Tuesday, April 26, 2005


Historian's book tells quite a story about La Belle


The Victoria Advocate
April 24, 2005

When we think of shipwrecks we often think of treasure - old and silver, jewels and other things of value - but never was a greater treasure found along the Texas coast than when archaeologists of the Texas Historical Commission found and recovered the French explorer Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle's little ship La Belle from the bottom of Matagorda Bay.

The story of La Salle's historic journey to Texas, the subsequent sinking of La Belle during a brisk norther in February 1686, and the recovery of the ship more than 300 years later is quite a story.

That story is detailed in a new 176-page book from Texas A&M University Press appropriately titled "From a Watery Grave: The Discovery and Excavation of La Salle's Shipwreck, La Belle."

The book was written by James E. Bruseth and his wife, Toni S. Turner. Bruseth is director of the archaeology division of the Texas Historical Commission and served as director of the excavation of La Belle. Turner assisted in many aspects of the project. She was also involved with the fundraising, $6 million being required to recover and conserve the artifacts.

Their book tells the story of the La Salle expedition and colony in Texas in a way that it has never been told before.
Written for a general audience, "From a Watery Grave" will find a welcome place for years to come on the bookshelves of historians, archaeologists, school and public libraries and anyone interested in the very beginnings of the history of Texas.

With 126 color and 13 black and white photographs, maps and other illustrations, the book is like having a museum at your fingertips. As one who has heard Bruseth present numerous programs on both the excavations of La Belle and La Salle's Fort St. Louis, and having been with him on various occasions during both projects, I know him as an accomplished archaeologist and historical researcher with exceptional skills in communication.

Bruseth's love of archaeology and the history of Texas is evident in this book, with a similar book being planned on the Fort St. Louis Archaeological Project. Anyone who takes the time to read "From a Watery Grave" will have a good understanding of why there was so much excitement over the finding of La Belle.

The authors have put the entire story of the little ship together in one place, and it is quite a story.

From La Salle's off-course arrival in Texas, establishment of Fort St. Louis, the sinking of his only remaining ship and the recovery of the wreckage three centuries later, it is a story like no other in Texas history.

Still hoping to find his way to the mouth of the Mississippi, La Salle had loaded the little ship - only a bit over 54 feet in length - with everything that a New World colony would need for survival.

The discovery of the wreckage by THC archaeologists in 1995 would provide the most significant historical treasure anybody could have ever hoped to find on the Texas coast.

There were more than a million artifacts recovered, with some of the most interesting being featured in the book.

Many of the artifacts are now on display in the Bob Bullock State History Museum in Austin and the participating La Salle Odyssey museums in Victoria, Corpus Christi, Rockport, Edna, Port Lavaca, Bay City and Palacios.

The artifacts - three bronze cannons, muskets, trade beads, axes, rings, bells, dishes and numerous other items - are all a part of the story of the expedition that was intended to establish a French presence at the mouth of the Mississippi.

With the sinking of La Belle, all hope for La Salle's stranded colony on Garcitas Creek in present southeastern Victoria County went down with the ship - the rest of the story being what eventually would happen to La Salle and to his ill-fated Fort St. Louis.

While the book concentrates on La Belle, its recovery and the study and conservation of the artifacts, the authors also review the history of the expedition and of the man whose vision for the New World ended in such tragedy in Texas.

All of Texas history as we know it today begins with the brief French presence in Matagorda Bay and on the Garcitas, the French encroachment being the inspiration for Spain to begin the establishment of missions and presidios in the vast lands north of the Rio Grande.

In a foreword to the book, the noted historian T.R. Fehrenbach says Bruseth and Turner "have created a splendid book, scientifically, historically, and visually" and that he believes the book, as well as La Belle, will become a Texas treasure.

That it is, not often does one find a book about such an important segment of Texas history presented in such a way, so easy to read and so well illustrated. Every student of Texas history young and old alike should read "From a Watery Grave" and, where possible, visit one or more of the museums to see some of the artifacts.

One who reads this book - or even just looks at the pictures - can not help but have a better appreciation for Texas history.

We all know about the Alamo, Goliad and San Jacinto, but something else every bit as important was happening down along the Texas coast 150 years before and the recovery of La Belle has helped to bring that part of our history into perspective.

Without it there wouldn't have been a watery grave or any of us here today to read about it.


Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?