the Mary Rose, an English warship that sank in 1545, and Vasa, a Swedish warship that sank on her maiden voyage in 1628.

That’s because La Belle was a “starter kit” for the establishment of a colony in the New World. Researchers found the bottom third of her hull buried in muck, which protected it from bacteria, fungus and worms. Inside were cannons, rope, barrels and boxes loaded with equipment needed by the colonists, and a human skeleton, which was later buried in the Texas State Cemetery. They also found egg cases of cockroaches, rat skulls, a pecan and peach seeds.

“We can peer back into the minds of explorers coming to the New World to see what they would need,” said Bruseth, who has written three books about the discovery.

Historians say La Salle’s doomed expedition ultimately spurred Spanish — rather than French — colonization of Texas.

“The reason the La Salle colony failed was this ship sank,” Bruseth said. “That doomed the French and spurred the Spanish to send more people, and that created our Spanish heritage in Texas. History often turns on a dime, and here we have the cause.”

The hull and some of its cargo, including glass beads, bells and rings to trade with the native Americans, whistles, a mill stone, a colander, earthenware jars, metal cups, muskets, axe heads, pewter plates, wine bottles and navigation instruments, will be part of the display. A 26-minute film, “Shipwrecked,” complete with sensory effects such as wind, mist and rumbling seats, will be shown daily at the museum’s theater. A 116-page color booklet cataloguing the exhibit content will also be available.

The ship itself was a “kit ship,” purchased in parts meant to be assembled at a later date. Numbers, still visible, are carved into her timbers to indicate how they fit together.

Total cost of the special exhibit, the permanent gallery installation and accompanying movie is $10 million. About $2.2 million of that was funded by the state; the rest was raised from private sources by the Texas State History Museum Foundation.

The History Channel provided a $10,000 grant to install two cameras that will live stream video of the reassembly online. Four days a week, each Wednesday through Saturday, visitors will be able to watch in person or via the Web as a small crew led by Peter Fix, lead conservator and head of reconstruction, put the ship back together.

The special exhibit also includes an explanatory video, a journal written by one of the expedition members, on loan from Boston Public Library, and a French Navy ledger listing La Belle as belonging to King Louis XIV, on loan from the Archives du Port de Rochefort.

That listing led to the treaty negotiated between France and Texas after the ship’s recovery. The shipwreck legally belongs to France but will remain in Texas custody, although it will be the subject of an exhibit at a small museum in Paris.

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