The recovered remains of a ship belonging to the famed French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier Sieur de la Salle, which sank off the Texas coast more than three centuries ago, were launched on their final journey Thursday.
The keel and other large structural pieces of La Belle, which have been preserved in a gigantic freeze-dryer at Texas A&M since 2012, were gingerly loaded onto a flatbed truck for the 85-mile trip to the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, the last stop in a voyage that began in 1685 with La Salle's ill-fated expedition to find the mouth of the Mississippi River.
"It's part of Texas and Texas history," said Peter Fix, assistant director of the university's Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation. "This is how we learn who we are and where we came from."
The 54-1/2-foot-long supply ship was built in 1684 and sank two years later during a storm in the Gulf of Mexico's Matagorda Bay, the first in a series of events that dashed France's hopes of colonizing a piece of the New World now known as Texas.
Texas Historical Commission archaeologists found the shipwreck in 1995 in 12 feet of murky water, built a dam around the site and pumped it dry.
Researchers dug through up to 6 feet of mud to retrieve the nearly intact hull and some 700,000 items, including three cases of rifles, plus other guns, swords, a cannon and ammunition, and beads and mirrors intended for trade and tool chests containing hammers and saws.
"There are pretty cool things that came out of this wreck," Fix said. "But the key issue is we get to learn and hopefully inspire more discovery."
Archaeologists also found a skeleton, believed to be the remains of a crew member or settler among the 40 or so people aboard.
The mud that covered the hull prevented its destruction by salt water and wood-eating mollusks, worms or bacteria, said Donny Hamilton, director of the Conservation Research Laboratory.
"Wood will outlast iron, as long as it's covered," Hamilton said. "If it didn't get left in the mud, you'd have nothing left."
In the summer of 2012, the ship pieces were taken to the Texas A&M lab where the water-logged European oak wood was stored at 60 degrees below zero in the world's largest archaeological freeze dryer to safely remove more than 300 years of moisture and keep the wood solid.
It's among nearly 400 pieces of wood marked at the wreck site. Breakage during recovery pushed that total to more than 600.
"We have to piece them back together," Fix said. "It's a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle of what was 23,000 pounds of waterlogged wood in the remaining shape of a ship."
The challenge Thursday was to brace the delicate pieces with wood frames and foam, rest them on an aluminum platform and limit any abrasion and flexing during the two-hour-long ride to Austin at speeds up to 60 mph.
The actual reconstruction is to begin this fall and will be completed next May. The entire project, including identification and restoration of artifacts found on the ship, has cost "close to $5 million," Hamilton said.
La Salle was the first European to travel the Mississippi River south to the Gulf, claiming all the land along the Mississippi and its tributaries for France in 1682. In 1685, he sailed from France with more than 300 colonists aboard four ships, La Belle among them, to establish a settlement at the mouth of the Mississippi.
Maps from that time show he believed the river was closer to Mexico, and his expedition missed the Mississippi by hundreds of miles. His team established a colony near Matagorda Bay, but it was ravaged by disease, rattlesnakes and Indians. Three years later, La Salle led a handful of survivors inland in search of the Mississippi. He wound up being killed by his own men before they left Texas.
The ship legally remains French property. Under a treaty between the U.S. and France, French authorities have veto authority over conservation steps, Hamilton said.
"I can't think of any time they said no to anything," Hamilton said.