Has Steve Libert finally found the Griffin?

Back in November of 2004, I wrote a column about Great Lakes shipwreck hunter Steve Libert’s announcement that he was pretty sure he had found the wreckage of the first ship to sail the Great Lakes, Robert Cavalier, Seur de la Salle’s Griffin, somewhere in the Lakes Michigan-Huron area.

Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle.

Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle.

At the time, Libert was being very close-mouthed about his reported find, and for the next nine years, I didn’t hear any more from him about the success or failure of his effort.

Now, though, Libert’s efforts are back in the news, and it appears he’s got the backing and the legal permission to begin to finally prove whether he’s indeed found the famed ship’s resting place.

For LaSalle in mid-September 1679, it had been a struggle all the way, but he and his companions finally sailed their ship, the Griffin, into the mouth of Green Bay on Lake Michigan.

There, they found the French trading party LaSalle had dispatched the previous year. The group had acquired six tons of fine furs, ready to be shipped to the European market. In need of ready cash to continue his exploration and colonization of what would one day become the State of Illinois, LaSalle ordered the furs loaded aboard the Griffin, and then dispatched the ship and crew of two officers and five sailors to sail to Michilimacinac—today’s Straits of Macinac— before making the final leg of the voyage to his post at Niagara.

As LaSalle and his men watched the Griffin sail out of sight on Sept. 18, they had no idea the ship and its valuable cargo would never be seen again.

American artist George Catlin's take on how the Griffin's departure from Niagara looked in 1679. That's LaSalle on deck in a red cloak.

American artist George Catlin’s take on how the Griffin’s departure from Niagara looked in 1679. That’s LaSalle on deck in a red cloak.

Sailing off into the mists of history, the Griffin has become one of the enduring legends of the Great Lakes. LaSalle’s men, under the direction of his skillful second in command, Henri de Tonti, built the ship along the banks of the Niagara River, just upstream from the falls, during the winter of 1678-79. LaSalle had brought the artisans to build the craft, along with sufficient materials, from his base at Ft. Frontenac, today’s Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Unfortunately, most of the materials, with the exception of two anchors and sufficient rope and cable to rig the ship, were lost along the way. But during the winter months, construction continued eventually resulting in a ship of about 45 to 60 tons berthen, measuring 40 to 60 feet in length. LaSalle decided to name the ship after the Griffin, the mythical beast that decorated the coat of arms of Count Frontenac, governor of New France. Griffins were said to have the body, tail, and back legs of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. It had an eagle’s talons as its front feet, and in legend was known for its ability to guard treasures.

Here's what LaSalle's Griffin may have looked like. No contemporary images of the vessel exist.

Here’s what LaSalle’s Griffin may have looked like. No contemporary images of the vessel exist.

After launching, the small ship was armed with five to seven cannons, as well as with matchlock muskets for defensive purposes. It was the first cargo ship to sail the upper Great Lakes,

With the ship equipped and provisioned and with a favorable northeast wind blowing, the ship’s crew set all available sail on Aug. 7, 1679. In addition, a party of “a dozen stalwart men” pulled on ropes from shore to help tow the ship over the rapids at the head of the Niagara River and the Griffin sailed into Lake Erie.

On Aug. 10, the ship reached the mouth of the Detroit River, where they met up with Tonti and a party of men sent on ahead. The voyage up the Detroit River started the same day, and as they crossed the lake midway on the river’s course, LaSalle named it after Saint Claire, on whose festival day Aug. 10 falls.

Henri de Tonti, LaSalle's right hand man. Tonti had lost his left hand in the wars in Italy and had replaced it with one made of iron, thus the Native Americans' name for him, "Iron Hand."

Henri de Tonti, LaSalle’s right hand man. Tonti had lost his right hand in the wars in Italy and had replaced it with one made of iron, thus the Native Americans’ name for him, “Iron Hand.” Courtesy Arkansas Historical Commission.

A westerly gale and the geography at the source of the Detroit River on Lake Huron—with its numerous islands and false channels—delayed the voyageurs. Again facing strong currents flowing over rapids that required a dozen men with tow ropes pulling from shore to cross, it wasn’t until Aug. 23 that the Griffin was able to sail into Lake Huron.

In the late afternoon of Aug. 27, the Griffin, ahead of a light southerly breeze, passed Point St. Ignace, and anchored in the calm waters of the bay at Michilimacinac—today’s Macinac Island.

LaSalle ordered a brief rest and refit, and he decided to take care of some of his typically contentious business, too. At Michilimacinac, he found some of the 15 men he had sent ahead to trade with the Illinois Indians and immediately arrested them for desertion. Hearing there were more at Sault Ste. Marie, he detached Tonti with six men to apprehend them. But the season was getting along and winter wasn’t far away, and by Sept. 12, LaSalle felt he could wait no longer for Tonti’s return. So he set sail for Green Bay, leaving orders for his lieutenant to follow as best he could.

A fair wind made for a quick run south along the western shore of Lake Michigan to the mouth of Green Bay, where the Griffin anchored in Detroit Harbor on today’s Washington Island. There, they found the rest of the party previously sent to trade with the Illinois and which had collected six tons of prime furs.

After waiting out a violent four-day storm, LaSalle ordered the Griffin to sail to Ft. Frontenac with the furs, which were to be shipped back to France to pay off his creditors. Since LaSalle and Tonti, who had by then caught up with the Griffin, would continue on to the Illinois River by canoe, there wasn’t enough room to carry all the trade goods he’d brought along. So the balance of the goods were kept aboard the Griffin, whose captain was ordered to stop at Michilimacinac and drop them off for future transshipment to the colony LaSalle planned in the Illinois Country.

On Sept. 18, the captain of the Griffin ordered a single cannon salute fired, and the ship sailed out of Detroit Harbor and into history. She never arrived at Michilimacinac, and LaSalle’s plans for the Illinois Country were delayed for a couple years while he regrouped and fought off angry creditors.

For the last 334 years, reports of the discovery of the Griffin have circulated, but none have borne out—until now, perhaps. Last week, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the state archaeologist’s office approved a plan by Great Lakes Exploration Group to dive on and excavate what Libert and other experts believe is the wreck of the Griffin.

Libert and his group have gathered a team of marine archaeologists and divers who plan to survey the wreck site this month, according to press reports, including excavating two test pits on the bottom of Lake Michigan.

If it is indeed LaSalle’s long-lost Griffin, Libert’s discovery would be arguably the greatest Great Lakes archaeological find ever. And it would solve one of the Midwest’s most enduring historical mysteries. The efforts of Libert’s team will be watched with much interest by all of those of us interested in the history of the Great Lakes region.

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Filed under Fur Trade, Illinois History, People in History, Science stuff

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