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THE MYSTERY OF MATAGORDA BAY:
AN ARCHAEOLOGICAL DISCOVERY
by J. Barto Arnold III

You remember that La Salle was the French explorer who had a prominent career in Canada, or New France, and the upper midwest and the Great Lakes area before he went down the Mississippi River in 1682 to discovery its mouth. By reaching the mouth of the Mississippi first, he had the right to claim the whole drainage of the Mississippi River for France--half the continent. So he was already a big deal by the time he came to Texas. He went back from the mouth of the Mississippi to Canada, and then to France, and convinced the king to send him to the mouth of the river via the Gulf of Mexico to plant a colony. Unfortunately, he missed. They could do okay determining latitude, but, at that time, they couldn't determine longitude, and the Gulf has a featureless shore, and he ended up in Texas.

About 300 people left France in four ships. They lost one ship on the way over before they even got here--captured by the Spanish. They stopped briefly in the Caribbean and then came on to North America, hoping for the Mississippi, landing in Texas on the 1st of January in 1685.

As they were trying to enter the bay, the main supply ship of the expedition was lost. The Aimable was lost in the mouth of Matagorda Bay. So they were really behind the eight ball before they got started.

The last big ship of the expedition had intended, and indeed did, return to France, the Joly, and a lot of the people who were going to be part of La Salle's colony decided that things weren't going well and they went back home. He ended up with 180 people in Texas, established his fort and his colony, and set out to explore the area to find the Mississippi River.

One of the key factors in that exploration was the Belle, a small six-gun ship, 65 tons, intended for exploration and communication with the outside world, should this French colony get in trouble. La Salle was exploring by land and going to the eastern regions of Matagorda Bay to meet the ship. The Belle had gone in advance and anchored there. The crew ran out of water, the captain and a large part of the crew went ashore and spent the night. Bad decision. The Indians killed them as they were camping there. And naturally the rest of the people didn't want to go look for water any more after that. So they were suffering from lack of water and had to drink wine instead.

The crew was depleted in strength and in numbers, and a norther hit in January of '86 and blew the Belle across Matagorda Bay to wreck behind Matagorda Peninsula.

La Salle's party went back to Fort St. Louis after finding the Belle missing. And some months later, after being stranded on Matagorda Peninsula, six survivors of the Belle made it back to Fort St. Louis. They found a canoe and were able to get back. The captain stayed drunk for three days after the ship wrecked.

In 1687, La Salle decided he would have to go back to Canada to bring help, and set off with seventeen men, leaving only twenty survivors in the Fort. These people suffered from smallpox and an Indian attack, and, finally, were wiped out. La Salle himself was assassinated by his own men.

Later in that year, the Spanish, who had been sending expeditions to search for La Salle, found the wreck of the Belle and decided that the French had failed when they found this ship heeled over on her starboard side. The Spanish salvaged what rigging was still good and reported that the ship looked almost new. They took rigging and cannon and went on their way.

When the Indians attacked the fort everybody was massacred except for a few children, who, as often was the case, were taken to join the tribe. Later those children were rescued by the Spanish, as were some of the French deserters. Through the period of this couple of years, some of the French deserted to the Indians to live in the wild, got tired of that, and sent word to the Spanish to come save them. And that's how the Spanish finally found Fort St. Louis.

They reoccupied the fort, established a presidio and a mission, which stayed there for a couple of decades, and then were moved inland.

One of the problems that not being able to know your longitude caused was that some of the maps of the period showed the Mississippi River coming out in the middle of the Texas coast instead of where it really is. It was another 100 years before they really got down the determination of longitude so as to be able to find the Mississippi very well.

Both the Spanish and the French records gave us the general area to search, within a few square miles, and we did our survey and found the wreck.

The main remote sensing tool we were using for our work was a magnetometer. We were searching not just for the French wrecks. This was an important historic area. There are a lot of interesting shipwrecks in the area. Indianola was a major port in the 1860s and '70s, and was a rival of Galveston, in fact, until it met its fate. A couple of hurricanes wiped out Indianola with large loss of life.

The pass has always been very treacherous, and, in fact, in modern times, there's a dredged and jettied entrance through Matagorda Peninsula that's used instead for shipping. There was a lot of activity here in the Civil War as well, and a lot of shipwrecks.

We did our first major survey in this area in 1978 and found several of the mid-1800s steamships that related to the Indianola period, but did not find La Salle's ships. Through several shorter term projects that went on in the interim, we continued on looking in the area--the Pass Cavallo area changes a lot. The deep-water channel runs right along the shoreline, and there's a very shallow-water area of islands and sandbars that comes and goes in the area.

And, in fact, the pass has changed entirely with a spit of land emerging. Since 1978, the bay entrance has closed in a lot. There have been big changes in the coastline.

One of the things that we were interested in aside from the shipwrecks were lighthouses that were built out in the bay on pilings. They were occupied for just a few years in the 1870s when Indianola was a port. The lighthouses are a very interesting kind of archaeological site because, in most sites, you are dealing with decades or hundreds of years of refuse that builds up in one spot, and it's hard to determine what any artifact relates to except in a general period.

In the case of the artifacts that we find around these screwpile lighthouses, you can put one or two guys' names on every bottle and plate and bone and piece of trash around these sites, and you can assign a three-year period. Those are a really exciting kind of site for archaeologists because you can zero in on the dating, and you can make a connection with individual people.

We found in our magnetometer survey four or five years ago a really huge magnetic anomaly with one of the lighthouse sites. And then we surveyed for the other one this summer.

In 1860, a view of the town of Matagorda was engraved. It's an engraving done by a German. And in addition to seeing the little town one sees several kinds of vessels and the pier. The piers are really interesting for archaeology because a lot of objects would have been lost over the edge of a pier.

In Caney Creek, that leads off the eastern end of Matagorda Bay, there is a river steamer that could very well be the very one pictured in the view of Matagorda. Maps and historic renderings turn out to be really productive.

There is also a view of Indianola from the same period, 1860. We surveyed the port area and found the warves. They had railroad rails on them to aid in loading and unloading the ships. The view of Indianola actually shows a shipwreck. There's a little part of the remains sticking out of the water.

The view of Indianola shows a vessel that is now a wreck in the Navidad River. We're virtually certain of the identify of this vessel because of the unusual design. It's an eastern rivers steamboat design. It doesn't look like a typical western river steamboat at all. It's got an iron hull, and it was built in England in pieces and shipped to South Carolina. It was the third or fourth commercial steam vessel in operation in the United States. It was called the Mary Summers and started life on the Savannah River. It ended up here in Texas renamed and refurbished as the United States and now has been studied by the Corps of Engineers, since they're going to dredge the nearby channel.

We did our in-bay work from a small craft with a differential GPS system. Positioning from satellites is something that's come along recently. It's very accurate. It's been developed in the last few years, really, and has eased our logistical load tremendously in archaeology. For just two, or three, or four thousand dollars you have an instrument that provides the kind of guidance and data recording that we need for archaeology, that just ten years ago would have been a $70,000 instrument, and would have required us to set up microwave radar stations on shore, pick them up every day, put them out every day. We're just so thrilled with this new technology.

We had two computers that we used to record our data, donated to us by Compaq Computers. In the summertime down in the hold of that boat was not a pleasant place. But, in spite of being in a somewhat protected area, we did take a rogue wave on the first day and splashed about a quart of salt water on one computer. And the people at Compaq really were amused by this, because when I had it fixed at the end of the summer, all it needed was a new keyboard. They really liked that. And I thought it was fried. I thought it was totally fried.

A lot of manual data-analysis goes on in the field, but we also will be doing automated analysis since we recorded all our data by computer. But we had to review the data in the field so we would know where to do our test excavations. We did the survey in Pass Cavallo from our agency research vessel, the Anomaly, which is a 34-foot crew boat. The magnetometer sensor was towed behind the boat for miles and miles, for miles and miles of electronic survey.

After doing the electronic survey, we selected about three dozen of the most important- looking readings from the magnetometer and prioritized those for our test excavations. Almost always in Texas, the historic shipwrecks are covered with sand, so we have to send divers down and do some digging to determine what is the cause of any given magnetic anomaly. And, naturally, not only does it result from the iron in the anchors, the cannons, the chain, the fastenings on a shipwreck--any kind of iron causes a distortion in the earth's field, or a magnetic anomaly--but also from every 55-gallon drum and every coil of wire rope. So, 80 percent of the magnetic anomalies are modern iron garbage and we have to dig to find out which ones are which.

Our diggings are, of course, guided by our knowledge of the historic records and, to some extent, there's an art to interpreting the magnetometer data. If you study it for enough years, you get a feeling which ones are better looking anomalies and which ones aren't. And, as it happened, the first anomaly that we dug was the Belle.

We also had students looking at sites like this historic turn-of-the-century hotel out on piers at Port O'Connor. There's one of the pilings still there. We did some mapping of that site with students. We surveyed the beach of Matagorda Island, and recorded the wreck of the Darlington, a concrete-hull ship from earlier in this century. I want to record all the archaeological sites, all the shipwrecks.

We began our test excavations using scuba divers. At the anomaly that we dove on first, we found some cast-lead shot, and that looked pretty good for a historic wreck. Not many people use lead shot in their weapons any more. The next thing was a brass buckle of a design that looked a little earlier. And the third thing was the cannon that many of you saw last night. That was the giveaway that the site was the period that we needed to find for the La Salle ship. So the first morning we knew we had La Salle's ship.

Now, that sounds pretty easy, but remember we were expanding a search area from 1978, when we worked two-and-a-half months and tested twenty-four anomalies--found some historic wrecks, but not La Salle's. So it was really the twenty-fifth anomaly that we were testing.

We've dug only a very small part of the vessel. It's extraordinary for our Texas waters because there's a lot of organic preservation below the sand and mud. We've got substantial hull remains. There are barrels still stacked in the hold along with the cannon. There's a copper cauldron and other kinds of things that indicate a galley area, perhaps. There is a large area of small lead shot of different sizes.

It's an absolutely mind-boggling site, being in protected waters and having the organic preservation. It's a very fragile site. We covered it back over with sand at the end of the field season to protect it. We were fortunate that the Texas Historical Commission received a grant of $30,000 from the Houston Endowment to set up security between the end of our work of last year and when we could begin our excavation in the spring.

Marine Sonics Technology, a company owned by a gentleman named Marty Wilcox, has a new 600 megahertz, superhigh-resolution sidescan unit. We were fortunate to have him bring his prototype to our site near the end of the season. If you look very carefully at the images, you can even count the frameheads in the side of the ship. The cannon had already been removed at the time the sidescan survey was done.

The vessel was in the neighborhood of 80 feet long, and we only scratched the surface of the area where our test excavation was done.

We began processing our artifacts in the field, then brought them right away to the conservation laboratory at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History for stabilization and cleaning.

I have to say a hardy and grateful word of thanks to Kingfisher Marine Services for loaning us the barge and the drag line to pick up the cannon.

The cannon has an insignia of the admiral of France and of King Louis XIV that dates it to the appropriate period. There is a lot of intricate decoration. Here's a closeup of the admiral's crest. The Count of Vormandois was in office as the grand admiral of France from 1669 to 1683, just the year before La Salle sailed. So, although there's no date on this gun, that gives us a period of time that's appropriate.

The count became admiral when he was two years old. He was the illegitimate child of King Louis XIV.

The lifting handles were cast very commonly on the cannon of this period in the shape of leaping dolphins, and the handles continued to be called dolphins in even later centuries, when they had become just plain lifting handles.

When you remove artifacts from a shipwreck, you have to be prepared to immediately conduct conservation. Bronze is fairly inert, but other things--iron, and particularly organic remains--if you don't treat them immediately, keep them wet, and treat them appropriately, they will fall right apart. So the work in the conservation laboratory is equally important to the discovery and the careful scientific excavation in the field.

One of the staves from a wooden cask was marked number 5. There was a wooden bowl, and to us here in Texas, finding this kind of organic artifact is just such a thrill. It's so rare. There was a pewter porringer, a small dish. There were also a quantity of trade goods for the Indians such as rings, bells, and straight pins. The heads of the bronze straight pins were made of a piece of wire twisted around.

La Salle's personal gear was on this ship. The set of navigational dividers might be a candidate for something that might have belonged to the great man himself.

The bells were used in falconry in Europe and were used for decorating the clothing of the Indians. So they were highly desirable trade items. A lot of them were still wired together in pairs. For falconry they were used in pairs, and the musical notes of the bells were made to be intentionally half a tone apart because when they jingled that way, you could hear your hawk farther away.

Glass beads were also items of trade with the Indians. There were also intact pottery vessels, a strainer, and pewter serving dishes. Some of the pottery vessels actually had their contents intact. The white ones are French faience. It's a particular type and style of ten-glaze pottery that was another of the main clues that this was the Belle.

There was a whole stack of pewter plates. They had a very interesting French touch mark, and the initials of the owner on the back. The initials were those of the Seur Le Gros, one of the officers on the expedition who, while out hunting on Matagorda Island, was struck by a rattlesnake. After three months his wound went bad, and they decided to amputate his leg. Unfortunately, the surgeon had never done an amputation before, and so he died in agony three days later.



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