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Texas Archeology Month - La Salle's Expedition

The Texas Historical Commission observes Archeology Month in October. The difference between history and archeology is sometimes hard to articulate, but there is a distinct difference. Archeology often requires digging through dirt to find evidence of the past while historians tend to keep their hands clean and dig through old documents. Either way, both try and understand humanity through studying its past. Oftentimes both disciplines work together on projects to seek the truth about things. Both disciplines worked together on the 1996 excavation of the Belle, part of La Salle's doomed 1684 expedition. 

The story of the excavation is just as interesting as how La Salle and his expedition came to their end. La Salle was an already successful explorer having explored much of Canada and travelling the length of the Mississippi River. He claimed it and all the lands it drained for King Louis XIV. His final expedition, the doomed expedition, left France in 1684 to find the mouth of the Mississippi, instead he found Texas and Matagorda Bay. It was a hard journey marked by privation, Karankawa attacks, shipwreck, mutiny and ruin. La Salle was killed by his own men in 1687 after two failed expeditions to reach Montreal.

In 1995, the Belle was discovered at the bottom of Matagorda Bay beginning a multi-year project to excavate the ship from beneath the water. Today, you can see the results of the excavation at an exhibit at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. Among other things found in the shipwreck was a set a human remains. He's known as the French Sailor (because his true identity is unknown) and he was buried at the Texas State Cemetery in 2004 after an osteological study. Not much is known about the sailor except that he probably died before the shipwreck. Despite his anonymity, he received a pink granite headstone and was given a prominent plot on Cemetery grounds.

The story of the Belle and its eventual recovery reads like a great detective novel spanning the French national archives to the silty bottom of Matagorda Bay. The story is chronicled in many places and it is just one of the archeology projects you can read about on the Historical Commission's website. The Commission has a slate of activities going on throughout October and its worth checking on events happening locally around the state.

- Will Erwin