Read Part 2, Part 3
While doing an article on an event last year which involved the Texas Maritime Museum in Rockport, we became intrigued with the story of the discovery of La Belle. La Belle was shipwrecked in Matagorda Bay in 1686, eighty miles north of Rockport. Months after our visit to the Maritime Museum, we found that artifacts recovered from La Belle were on exhibit at seven museums throughout the Coastal Bend. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to begin our journey to each of these museums to view what has lain beneath the waters for over three hundred years. This is the first in a series of articles on that journey. But first, a brief history of La Belle:
La Belle was one of the four ships used by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, in his exploration of the Gulf of Mexico for the purpose of starting a French colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1685. La Belle was wrecked, dooming La Salle’s Texas colony to failure. (Read “The Discovery of La Belle, La Salle’s Sunken Ship” and “Fort St. Louis – La Salle’s Post on the Bay”).
For over three centuries the wreckage of La Belle lay forgotten until it was discovered by a team of state archaeologists in 1995. The discovery of La Salle’s flagship was regarded as one of the most important archaeological finds of the century, and a major excavation was launched by the state of Texas which recovered the entire shipwreck and over a million artifacts.
After the excavation was completed, the French government filed an official claim for the ship and its contents. Under international naval laws, an official naval vessel is owned by the country for which the ship flies its flag. After several years of negotiation, an agreement was signed in 2003 which gives official title to the wreck and its artifacts to the Musée national de la Marine in Paris. Day-to-day control was granted to the Texas Historical Commission in perpetuity.
Our odyssey began at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History, the official repository of artifacts from La Belle. This museum shows how the expedition came together and the effect it had on the native people of the Coastal Bend. We were transported back in time to the days of La Salle’s landing on the Texas coast with the impressive array of artifacts exhibited there. From restored cannon to intricate jewelry, clothing and weaponry, we were able to closely view the actual artifacts which had been beneath the sea, undisturbed for over three hundred years! These items educated us on how people lived: their personalities, what they cherished enough to bring with them on this difficult journey to an unknown land, the clothing they actually dressed in, and what tools were required for the building of a settlement in the 1680s.
Our time spent at this museum highlighted another era in the discovery and settlement of this country – the Columbus Ships exhibit. These ships are reproductions built by Spain to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus`s voyages to the New World. In the construction of these three ships, the same materials used by 15th century shipbuilders were employed in order to reproduce as accurately as possible the fleet of Christopher Columbus. The pine and oak are from the same forests of Galicia and the Pyrenees, the nails were forged by hand, the caulking is hemp and the sails are made of linen, the closest natural fiber to hemp canvas used in the 1400s.
Taking five years to build at a cost of $6.5 million, these three ships have been on tours of Mediterranean and Atlantic ports in Europe as well as eighteen ports in the United States. They have been at their permanent home at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History since 1993.
During the first two weeks in October, the museum holds its annual Columbus Days, where school groups and visitors alike are greeted aboard the Pinta by costumed tour guides who portray actual Columbus crew members. What a delightful surprise we had when we actually were able to go aboard. As we explored the ship and walked across the deck, we felt what it must have been like for our ancestors who crossed the wild Atlantic Ocean in these ships. What brave and hardy folk they had to have been.
With our tour of the exhibits completed, we drove by some of the city’s historic homes which have been relocated to the Heritage District, down the street from the Museum. Each home exhibits different architectural styles. After a quick peak around and lunch at the Seamen’s Center, conveniently located within the Heritage District, we turned our car in the direction of Rockport.
The cities of Rockport and Fulton are located only 35 miles from Corpus. A thirty minute drive was all it took before we arrived at our destination, the Texas Maritime Museum. This museum has been named the official Maritime Museum of Texas.
The Texas Maritime Museum had its origin in the late 1970s at a Rockport fall festival. Presentations of antique outboard motors, fishing equipment and mounted fish drew enthusiastic crowds. Realizing the popularity of these annual presentations and recognizing the potential of a permanent maritime museum, the community began the incorporation process in 1980 to establish the Texas Maritime Museum. Construction of the museum building began in 1988 and it opened the following year.
The lighthouse addition was completed in 2001 and provides panoramic views of Rockport Harbor, Aransas Bay and the Intercoastal Waterway. The lighthouse is enjoyed by thousands of people when they visit the museum.
Since 1995, the museum has hosted annual fundraising events including the Mah Jongg Tournament, the Belle Ball, a formal Christmas gala held in December and the Rockport Festival of Wine & Food held on the Museum grounds over the Memorial Day weekend. All proceeds from these events assist with the daily operational needs of the Museum.
The Texas Maritime Museum received accreditation by the American Association of Museums due to its having met the highest standard of excellence and achievement through leadership, professional operation, continued commitment to institutional improvement, and public service and accountability through fulfillment of their mission. Less than 10 percent of all museums in Texas have received accreditation.
The museum houses a variety of exhibits focusing on navigation from the 17th century to the present, along with items dealing with or relating to commerce on the sea. A large, beautiful wood model of La Belle greeted us as we entered the main exhibition hall of the museum. We noted from the information plaque that this is a 1:12 scale model of La Salle’s flagship La Belle, and is a permanent exhibit at the museum. The intricate detailing of this model is phenomenal and was beautifully handcrafted by Glenn Greico in 2001, with the exhibit opening in 2003.
The many items on exhibit from La Belle were fascinating and continued to enlighten and educate us on what it had been like to navigate and sail to a new world. On our first museum visit we learned how La Salle’s journey began and why; now we were learning what took place during the journey, how they came to land on the Texas coast and what they had expected to encounter upon arrival.
In addition to the wonderful La Salle exhibit, the Texas Maritime Museum houses a variety of permanent exhibits that strive to tell a complete story of Texas’ maritime history. While presentations have changed and developed over time, the focus has not. This was evident as we viewed the wide array of artifacts. After our tour of the Museum, we were rewarded with the views from the lighthouse. We had to agree, this odyssey, this modern day journey seeking treasure, has so far been very successful!
Like the final scene of all good adventure movies, our day ended with a beautiful sunset.
Join us in the next segment of our journey as we discover even more treasure from the shipwreck of La Belle. Our La Salle Odyssey continues in the June issue of Texas Now Magazine.by Thomas Meinhausen and Marie Cook
To see the extraordinary artifacts from one of the most significant finds of the century, and to learn more about the history of the Coastal Bend, a visit to these museums is a must. To begin your journey for sunken treasure the following information is required:
- The Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History is located at 1900 N. Chaparral Street, Corpus Christi, TX. 361-826-4667.
Hours of Operation are: Tuesday – Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Mondays and some holidays.
- The Texas Maritime Museum in Rockport is located at 1202 Navigation Circle, Rockport, TX. 361-729-1271. Hours of Operation are: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday: 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Mondays and some holidays.