A Turf War in Texas Builds Over Historic French Shipwrecks

Discovery of La Salle ships off coast has locals battling to keep the artifacts close to home, not at state capital.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When divers discovered two shipwrecks of the fiery French explorer, Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, the tiny communities around Matagorda Bay in southeast Texas sent up a collective cheer.

But the goodwill vanished quickly, as state officials talked of carting all the artifacts to museums 250 miles away in Austin. For the locals, such an act would be the worst cultural pillaging since the Huns sacked Rome.

"This is our Plymouth Rock," says Judge Howard Hartzog of Calhoun County, which has joined a 16-county coalition making claims on the La Salle artifacts. "We fear that if these objects are taken away, they'll end up in a box and nobody will see them again."

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There is still plenty of time to sort out the details, since it will take five years and $5.5 million to preserve the 1 million objects found on La Belle, and at least twice that amount to excavate the larger L'Aimable, which was discovered last month a mile offshore from Port O'Connor. But a dispute over where and how to display all of this historical wealth has already begun.

"This will be one of the most significant shipwreck discoveries in North America," says Jim Bruseth, director of the La Salle project for the Texas Historical Commission. "We could have satellite displays in the local communities to promote tourism and educate people. But these are world-class artifacts, so we need to be sure they go to an appropriate facility that can take a major exhibit."

The tug of war over La Salle's last effects is perhaps a fitting denouement for the explorer, who discovered the Great Lakes and claimed the Mississippi River and all its tributaries for France, but eventually died at the hands of his own sailors. In his final mission of 1685, LaSalle was supposedly searching for the mouth of the Mississippi River when he landed several hundred miles away at Matagorda Bay, deep in Spanish territory.

While he was off exploring the wilderness, La Salle's ships ran aground in the shallow waters of the bay. The larger ship, L'Aimable, may have been intentionally run aground in 1685 by the captain of the ship, after an argument with La Salle. Once this supply ship was lost, a group of disenchanted colonists took a third ship, La Joly, and returned to France.

To understand just how La Salle and his colonists lived, naval archaeologists at Texas A&M University in College Station are poring over 1 million objects, from muskets to pewter plates to fine French china.

In a few months, archaeologists will build a massive 60-foot-long tank to submerge the rebuilt La Belle and L'Aimable in a bath of polyethylene glycol, a wax-like substance to fill up the hollowed cell walls of the wood. "It's like a big jigsaw puzzle," project manager Donny Hamilton says, walking beside a long metal vat containing a corroded bronze cannon from La Belle. "We're just barely into it right now, and we've had La Belle for almost a year."

Dr. Hamilton takes no definitive stands on where the La Salle artifacts should be housed eventually as long as they are properly cared for.

BUT for the local fishermen and officials who live around Matagorda Bay, there's no question that the objects need to come back to where they were found.

"You know, you could live history down here," says Lawrence Naiser, a county judge in Wharton, Texas, noting that much of the immigrant population came to Texas through the counties around Matagorda Bay. "We certainly don't need any more tourist attractions in Austin."

To be sure, Texans take their history seriously. Consider the Great Archives War of 1842, when the cities of Austin and Houston fought a minor skirmish over where to place the archives of the newly founded Republic of Texas. Austin, the original capital, had the archives, and Houston, which briefly became the state capital under the new President Sam Houston, wanted them. When a band of 20 Houstonians sneaked into Austin, they were surprised by a lady cannoneer, Angelina Bell Peyton Eberly, and eventually were beaten back by Austin's heavily armed volunteer force.

Of course, the La Salle dispute is still a war of words. But Judge Hartzog chuckles that local people "feel pretty strongly about their history."

As for the state concerns that not enough people will see a museum if it is built on the coast, the judge quotes a movie starring Kevin Costner, an Austin resident: "If you build it, they will come."

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