Stories in the Timber
by Toni Carrell

This story ends in 1686. On a dark and stormy night, the small ship La Belle sank in an unknown bay in a little explored land, off what is today the coast of Texas. While the loss of the ship itself was profoundly significant to its survivors, its loss had much greater implications for the course of history. It wrecked Robert Cavelier Sieur de la Salle's hopes for a colony on the Gulf of Mexico and thwarted France's initial attempt to gain a foothold in the Spanish-held Caribbean.

Woodcut The Belle resembled the barque longue shown here.

The epilogue to this story begins more than 300 years later with a handful of wet, tired, dirty archeologists staring at the now completely empty hull remains in Texas' Matagorda Bay and asking themselves, "Now what? Do we really need to disassemble the ship?" After more than six months of hard work, seven days a week in hot weather and cold it was a reasonable question. Before them lay another two to three months of backbreaking work and years of conservation and study if they went forward. After all, they had extensive photographs, had thoroughly mapped the ship, and even had a 17th-century document giving its general dimensions. Granted, nearly nothing is known of the ship type known as a barque longue, but it was such an insignificant little ship in the development of naval architecture. What more might be gained from such a tremendous effort?

Fortunately for those of us interested in rotting ship timbers, the Texas Historical Commission supported the effort, and we have been rewarded in some very surprising ways. The ship not only tells us a story of the organization of the shipyards and forests of France in the late 17th century, but it reveals the fusion of ancient and modern techniques of shipbuilding and provides clues to the identity of long forgotten shipwrights.

Commission Royal Register dated April 8, 1684, containing the official copy of the commission granted to Cavelier de La Salle for colonizing the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Larger version of this image (85K)

Toni L. Carrell was assistant project director for the Texas Historical Commission during the excavation and disassembly of the Belle. An underwater archeologist at Ships of Discovery, a Corpus Christi, Texas-based nonprofit research and educational organization specializing in the ships of the earliest European explorers, she also serves as chairman of the Advisory Council on Underwater Archeology.

Photos: (1/left) courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission; (2) Musee De La Marine, Paris; (3) courtesy of John de Bry, Center for Historical Archeology.