Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

"Voyage of Doom"

PBS Airdate: November 23, 1999
Go to the companion Web site

During the following program, look for NOVA's Web markers which lead you to more information at our Website.

NARRATOR: In the Age of Discovery, ships sailing to North America carried with them the dreams of would-be conquerors. None was more daring than the 17th century French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle. La Salle's destination was the mouth of the Mississippi River. From there, he would push inland to claim the vast center of the continent for France, and bring wealth and glory to himself. But La Salle would never reach his destination. And for over 300 years the fate of his final voyage was lost to time. In a shallow bay hundreds of miles from the Mississippi, La Salle's ship has at last resurfaced, uncovering a tale of bold ambition and tragic failure, the remains of an expedition stalked by misfortune and foiled by the fury of nature. Now, brought to light after more than three centuries, are thousands of precious objects - for trade, colonization and warfare - cargo meant to build an empire that could have changed the course of history.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation, dedicated to education and quality television.

C|Net, bringing the digital age into focus. C|, the source for computers and technology.

This program is funded in part by Northwestern Mutual Life, which has been protecting families and businesses for generations. Have you heard from the quiet company? Northwestern Mutual Life.

And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

NARRATOR: In Matagorda Bay, off the Texas Coast, archeologists from the Texas Historical Commission are on the trail of a legendary shipwreck. Somewhere in these 400 square miles lie the remnants of a vessel sailed by the famed French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle. But La Salle's ship, lost since the 17th century, remains elusive.

CURTIS TUNNELL: I've spent the last 20 years of my career looking for this shipwreck. I was starting to wonder if I was ever going to find this old La Salle ship in my lifetime.

NARRATOR: It was 1995, and archeologist Curtis Tunnell decided to give it one last try, sending divers down to explore a few promising sites.

CURTIS TUNNELL: The first one the divers went down on, they began to find lead musket balls and fragments of wooden casks. And, while that wasn't conclusive, we thought, this just might be it.

NARRATOR: It was an astounding piece of luck, and the divers quickly headed down for another look.

CHUCK MEIDE: I was on the second dive of the day, and I was leading that team. And we were down there searching around, and you have to understand, it's just black as midnight, I mean there's no visibility at all. It's just so silty. And you feel around the bottom, and you can't see a thing. I put my hand on it, and I knew it was something big.

And I put my hand right on the dolphin. You know, as soon as I put my hand on that, the first thing I thought was, "Oh, man, this is something."

NARRATOR: It seemed to be a dolphin-shaped handle - the telltale sign of a 17th century cannon. But in these murky waters, appearances are deceptive. Only by hauling it to the surface can the Texas Historical Commission be certain of their find. The massive crane needed for the job can't arrive soon enough. The cannon likely weighs nearly half a ton, and must be raised with great care. Any false move could destroy other precious artifacts hidden in the water below. The divers move in to secure the crane's long cable to straps around the cannon. They know that when it breaks the surface, no longer supported by the bay water, the cannon will be at its most vulnerable.

CURTIS TUNNELL: Boy, that's a beauty, isn't it?

BARTO ARNOLD: Look at the decoration, highly decorated with the leaf, the acanthus leaf stuff here. There's a band of lettering that's mostly obscured here. Another decoration here. The lifting handles are actually in the shape of dolphins - cast in the shape of dolphins. There's a lot of decoration on the breach. And this is just the style of gun that we would expect to have on La Salle's personal ship.

NARRATOR: While heavily obscured, the bronze cannon appears to have a noble French heritage. But the archeologists can't be sure that this is La Salle's cannon until they can decipher its markings. Back in a lab in Corpus Christi, centuries of encrustation will be stripped away in an electrolytic bath. Months of cleaning reveals the crest of Louis XIV, the Grand Monarch of France in the late 17th century. Another emblem narrows the window of time even further - the seal of the Comte de Vermandois, Admiral of the French Navy from 1669 to 1683. During this time, there was only one French expedition to the Gulf of Mexico. This cannon clearly belonged to La Salle. Robert Cavelier de La Salle was born in 1643 in Rouen in northern France. Here, he is memorialized for his exploits as a young explorer. At the age of 23, La Salle left a cloistered life in the Jesuit order for more worldly pursuits, hoping to make his fortune in the New World.

RAYMONDE LITALIEN [voice over translation]: La Salle was a very perplexing person. He was both a man of religion - he spent nine years with the Jesuits - and an adventurer, often accused of greed and treating his companions very badly.

NARRATOR: The young adventurer set off for the region of Canada known as New France, where men could amass great wealth through the fur trade. Soon he had his sights on another goal - to be the first European to chart the entire course of the Mississippi River. It took years, but in April of 1682 he reached the Mississippi Delta - and claimed it in the name of Louis XIV. It was an audacious move, for Spain had already staked its claim to the region.

RAYMONDE LITALIEN [voice over translation]: With La Salle's expedition, France hoped to gain a strong position for competing with the two other great powers already established on the continent, with England and with Spain.

NARRATOR: King Louis was so pleased by the Mississippi conquest that he agreed to back La Salle's next, more ambitious endeavor, to establish a grand French colony at the mouth of the river. At the Corderie Royale, built by the King to outfit ships of discovery, preparations for the voyage got underway.

RAYMONDE LITALIEN [voice over translation]: Most of the people recruited for expeditions were professional sailors. They were picked from among the cod fishermen who were used to this route westward into the Atlantic. And they wanted to obtain land. They were about 300 people in all, coming from diverse backgrounds.

CURTIS TUNNELL: La Salle's first voyage was a voyage of discovery and exploration. He had a team of well-trained, tough men on that trip. The second voyage was a voyage of settlement. And he had a town full of people who were not particularly trained or tough, and they had to have food and shelter and protection.

NARRATOR: At the port of La Rochelle on the west coast of France, four ships were loaded with provisions. In July of 1684 they set off for a two month voyage across the Atlantic. The Jolie, a French naval warship, was to protect the expedition. The Aimable, a large merchant vessel, carried most of its supplies. The St. Francois, a small ketch, was packed with food and live animals. And the Belle, designed to explore coastal waters. Its shallow hull would make the turbulent ocean voyage even rougher.

CURTIS TUNNELL: This kind of ocean voyage would have been difficult for trained seamen, but it was especially difficult for the colonists. They were living under incredible, cramped, miserable conditions. There were shortages of food and water. They were sick much of the time. There was fear about what lay ahead on the ocean, and then when they made landfall in the New World.

NARRATOR: The voyage started well enough, as La Salle's young aide, Henri Joutel, noted in his journal.

[READING JOUTEL'S JOURNAL]: "Only two of our men died among the more than 50 who were sick. The ship's officers said it had been a long time since they had had such a fortunate crossing."

NARRATOR: But as they neared the New World, their fortune began to change. The St. Francois, carrying food and livestock, was separated from the rest of the expedition and captured by pirates. The three remaining vessels continued their journey into the Gulf of Mexico. The mouth of the Mississippi was clearly but erroneously marked on maps of the period.

RAYMONDE LITALIEN [voice over translation]: These maps, although they measured latitude with sufficient accuracy, were entirely incorrect concerning longitude. And this caused serious navigation problems for La Salle, trying to locate the mouth of the Mississippi. The maps showed the river lying much further to the west, several hundred miles further to the west.

NARRATOR: His flawed maps led La Salle toward what is now the Texas coast - nearly 400 miles from the Mississippi Delta. It was his first and most fatal mistake. Upon sighting land, La Salle directed his three ships toward a large bay, which he believed was an estuary of the Mississippi. At least one of his ships would never leave these waters. 300 years later, archeologists are trying to determine which of La Salle's ships lies wrecked in Matagorda Bay. The answer lies below, if they can locate and measure the outer edges of the ship's hull. In these murky waters, the divers can see little. The archeologists on deck see even less.

TONI CARRELL: It was really frustrating at times to be on deck rather than in the water taking the measurements myself. The divers and I had a good working relationship, but still, it's - you just kind of want to get in there and take the measurements and deal with it and get the information. But we realized that it was important to have the job divided into two parts. So the divers went down and did probing and did measurements, came up and reported that information, and then I recorded it. And bit by bit we were able to begin to piece together the outline of the ship. We've been able to go along the west side and determine that we've got about 40 feet of articulated hull structure on that side, and about 25 feet of articulated hull structure on the east side. We're still trying to determine whether we've got the bow or the stern at each end. But we do have good narrowing of the hull, and we feel that we're very, very close to determining both the bow and the stern, although we're not sure yet which is which.

NARRATOR: Until the divers find both ends of the ship, they can't be certain of its length, or its identity.

TONI CARRELL: Is it curving off at this radical angle?

____: It is curving off at that radical angle, I think it is because that's where the hull is approaching the sternpost. And I tried to dig deep down right where that screw eye is. So there's about three feet of the sternpost there.

TONI CARRELL: Excellent. Gosh, we couldn't ask for better than that. I'm just - hot dog! All right, guy. Well, you were in the water for awhile. Let's get you out.

NARRATOR: Locating the stern, and later the bow, the team finds that the wreck is roughly 51 feet long. It may be enough information to identify the ship, if they can find this measurement in historical records. At the Corderie Royale, the royal shipbuilding center, fragile documents from over 300 years ago are still preserved, including records of La Salle's sleek coastal vessel, the Belle.

MARC FARDET [voice over translation]: In this first register we find the records of the commissions held in Rochefort concerning the construction of vessels, rafts and so on, beginning July 1st, 1682. In the register, we find a reference to the Belle: "Proportions of a bark named 'the Belle' which was built in the Port of Rochefort during the months of May and June 1684, shipping capacity 40-45 tons." We have the length of the keel with the entire description of the ship.

NARRATOR: The length of the keel is 51 feet, confirming that it is the Belle that lies shipwrecked in Matagorda Bay.

CURTIS TUNNELL: The Belle was a small ship with shallow draft and La Salle intended to use it for exploring all of the channels and bays and inlets that he knew existed at the mouth of the Mississippi.

NARRATOR: Like the mouth of the Mississippi, Matagorda Bay is riddled by channels and inlets. It's easy to see why La Salle believed he had reached his goal. The waters of the bay are also murky and dark, causing problems for the archeologists exploring La Salle's wreck.

TONI CARRELL: If the water visibility in Matagorda Bay had even been a few feet, we would have been able to proceed with the standard underwater archeological investigation. But a few inches of visibility makes that simply impossible. The other options would be, of course, to try to clarify the water so you can do an underwater excavation. But the great volume of water that would be involved made that an unfeasible project as well.

DR. JIM BRUSETH: It is the oldest French shipwreck in the New World, in this hemisphere. But more importantly, it belonged to a very famous French explorer, La Salle. And because of that historical significance, we felt like we needed to do the finest quality, most detailed excavation that we could do. And a dry land excavation, inside a cofferdam, was clearly the way to go.

NARRATOR: A cofferdam is a 360-degree structure that isolates an excavation site within two concentric walls. When the space between the walls is filled with sand, the water inside can be pumped out. Over seven miles from the Texas mainland, the shipwreck lies in only 12 feet of water. The shallow depth makes construction of the cofferdam possible, but still not easy. More than 500 tons of loose steel pilings have been floated out to the site. They must be transformed into a solid and watertight structure. A series of pilings will be joined together, using interlocking male and female ends. Each 60 foot piling is hoisted high above the site and carefully threaded together with its partner. This technology was originally developed for bridge construction. A specially designed machine called a vibratory pile driver clamps onto the pilings and forces them through the sediment. Only if they reach at least 40 feet down will the walls of the dam keep water from seeping under. Once the water inside is drained, the outer walls will be under tremendous pressure. 11,000 tons of sand will reinforce the dam and prevent a collapse. The sand is transferred from floating barges to fill the space between the cofferdam walls - one clam bucket at a time. After three months, the construction of the cofferdam is finally complete, at a cost of one-and-a-half million dollars. Now 385,000 gallons of water contained inside the walls must be pumped out - and stay out. 36 hours after the pumps are turned on, the bay floor begins to emerge, opening a window that will lead 300 years into the past. The stage is set for the excavation.

TONI CARRELL: You never know what you're going to find on an underwater site. Different weather conditions, different water conditions really do affect the preservation of a shipwreck. But when the water was pumped out of the cofferdam, I was thrilled when we went down there and looked around. And right there, on the surface, was this fragile piece of rope, just exposed and ready for collecting. I know that the students with me had no idea what a rare find this was. Because, although I'd hoped to find organics, I just never expected something as fragile and as unique as a piece of rope.

NARRATOR: The rope, peeking through a thick layer of mud, hints at what lies further below. If the bulk of the ship is buried and protected from the elements, it may still resemble a 17th century vessel. After a month of meticulous digging, the sunken ship re-surfaces, its wooden hull remarkably preserved and intact. The fine silt of Matagorda Bay has enveloped the ship, blocking oxygen and the process of decay.

CURTIS TUNNELL: I've been involved with archeological projects for 40 years, and the excavation of the Belle was absolutely unique, and one of the most extraordinary projects I've ever seen. Not only the excavation within the cofferdam, but the things recovered. To find a big coil of anchor rope from that early time period.

DR. JIM BRUSETH: Rope typically doesn't preserve well in the warm Gulf waters. It just simply deteriorates away. On this shipwreck we found actually several thousand feet still coiled up the way it was probably loaded in the ship over 300 years ago in France. The rope had never been used, and yet it was in great shape today.

NARRATOR: Sailors in the 1600s needed rope for almost every aspect of their voyage, from rigging sails to loading and unloading cargo. But little rope from this era exists anywhere in the world. Such everyday goods of maritime life are priceless. So as each new object is uncovered, it is precisely mapped. The archeologists shoot a laser beam from a fixed point on the cofferdam to a prism below, which reflects the beam back to the base station.

TONI CARRELL: Using an electronic data system on the site really allows us to quickly and accurately plot the location of every single artifact. Every single day we can download the locations of the artifacts. This makes it much easier to create an overall map of the site, and to understand the relationship between the artifacts.

NARRATOR: The picture that emerges at even this early stage of excavation is that of a tightly packed ship, the top of the wreck crowded with wooden crates, and rope stuffed into the bow. Outside the ship's hull, at the perimeters of the cofferdam, thick mud may have trapped objects that spilled from the ship.

DR. JIM BRUSETH: All the sediments that we excavated - all the mud, all the silt - we actually hauled up in buckets above the cofferdam and had a screening set up on the wall of the cofferdam. And the purpose of that was to get the little small artifacts that existed in those sediments and to recover them. And in so doing we found a number of very important things. We found artifacts such as glass beads, little pins. But we also found a number of other things - such as the bones of rats and mice, and the remains of insects such as cockroach egg cases. And all those were telling us a great deal about sanitary conditions on that ship. It's quite clear that that ship was infested with rats and mice and various kinds of insects.

NARRATOR: The buckets of mud also contain small tools for use on ship and shore. Brass dividers measure distances on maps. This one likely belonged to the ship's navigator. And once they reached land, La Salle's hunters might have used these tiny bells, called hawk bells. They help track and train birds of prey. Within the hull of the ship itself, signs emerge that some members of La Salle's group intended to cook and dine with style.

____: There are three cauldrons with - inside this one, one of which is a colander with a very nice floral design at the bottom. Also, along with this box, we found a ladle which would have been used with these kettles, and two very nice candlestick holders. Because of what they are, we are under the impression that these are, probably would have been for the officer's mess or someone more important of the wreck. So this does give us an indication that there were more important figures on the boat, and that these features probably would have been kept below deck and used at certain functions that would have been happening on the boat. The preservation of these is amazing and this is just one small example of things that we're finding on the wreck.

NARRATOR: Wine bottles and pottery, wooden halyards and leather-strapped knives, all have survived through the centuries. But as the excavation brings these artifacts to the surface, exposed to oxygen and the stark Texas sun, they quickly begin to deteriorate.

DR. JIM BRUSETH: This project, because of the complexity of it - the fact that we basically have what is normally a marine archeological site, an underwater archeological site, that we made a dry land excavation because of the cofferdam - created a numerous number of complexities and problems that had to be dealt with.

NARRATOR: One of the main problems was water seeping through the sand. A number of sump pumps have to run continuously to keep the site from flooding.

TONI CARRELL: Keeping the water out didn't make this a dry land excavation. There is no way to make it a dry land excavation. In fact, we didn't want it to be completely dry. We needed the moisture in the site to help preserve and protect the artifacts that we were excavating. So it was challenging, and we had to adapt our methods for excavating from being completely underwater, or to being completely on land, to being something sort of in between. And as a result, we tried some different methods. We used a wet vac to suck up some of the softer silts. And we used hoses to wet things down, and put things sort of in solution. So that as we removed these layers of sand and silt, the artifacts would be uncovered in a very gentle way. In some cases we ended up using potter's tools to help us excavate, because they were wood and would be less likely to damage the objects.

NARRATOR: Such careful digging uncovers an unusual artifact. The archeologists realize it's a last, a cobbler's tool for making shoes.

TONI CARRELL: Finding a shoe last I think is unheard of on a shipwreck site. It certainly would be unheard of on a land site. The exciting thing about that find is it really brought home the importance of having a lot of different people with a variety of skills on this expedition. Certainly in Joutel's journal they talk about the fact that they were very short of footwear, and they ended up using buffalo hides, and how they would crack and chafe and tear at their feet. So having good footwear was really important.

NARRATOR: The carved initials may be those of the cobbler. All sorts of craftsmen would be needed to sustain La Salle's colony. But at least one of the would-be colonists never made it off the ship. Amidst the tools and supplies of the expedition, the archeologists find a complete human skeleton, enough to piece together evidence of who this emissary from the past might be, bone by bone. The skeleton is roughly five foot four, the height of the average man in the 17th century. The shape of the pelvis is that of a male. And the wear on one part of the pelvis, the pubic synthesis, suggests that this man was about 40 years old when he died.

TONI CARRELL: We know that this gentleman was at least 40 years old, which makes him pretty old for a common sailor, but not necessarily too old to be a carpenter, a cooper, or one of the officers on board the ship.

DR. DONNY HAMILTON: Physical anthropologists, when they look at skeletal material, the skull for instance, you can determine a lot of characteristics about the individual. Dentition is generally poor among almost everybody during the 17th century. This person had a very, very bad abscessed tooth in the first molar. In fact, the infection is so severe in the root that it's actually eaten through the bone. Most likely he was hit with a right uppercut, and he has a broken nose, here along his left side. We also know that shortly, or sometime shortly before his death, he had received a severe blow along the right side of his skull. There is a four inch crack in the skull that is partly fused, but then also the upper part, two inches, have not fused together. Therefore, it's relatively recent, but it was in the process of healing, so it was not the cause of his death.

NARRATOR: If forensic science can't determine how he died, it can offer a picture of what he looked like in life. His skull is sent for a CAT scan, the first step in building a facial reconstruction.

____: Here we go.

____: Here's the preliminary image. Perfect.

____: Perfect.

____: I'm amazed that the skull has been in water for over 300 years, and yet it shows up as a perfectly normal skull.

NARRATOR: The CAT scan creates images of the skull in one millimeter slices. These cross-sections are then pieced together to build a three-dimensional picture. The same data used to make this virtual 3-D skull on the computer can also shape something more tangible. On a stereo lithography machine, guided by the CAT scan, a laser traces a path through a light-sensitive resin. What emerges is an exact replica of the skull, detailed down to bone thickness and muscle attachment scars.

TONI CARRELL: The forensic investigations have provided us something really unique. They've been able to give us a picture of what this gentleman looked like. It sort of brings the whole experience of La Salle and the expedition and the artifacts that we're finding on the ship to life.

NARRATOR: While he remains anonymous, this man is now the human face of La Salle's tragic voyage. He left Europe for the uncertainties of a New World. His dreams, like La Salle's, were never realized.

DR. JIM BRUSETH: I think that skeleton actually brought to life and made more personal the excavation of this particular ship. When you see an artifact, you think about the artifact and where it was made. When you find a person, you start imagining if you were that person, what kinds of feelings and thoughts went through that individual's mind just before they died on board La Belle, here in the New World with hostile Indians on shore, and all the difficulties that La Salle and his men were encountering on board this ship.

NARRATOR: With his ships anchored close to land, La Salle sent men ashore to hunt and search for fresh water. They shot marsh birds, wild pig, and other game. The herds of bison that roamed here encouraged La Salle, for he had seen bison near the Mississippi. His young aide Henri Joutel wrote:

[READING JOUTEL'S JOURNAL]: "The news of the bison delighted him, for he reckoned that the country he had earlier discovered could not be far."

NARRATOR: La Salle set out to explore the maze of marshes along the coast, the first of many overland searches. As he moved on, he was disturbed to find that none of the coastal Indians spoke languages he remembered from his earlier travels. Hostilities soon broke out. And La Salle's expedition was prepared to fight. Scattered throughout the cargo hold are thousands of lead castings, ammunition for their weapons. The larger balls may have been cannon grapeshot. The smaller lead shot was for pistols and muskets.

____: Well, this is one of the muskets that we've found, so far we have two crates of muskets. It's a very exciting find for us, because we didn't really expect it. Even though the barrel is no longer here, you can see where it would have sat on the stock. This is the remains of the wooden stock. You have the butt coming down here, and even though the remains of the stock are not preserved, it would have been held in this fashion. The hammer assembly would have been on this side. It would have held a flint, of course, these are called flintlocks. And when you squeeze the trigger, it would have dropped the flint, caused a spark, and then if your powder wasn't too wet, it would have hopefully discharged. State of the art weapons for their time, really.

NARRATOR: Near the muskets in the Belle's hold are crates filled with ceramic pots. They appear to be storage containers, sealed at the top. Further excavation and archival research reveal that they are actually weapons called firepots. A wooden lid with a wick was fastened to the pot to ignite the flammable pine tar pitch inside. Within the pitch was a cast iron grenade, to make the firepot even more deadly.

CURTIS TUNNELL: The firepots were really horrible weapons. These were used in defense if another hostile ship came alongside, these would be tossed over onto the ship. They would immediately break open, and the hot pitch would be scattered on the deck and onto the sailors. The grenade would explode, and angular fragments of iron would go in all directions. These things would cause terrible burns and injuries to the sailors on the other ship. The injuries from the shrapnel, while they might not kill immediately, would cause terrible infections. And it must have been a little bit comforting to the sailors on the Belle to know that they had these horrible weapons to protect themselves.

NARRATOR: The sailors onboard La Salle's three ships were constantly on the lookout for Spanish galleons. Spain and France were at the brink of war. La Salle ordered his main supply ship, the Aimable, to be towed slowly into the safety of the bay. The captain of the Aimable, long annoyed by La Salle's brash directives, instead hoisted sail in high winds. Uncontrollable, the ship blew fatally off-course. It hit a sandbar, broke apart, and drifted into the ocean currents. La Salle accused the captain of mutiny and sabotage. His aide Joutel noted:

[READING JOUTEL'S JOURNAL]: "According to everyone who was aboard the vessel, the accident was of premeditated design, the handiwork of someone."

NARRATOR: Enraged and suspicious, La Salle loaded his warship Jolie with all who questioned his authority, and sent it back to France. Now, only about 180 men and women remained on the Texas coast. To survive, they built a temporary camp in the marshy lowlands.

CURTIS TUNNELL: They exchanged the shipboard life for living in stick and mud huts beside an alligator-infested creek. There were all kinds of snakes and animals that they were unfamiliar with. So they traded one kind of misery for another.

NARRATOR: Dozens of men and women died of small pox, malnutrition, and Indian attacks, as La Salle went off again, searching for his river.

RAYMONDE LITALIEN [voice over translation]: La Salle understood that he had made a mistake, that he had not reached the mouth of the Mississippi. But he was convinced that it couldn't be that far away. So he continued to search for it by foot.

NARRATOR: The dream of conquest was by now a dim hope. Of La Salle's four ships, only one, the Belle, was left. A small crew remained on board with little fresh water or food, waiting for news from La Salle. Joutel described their decline:

[READING JOUTEL'S JOURNAL]: "They began to fade one after another. The longer they waited, the weaker their condition."

NARRATOR: The contrast between La Salle's grandiose plans and grim reality becomes ever more apparent. Deep in the hold of his ship are the goods which were to launch his colony, and help it thrive. One box, fragile but mostly intact, contains what may have been the most important supplies of all.

DR. JIM BRUSETH: When we found this in the field, we partially excavated it, began to see what we had, saw how complex it was, and decided at that point it would be easier to bring it back intact to the laboratory where we have more time to excavate it more carefully. And I'm going to be curious to see what the condition is of the actual artifacts inside of the box and the condition of the box itself.

____: I think what we do is, we cut the burlap down either side, fold the burlap onto the top, and see if we can lift this plywood off in one piece.

____: So we want to cut the burlap as low as possible, is that what you were saying?

____: Correct.

____: Back here so we don't even have to cut it.

____: See I've got everything loose here, Donny.

____: OK.

____: Here's an extra layer put in here for protection. So we need to get -

____: Remove this carefully.

____: Make sure it doesn't pull up anything with it.

NARRATOR: Beneath the final layer of burlap, the archeologists find hundreds of brass rings, mirrors and combs - trade goods to buy favors and furs from Native Americans.

CURTIS TUNNELL: Trade goods are found real commonly on Native American sites in the historic period. You find a few glass beads in one site, you may find an iron knife in another site. But to find a whole box of trade goods intact is extremely rare.

DR. JIM BRUSETH: You can see there's a large mass of brass pins right in here.

NARRATOR: La Salle needed a vast trove of trade goods to further his ambitions. With them, he intended to build allegiances and raise an army of Indian soldiers to attack Spanish strongholds in Mexico. And for the missionaries on La Salle's expedition, these goods helped spread the faith.

DR. DONNY HAMILTON: And thus far we've identified 14 different patterns on the rings. They usually have some sort of religious significance. We find some that look like they have Christ on them, then three Xs, and then IHS, and Hoc Sigma, and then you find Eolus (sp?) and various saints. So they all have religious connotations of one form or the other.

NARRATOR: With hundreds of rings, and thousands of goods altogether, this box could also have been the key to personal fortune.

CURTIS TUNNELL: These things were very important to the colonists, because a small brass ring that would be very inexpensive in Europe, by the time you got it to the New World, it could be traded for a large, tanned animal hide. And a bundle of those hides, or a shipload of those hides, back in Europe could make people wealthy.

NARRATOR: But none of the members of La Salle's expedition would reap these rewards. Near the end of the excavation, the archeologists see the final clues to La Salle's downfall in the deepest parts of the Belle. Here lie barrels of gunpowder and weapons that might have saved his struggling party. La Salle was reserving this cargo for the Mississippi colony he still envisioned. The colony would be fortified by elaborate bronze cannons, now encrusted to the Belle's hull. The archeologists use the force of the cofferdam crane to pry the cannons loose. In La Salle's time, each of these weapons was as valuable as the entire ship itself, and a fitting symbol of the grandeur of La Salle's dream of conquest. But he would never build his Mississippi colony, never expand French rule in North America, nor challenge Spain's dominion in the Gulf.

MARC FARDET [voice over translation]: "The Belle. 50 tons. Six cannons. Shipyard where built - Rochefort. Name of the carpenter - Honore Malet. Draft - seven feet of water." Then we have this mention: "M. de La Salle has taken her to the Gulf of Mexico, from which she has not returned." And there is another mention about this voyage written in the margin. "No crew to be assigned to this vessel, because the pilot, who has returned, has stated that the ship no longer exists." The Belle has sunk.

NARRATOR: Exactly how the ship sank has long been a matter of speculation. Joutel describes a violent wind, but he was ashore and not there to see it first hand. Was the ship capsized in a terrifying squall? Or did she simply run aground in the shallow bay, and gradually sink to the bottom? The answer may lie in the remnants of the ship's hull.

Some of the wood - pieces of bulkhead, mast and bilge pumps - lies broken and loose. Each unattached timber is carefully mapped, then removed up to vats on top of the cofferdam. For the rest, careful tracings ensure that research can continue even after the hull is dismantled.

DR. JIM BRUSETH: Well, we've excavated the contents of the ship out. And now we're looking at actually trying to bring the ship itself out. We've decided to take it apart piece by piece in exactly the reverse order that the master shipwright built the ship back in France 311 years ago. And so what we're doing now is we're actually beginning that process, taking off the planks one by one.

NARRATOR: Even after three centuries in the mud, the oak planks of the hull are solidly attached. But once removed, the water-laden timbers are vulnerable. The team takes care to ensure that this rare 17th century vessel can one day be reconstructed. And the mystery of its sinking, perhaps, can be resolved.

TONI CARRELL: Now that the hull has been completely excavated, we can finally begin to understand how the ship sank. It's clear that it wasn't some sort of dramatic event that caused it to capsize, which is what we often think about when a ship wrecks. Rather, it was a slow accumulation of situations and circumstances that caused the hull to fill up with water. We can see that the ship is laying bow down, and over to the starboard. So that suggests that the starboard side of the hull may have hit at some point and loosened the seams. And the more water that the ship took in, the less maneuverable it was, and soon it settled on the bottom. And so, what happens is a result of something - as wonderful a circumstance as this was for us, and as horrible it was for the settlers, we ended up with tremendous preservation, and about 40% of the hull.

NARRATOR: The loss of the Belle forced La Salle to confront his failure.

TONI CARRELL: The wrecking of La Belle changed the entire tenor of the expedition. They realized that they were trapped. They had no escape. There was no way to get back home. Their only route of escape was to find the Mississippi and go back to Canada. That was their only hope. La Salle set out to do just that.

NARRATOR: But soon his search was abruptly ended. A group of his own men ambushed and assassinated him with a shot to the head. Then, according to Joutel:

[READING JOUTEL'S JOURNAL]: "They dragged La Salle's body into the brush, stripped him of his possessions, even his clothes, and left his body to be ravaged by wild animals."

NARRATOR: Joutel, still loyal to the fallen leader, barely escaped with his own life. With a ragged band of six people, he eventually reached the Mississippi. They made their way up to Canada, and back to France. On the Texas coast, all that remained of La Salle's expedition was a camp of desperate men and women. Weakened by disease and with few weapons for defense, they soon fell victim to Indian massacre. Their makeshift settlement was burned to the ground. But the record of their journey was preserved through time, in a shipwreck at the bottom of Matagorda Bay. The archeologists' tools are gathered up, the cofferdam will be dismantled in a matter of days. But it will take decades to fully understand the story of this voyage of doom, its leader La Salle, and his bold but thwarted ambition.

CURTIS TUNNELL: People may think that archeology is just the recovery of nice artifacts. But archeology is not really the study of artifacts, it's the study of people. The little bits and pieces that you find of the past, each one of these things has a story to tell. And when you take all of these pieces and fit them together, it forms a mosaic that gives you a much better picture of the La Salle colonists. This expedition was really geared for success. They had plenty of supplies, manpower, weapons, trade goods - all of the things they needed. This wasn't a voyage of exploration. This was a voyage of permanent settlement, to make a French stronghold in the Mississippi Valley. If La Salle hadn't encountered all of the difficulties, and if he hadn't perished, I think that France would have become a major player in the New World. And a lot of North America might be speaking French to this day.

La Salle's treasures. What other goods and tools were stocked aboard the Belle to colonize the New World? Explore the shipwreck and examine the artifacts on NOVA's Website.

To order this show or any other NOVA program for $19.95 plus shipping and handling, call WGBH Boston Video at 1-800-255-9424.

NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston.

This program is funded in part by Northwestern Mutual Life, which has been protecting families and businesses for generations. Have you heard from the quiet company? Northwestern Mutual Life.

C/Net, bringing the digital age into focus. C|, the source for computers and technology.

And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

This is PBS.


About NOVA | NOVA Homepage | Support NOVA

© | Created September 2006

Support provided by

For new content
visit the redesigned
NOVA site