BRYAN, Texas (AP) — The 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, began their final journey Thursday at a museum.
It is 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.
The keel and other large structural pieces of the ship La Belle, which have been preserved in a gigantic freeze-dryer at Texas A&M University since 2012, were gingerly loaded onto a truck for the trip to the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.
The 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.
"It's part of Texas and Texas history," said Peter Fix, assistant director of the university's Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation.
Texas Historical Commission archaeologists found the shipwreck in 1995 in murky water, built a dam around the site and pumped it dry. Researchers dug through 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.
Archaeologists also found a skeleton, believed to be the remains of a crew member or settler among the 40 or so people aboard.
In 2012, the ship pieces were taken to the Texas A&M lab, where the water-logged European oak wood was stored in the world's largest archaeological freeze dryer to safely remove more than 300 years of moisture and keep the wood solid.
The ship's reconstruction is to begin this fall and will be completed next May.
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. 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, said Donny Hamilton, director of the Conservation Research Laboratory.
"I can't think of any time they said no to anything," Hamilton said.