More than three centuries ago, a French explorer’s ship sank in the Gulf of Mexico, taking with it France’s hopes of colonizing a vast piece of the New World - modern-day Texas.
Researchers at Texas A&M University will try to reconstruct Rene-Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle’s vessel with a gigantic freeze-dryer, the first undertaking of its size.
By placing the ship - La Belle - in a constant environment of about 60 degrees below zero, more than 300 years of moisture will be safely removed from hundreds of European oak and pine timbers and planks.
Researchers will then rebuild the 54 1/2-foot vessel.
From a historical perspective, it’s "an icon of a small event that dramatically changed the course of Texas history," said Jim Bruseth, who led the Texas Historical Commission effort to recover the remains.
Built in 1684, the ship sank two years later in a storm on Matagorda Bay, about midway between Galveston and Corpus Christi.
"When La Belle sank, that doomed La Salle’s colony and opened up the door for Spain to come in and occupy Texas," Bruseth said. "People can see firsthand how history can turn on a dime."
After a more than decade-long hunt, Texas Historical Commission archaeologists found the vessel in 1995 in 12 feet of murky water. Then began the tedious recovery that involved constructing a dam around the site.
After the water was pumped out, teams dug through up to 6 feet of mud in the Gulf of Mexico seabed to retrieve the nearly intact ship and some 700,000 items, from swords, cannons and ammunition to beads and mirrors intended for trade. Archaeologists also found one skeleton, believed to be a crew member or settler among some 40 people aboard.