MATAGORDA, Texas — His water supply was exhausted, his last bits of food ceded to rats and roaches. Once the sailor's ship ran aground on a mud flat and the weather turned sour, he must have known the end was near, that his dream of a better life in the New World, a life of adventure and riches, was over.
Fighting arthritis that left him with a jerky limp, he crawled into a damp cargo hold, climbed atop a pile of thick anchor rope and, it appears, waited to die. Today, more than 300 years later, he will finally have some peace.
Officials are planning to bury the remains of the 17th century French sailor at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin, an austere place reserved for people who left a lasting impression on Texas -- governors and generals and such. Historians believe it is the proper resting place for this lowly deckhand.
Archeologists discovered the sunken wreck of La Belle, a ship commanded by the famed and tortured French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, in 1995.
The ship, which sank in 1686 in Matagorda Bay, north of Corpus Christi, became a significant marine archeological find, largely because the bay's fine silt appears to have entombed La Belle almost immediately after it went down. The silt created a coffin of sorts for the wreck, keeping oxygen out and decay to a minimum, preserving even the items that are typically the first to go, from hemp rope to the oaken hull.
The excavation yielded more than one million artifacts, from bronze cannons artfully inscribed with the crest of King Louis XIV to a brass colander whose holes formed the shape of a delicate flower.
"What we had found here was basically a kit for building a colony in the New World. It's the only place that these objects have all been found together," said Jim Bruseth, a key player in the excavation of La Belle.
The shipwreck yielded only one body, however, and that alone has been enough to give the sailor almost mythological status in these parts.
His identity unknown, the sailor was given the crude but endearing nickname Dead Bob. His remains, largely skeletal and well-preserved, have been studied exhaustively by historians and archeologists -- poked and prodded and scraped for DNA. He appears to have had a hard life. Among his meager possessions were a pewter drinking cup and shoes that were little more than patches of leather.
Still, the sailor has come to embody the history of what was then called the New World, and the spirit of adventure that drove its exploration in the face of great danger.
"He will have a very honorable burial," said Bruseth, director of the archeology division of the Texas Historical Commission in Austin. "This is the completion of one individual's incredible life."
The bones will be sealed in a steel container and placed in a vault. The service will be conducted by Father Albert Laforet, associate pastor of St. Mary's Cathedral in Austin, and will be attended by, among others, Jean-David Levitte, the French ambassador to the United States. A plaque affixed to the vault will simply describe the sailor as "a member of an ill-fated French expedition."
Levitte said the ceremony, which will be conducted in French and English, will serve as a reminder of the long and storied relationship between France and the south-central United States.
"His was a very sad story," Levitte said of the sailor. "But it represents the beginning of a long, beautiful and fruitful friendship. It is important to stop and remember."
La Salle, before he took La Belle across the Atlantic Ocean, had already claimed for France portions of what would become North America. With his country enmeshed in a tense standoff with Spain over colonization of the continent -- including the valuable silver mines of what is now Mexico -- La Salle persuaded Louis XIV to let him explore and settle the mouth of the Mississippi River.
The trip was a disaster from the start.
According to accounts of survivors who made it back to France, as well as government records and recovered journals, La Salle left with four ships and 300 colonists. Not long after shoving off from La Rochelle, France, in 1684, one ship was captured by pirates. Another sank and has never been found.
La Salle was accused of, among other things, withholding treatment from crew members he thought were feigning illness, though smallpox and other diseases were spreading quickly. Some historians, after reading accounts of his behavior, believe that psychologists would diagnose him with a bipolar condition if he were alive today. At the very least, said Sarah Higgins, director of the Matagorda County Museum, "he was a disagreeable sort."
Fearing a mutiny among crew members and colonists who were growing wary of his demanding and, some historians believe, abusive practices, La Salle ordered everyone who disapproved of his command to return to France on the expedition's warship, the Joly. About 150 people -- half of La Salle's contingent -- chose to go home.