- From a Watery Grave: The Discovery and Excavation of La Salle's Shipwreck
The Texas Historical Commission and Texas A&M University have provided a visually spectacular work reporting for the general public the preliminary findings and interpretations of the archeological and historical investigations of the wreck of the Belle, one of La Salle's ships sunk in Matagorda Bay. It is designed for the general reader as an ongoing policy of the Texas Historical Commission to inform the public of its activities regarding the Belle and its other projects. As such, it succeeds admirably. The graphics are stunning and the text is flowing and meshes well with illustrations.
In the discipline of historical archeology, history and archeology are normally used together to analyze an historic archeological site. The usual procedure is to have two separate divisions of a report with relatively little in common between them. Superficially this appears to be the case with this book. The first portion of the book presents the circumstances of the wreck of the Belle and an historical context for the sinking and for the establishment of the putative colony. The major [End Page 429] portion of the book is given over to descriptions of the excavations and to selected artifacts with information on the ship's architecture. However, the second portion of the book uses information developed during the historical research phase of the project in its descriptions and interpretations of the artifacts and the first portion of the book uses data derived from the excavations. Both sections are of compelling interest. T. R. Fehrenbach notes in the foreword "history and archaeology [are] two disciplines that are, or should be, always intertwined" (p. ix).
The historical context is well written but covers a large amount of material in a short space, and that is fine for most readers. However, it would have been of interest to have some discussion of La Salle's trip west in search of the Spanish silver mines. Much material was drawn from a recent translation of expedition member Joutel's journal. Reference to the 1713 French publication and the 1714 English translation might have been included providing some time depth for English language availability of the journal. Other material is drawn from work of Robert Weddle (The Wreck of the Belle, the Ruin of La Salle, Texas A&M, 2001) engaged as the project historian. This information is valuable to the understanding of the international synergy of the French essay into the Gulf of Mexico.
The archeological portion of the book is also compelling, especially descriptions of the vicissitudes of the project managers and employees. Everything from weather, local politics, and bureaucracy are discussed in the portion of the report on the excavations. Of course, the discussions of the finds are most interesting and the interpretations arising from those finds make that portion of the book very engaging. I must confess, however, that discussions of ship's rigging were a bit over this reader's head. Chapter eight, "La Belle's Legacy" might have been expanded a bit. It leaves one wanting more. The attempted French colony certainly stimulated the premature colonization of Texas by the Spanish.
As a book for the general reader and a book designed as public outreach for the La Salle project, it succeeds admirably. Hopefully, material referenced as on file at the Texas Historical Commission will be published in one or more technical monographs as has been the historical research. The book is well worth owning.