The Ship That Shaped the Future of Texas

Star of Texas outside the Bullock Texas State History Museum.
Star of Texas outside the Bullock Texas State History Museum.

Hey all! Back from Austin, and I’m refreshed and ready to roll. I had a fantastic time and got to meet up with a few folks from Austin institutions. I would definitely recommend Austin to anyone who is thinking about going (I would also recommend renting a car while you’re there…I did A LOT of walking!).

Anyway, let’s get down to business. I managed to visit three fabulous museums during my trip: the Blanton Museum of Art, the Harry Ransom Center (both on campus at the University of Texas at Austin), and the Bullock Texas State History Museum. All three were amazing, world-class museums, but it’s the Bullock that left me spellbound.

Opened in 2001, the Bullock Texas State History Museum was the brainchild of Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, who was a master of Texas history and who thought it was vital to have a state history museum in the state capital. In 1995 he began discussing this idea with the state legislature – at the same time that one of the most incredible shipwrecks was discovered off the coast of Texas.

The wreck was of the La Belle, a 17th century French barque longue that had set out from France in 1865 with three other ships on a journey to found a French colony at the mouth of the Mississippi, led by famous French explorer, Robert de La Salle. A series of unfortunate events struck the mission, with the ships eventually landing at Matagorda Bay — in Spanish-controlled territory. Not good! As the colonists established Fort St. Louis, a storm swept the La Belle into the bay, eventually sinking her under 14 feet of muddy water (this story is actually much longer and much more interesting than it sounds right here, but I’m not writing a novel!). All that remained of the La Belle was a 17th century map, indicating where she had sunk.

Fast-forward to 1995. Bob Bullock is discussing a state museum, and the Texas Historical Commission gets funding to do another sweep to try to find the La Belle, which at this point they had been searching for since the 1970s. Going off the 17th century map, the historical commission divers begin their search…and return with a cannon that could only be from the La Belle.

Cannon from the La Belle

The way they excavated this ship is AMAZING. Instead of taking the route of the Mary Rose and the Vasa, the archaeologists in Texas decided to build a steel cofferdam around the site, and pump the seawater out from the area so the could excavate the ship from the floor of Matagorda Bay. The project took a year, and at the end of it all, they recovered over 1 million objects from the wreck, and had a pretty decent chunk of the hull intact. Everything was brought to the conservation lab at Texas A&M, where they built a freeze-dryer to clean the hull. The freeze-drying process restored the wood to its 17th century look! How cool is that?! And, as if this story couldn’t get any more awesome, putting the ship back together was (relatively) easy. La Belle was originally designed as a kit ship: meaning, she would be stored in pieces aboard one of the other ships on the journey, and reassembled in the New World. But that plan was scrapped, and La Belle was assembled in France. However, that meant that her keel was numbered with Roman numerals, and all the ribs were numbered accordingly. You can still see the Roman numerals today!

The Bullock Museum was built to house the La Belle, as well as tell the story of Texas. Currently, the ship is being worked on by conservators and archaeologists as they continue to stabilize her; the ship and many of the artifacts are on display in a temporary gallery. The permanent exhibit for the La Belle is currently under construction in the center of the museum — meaning you, as a visitor, get to see the exhibit as it’s built from the ground up. Yes, this means you have to hear saws buzzing and hammers…hammering, but it’s still an amazing opportunity to watch your museum build an exhibit! I think it’s a great way to show your local community what goes into creating an exhibit space.

What has really stuck with me from this exhibit is this: the La Belle landing at Matagorda Bay had a lasting affect on the future of Texas. Because of this one event, the Spanish doubled-down their control of the Texas territory, spreading their influence much further than they initially had, and creating the Texas we know today. If it hadn’t been for this singular event, who knows what Texas might look like! What if the Spanish hadn’t gotten word of the landing of the La Belle? Maybe parts of Texas would be much more French! The possibilities are endless and I can’t stop thinking about it! And I think this is such an important part of why we need history museums in our communities; it forces you to think about how events shape the future of the world around us. They bring us together and help ground us in our common ancestry; in events we can all share as our collective history.

I could go on and on about this exhibit and the Bullock Museum, because they absolutely blew my mind. If it helps at all, I Storified my #itweetmuseums journey through the exhibit, check it out here. Honestly, if you really want to hear about this exhibit and hear my enthusiasm, come meet me this Wednesday, April 15th at 6pm at the Hong Kong in Harvard Square at Drinking About Museums! (shameless plug).

Stay tuned, the next post is going to be about something a bit closer to home…the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture.

Until then!
– a

The Ship That Shaped the Future of Texas