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Bullock Museum to house 330-year old ship KVUE

AUSTIN -- Thursday afternoon a piece of history, wrapped in a tarp, arrived at the Bullock Texas State History Museum. It's a piece of history that's demise changed the course of Texas.

"If the ship had not gone down in that storm, La Salle's French colony may have stood the test of time, and we may have been speaking French today instead of Spanish," said Jim Bruseth, guest curator at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.

The pieces of French Oak are part of the keel of that ship, the backbone of La Belle.

In 1684, French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle set sail to start a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
One year later, he landed off the Texas Coast in Matagorda Bay, between Houston and Corpus Christi.

"La Salle realized Matagorda Bay was not exactly the Mississippi River, but he thought it had to be fairly close by," said Bruseth. "He went looking for the river."

La Salle had all of the supplies for his colony moved onto La Belle. He planned to get off the ship and search for the river, then have the ship sail to the other side of the bay.

"While he was gone, a big storm came in in February 1686 and La Belle ran aground on the southern end of Matagorda Bay and the cargo and the ship was lost," Bruseth said.

The bottom third of the ship ended up under mud, underwater. That actually preserved it and everything inside, including a skeleton. The top eventually eroded away.

Historians didn't know exactly where La Belle lay but knew it existed, thanks to a Spanish map that showed the area as a hazard.

"It showed La Belle in a bay that sort of looked like Matagorda Bay. So on the basis of that historic map, my former agency, the Texas Historical Commission, we searched for La Belle starting in the late 1970s," said Bruseth.

In 1995, they found it. It took two years for researchers to excavated the ship, piece by piece. They then sent it to Texas A&M University to be treated and freeze-dried.

Thursday, it made its way to its final resting place, the Bullock Museum, where it will be put back together.

"It's basically an exhibit at the museum and over seven or eight months, we're going to put the hull back together timber by timber. And we'll do it in such a way that the public's invited to come watch us," said Bruseth.

Once it is back together, it will be cased in glass and the bottom third will be moved into the center of the museum. A replica will be built around it and people will actually be able to walk over the top, experiencing one of the most significant ship wreck discoveries in the world.

The exhibit opens on Oct. 25. The final exhibit is set to be complete in November 2015.

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