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  1. #1

    May 2005
    50 times


    "The patience of Job" has a strong Navasota-related claim on it up in College Station.

    Before Navasota had Mance Lipscomb - before there even was a Navasota to seek a claim to fame - the area had Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle.

    Today, nearly 12 years after the discovery of one of the French explorer's ships in the mud beneath the waters of Matagorda Bay, preservationist staff of the Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation, and the Department of Anthropology's Nautical Archaeology Program, both at Texas A&M University, are working to keep the relics of the shipwrecked Belle alive for today and tomorrow.

    The story starts across the Atlantic Ocean nearly 200 years before Navasota was officially incorporated.

    French explorer La Salle first staked out a permanent page in history books when, in 1682, he became the first European to navigate much of the length of the Mississippi River and to discover the river's mouth.

    Based on that information, and some geographic misconceptions, French King Louis XIV and private backers determined to send off and stake La Salle to a bigger journey. This one was to involve not just exploration but colonization.

    Louis XIV and the various private backers dreamed of stealing a march on Spanish claims to exclusive dominance of most of the Gulf of Mexico. They even thought that they might be able to make an assault or other inroads on Spanish silver mines in Chihuahua.

    The fact that those silver mines were well over 1,000 miles away from the actual mouth of the Mississippi, and almost 1,000 from where La Salle actually did land, shows the limitations of geographic knowledge at that time.

    First, it appears La Salle conflated his river with what he knew from Spanish geography about the Nueces River. (Of course, Matagorda Bay is about halfway between the Nueces and the Mississippi, further compounding the error.)

    Add to that the fact that, until almost a century after La Salle, it was impossible to accurately determine latitude on board ship because no clock had yet been built strong enough to stand up the rigors of ocean travel, and the explorer had no idea where he was headed.

    In any case, he was headed off ... for Spanish-held Texas, as it turns out.

    He left France in 1684 with four ships and 300 colonists, to be plagued by geographical errors, navigational errors, incompetence and even insubordination among some of his sailors, and less-than-sterling colonizers. Plus, La Salle himself appears to have had a "my way or the highway" style of leadership, which didn't set well with a lot of people. One ship was lost to pirates in the West Indies, a second sank in the inlets of Matagorda Bay and a third, Belle, ran aground there.

    Short on supplies due to all of this, La Salle set up his colony just to the northwest of the bay, near today's Victoria. The situation continued to deteriorate. Through a combination of diseases, struggles to find food at times, and attacks by Karankawa Indians, within a year or so of arriving at the bay, La Salle had lost three-quarters of his crew. He resolved to take a party and go for help to a French fort and settlement on the Illinois River. But, that party was also riven by dissention and disloyalty. Eventually, at a time when it was split into two subgroups, La Salle's nephew was murdered. Then, as that subgroup caught up with La Salle's subgroup, they realized they would have to kill him, too, or face the consequences for murdering his nephew. So, at a spot that may well be in or near today's Navasota, La Salle met his end.

    La Salle's exploits, travels and travails were known through several diaries, though they often reflected partisan bias.

    But that was it until 1995, when the remains of the Belle were found under Matagorda Bay mud, and came into the hands of the Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation's Conservation Research Laboratory at A&M. Projects Manager Jim Jobling and Nautical Archaeology Program postdoctoral research associate Helen Dewolf talked in detail about what they and others are doing to preserve Belle and what that involves.

    Jobling began by explaining what had happened to the Belle in simple, non-chemical terms. A Feb. 16 trip to College Station gave them a chance to show, not just explain in words, their work.

    "Iron in its happiest state is rust. In water, it forms a concretion around it until it reaches equilibrium," he said.

    So, the first thing to do with iron parts from something like Belle is to X-ray everything to try figure where the concretion ends and the iron in the center begins.

    "Sometimes just a void is left. We then carefully break the concretion open and fill the mould with epoxy," he said.

    This doesn't happen overnight, Jobling said.

    Describing another project of the lab, remains from the Civil War raider CSS Alabama, he said it has taken five years to remove 3-4 inches of concretion from metal. (Jobling said freshwater, such as that in Matagorda Bay, tends to be less harsh on the metal than saltwater.)

    If there is metal to work with, remaining rust and sea salts are taken off with an electrolysis solution of 5 percent sodium hydroxide - lye - in water. The metal is then often treated with tannic acid, which usually gives it a blackened appearance. It is then coated with a polyurethane epoxy.

    The situation is different with organic materials such as the wood of a ship's timbers. First, the wood is gradually and carefully dried out. Then, it is "cured," if you will, in a bath containing a fungicide, with the fungicide concentration gradually increased. This, like the electrolysis of metal, can take years.

    Besides wood from what remained of the ship itself, the Belle's remnants revealed many other organic materials. That includes wooden buttons, yards and yards of rope, fragments of clothing, and more. A&M has even found things as small as spider eggs.

    Other wooden items included stocks from flintlock rifles. Gun barrels, and cannon barrels, of course, were among the metal items being found.

    Dewolfe was painstakingly restoring details to a flintlock stock, including a "sun" emblem signifying Louis XIV, known as the Sun King.

    She and Jobling also talked about how the story doesn't end with their preservationist work. The historians take over from the archaeological conservationists after the work at A&M is done, having new questions raised by things like factory marks on cannon barrels or the way knives were sealed for the voyage across the Atlantic. Jobling and Dewolfe know they can't be in on everything, so they savor every discussion with a historian they get.

    At its peak, the work of preserving Belle employed four full-time and 10 part-time people. Even with that, Jobling said there is still so much work left that, if his office did everything it wanted to, it could work on the Belle until 2011 or so.

    Unfortunately, none of the items are likely to be making a visit to Navasota, despite their local historical connection. As property of the state of Texas, the restored and preserved items from the Belle will wind up at the state museum in Austin.

    all have a good un.....................
    In the academies many books, at the circus many sacks of peanuts, at the club rooms many cigar butts.



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