An intact chest from the 1686 French shipwreck La Belle, Matagorda Bay, Texas: artifacts from the La Salle colonization expedition to the Spanish Sea
West, Michael Carl
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In 1995 Texas Historical Commission (THC) staff and a team of researchers discovered a shipwreck in the mud of Matagorda Bay. Preliminary artifact recovery included a decorated bronze cannon that identified the wreck as la Belle, the fourth and final vessel of the ill-fated venture to found a colony on the Texas coast by French explorer Robert Cavalier Sieur de La Salle. A full excavation of the site was conducted in the following years. Among the items recovered was an intact chest (Artifact No. 11500) which at the time became known as the Belle Mystery Chest. Initial inspection revealed that the chest was most likely a repository for various tools, but further work revealed a sundry collection of artifacts. Subsequent artifact analysis determined the tools to be instruments used in a variety of occupations ranging from that of French wine coopering to those of agricultural, military, and maritime endeavors. Historical research primarily using the firsthand reports from the expedition??s survivors suggest the chest was first boarded in France on one of La Salle??s other ship??s, l??Aimable, unloaded prior to that vessel??s wrecking at the mouth of Matagorda Bay, taken to the new settlement by way of la Belle, and eventually returned to the ship just prior to its sinking. Records verify that La Salle often claimed the possessions of the dead and that he ordered the ship reloaded with his personal goods and other supplies before it sank. Along with two artifacts with differing ownership initials and the sheer diversity of the chest??s contents, these clues suggest that the chest may have been a repository for various utilitarian items collected by La Salle before the loss of la Belle in January of 1686.