Friday, August 18, 2006

Great Lakes Shipwreck: THE GRIFFON

Excerpts from articles:

Ever since the loss of LaSalle‘s Griffon in 1679, the Great Lakes have continued to claim ships. There are literally thousands of shipwrecks littering the floor of the five Great Lakes and tributary waters. What often distinguishes these wrecks from others is their excellent state of preservation. Because the Great Lakes are so cold and because of the relative scarcity of marine life, many wrecks remain intact and undiscovered for hundreds of years. [...]

In terms of historical significance, Great Lakes wrecks are unparalleled. [...] It is a startling realization that a short 150 to 200 feet under nearby waters lie many remarkable archeological resources which are largely undiscovered.

The Griffen was built by LaSalle on the Niagara River, a few miles above the falls, in 1678 - 79. She was sixty feet long, weighed between forty-five and sixty tons, and had five cannons mounted below her main deck. Her two square sails were ornamented with the fleur-de-lis, her prow with the crest of the house of Louis de Buade, Comte Palluau de Frontenac, i.e., a griffin, the fabled animal having the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle.

The French vessel,
The Griffen (Griffon), with LaSalle her commander and Hennepin the journalist on board, arrived at what is now St. Ignace. This was the first voyage ever made by Europeans on "these inland seas." The Griffen was anchored in a bay overlooked by two rocky bluffs, known in Native American tradition as He and She Rabbit.

Leaving the straits, The Griffen set out on Lake Michigan and sailed as far west and south as Green Bay. Here, LaSalle sent The Griffen back, loaded with furs and bound for Niagara. The vessel was lost, with all 5 hands on board --- in the northern part of Lake Michigan, it is thought by some, and in Lake Huron, it is thought by others. What is known is that The Griffen, her crew, and its cargo vanished without a trace. The loss of The Griffen was the first recorded loss on the Great Lakes of a commercial vessel and her crew. Since the loss of The Griffen, more than six thousand ships have been lost on the Great Lakes.

Did a curse do in the Griffon? Built in the wilderness from hand-cut timber, the Griffon was a one of a kind ship.

It was the first European vessel to sail on the upper Great Lakes, making its maiden voyage in 1679.

Rev. Louis Hennepin, a priest and member of the expedition headed by the famed French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, wrote that the American Indians were surprised Europeans could build such a large boat from wood.

La Salle, known as the explorer who claimed the Mississippi River Valley for France, planned to use the Griffon for fur trading to help pay for his explorations.

The Griffon is believed to have been 30 to 40 feet long, 10 to 15 feet wide, with one mast that carried several square sails.

Hennepin wrote that it was a "45-tun" ship, with a tun being the weight of a cask of wine, or about 250 gallons.

On its maiden voyage, the Griffon sailed from the Upper Niagara to what today is Green Bay, Wis., where it was loaded with 6,000 pounds of furs. La Salle then sent it back on Sept. 18, 1679, with a crew of about five. It was destined for Ft. Michilimackinac in what today is Mackinaw City.

As the ship left the harbor, the crew saluted onlookers with a single cannon shot. That was the last recorded sighting of the Griffon.

Theories abound about what happened to the ship.


Has the Griffon been located?

Shipwreck explorer hires help: An amateur underwater explorer who believes he has found the Holy Grail of Great Lakes shipwrecks has enlisted a Michigan maritime research group to plan the next phase of his exploration efforts -- despite a stern warning from state officials.

Steve Libert, who thinks he found the 17th-Century wreck of the Griffon in Lake Michigan, has recruited the St. Johns-based Center for Maritime and Underwater Resource Management (CMURM). [...]

It's historically important because it was the first sailing ship to sink on the upper Great Lakes, and it is a time capsule of the period.

Both the State of Michigan and Libert agree that if the wreckage is indeed the Griffon, it should be preserved. And they agree that additional research should be done to determine whether it is in fact La Salle's famous ship.

But that's where the agreements end. The two are locked in a federal court battle, each claiming rights to study the wreckage.

The State of Michigan claims all wrecks within its portion of the Great Lakes, and would like to handle the research, but it doesn't know where the Griffon is. Libert has kept that bit of info a secret, fearing that if the state steps in, he'll be edged out of the studies.

Because the Griffon sailed under the French flag, Libert and his attorney, Rick Robel, say that the matter is one of international law, which would give the nod to the French and Libert, France's designated explorer for the site.

Marine heritage group assisting Griffon search: A nonprofit marine heritage group is throwing its support behind an entrepreneur who believes he has located the Great Lakes' oldest shipwreck but is battling with the state over rights to oversee it.

The Center for Maritime and Underwater Resource Management wants to help Steve Libert determine whether the wreckage he found in 2001 is the Griffon, the 17th century ship built by the French explorer La Salle.

"Government alone should not be writing our maritime history," Ken Vrana, president of the center, said Monday. "We should all be involved." [...]

Libert's company
, Great Lakes Exploration Group LLC, and marine archaeologists issued a report last month with findings from their examinations of what they believe may be the Griffon's bowsprit.

Carbon testing of wood slivers shows they could date to the period when the Griffon was built, Vrana said at a news conference. Historical research also shows the area where the wreckage was found is consistent with where the ship likely foundered, he said.

Wreckage may be that of Le Griffon: New evidence may solve the mystery of the disappearance of Le Griffon.

After a 28-year quest, explorer Steve Libert believes archeological, historical and environmental clues are bringing him closer to the discovery of the fabled ship.

“The key question is, is this the Griffon?” asks Kenneth Vrana, president of the Center for Maritime Underwater Resource Management. “So far nothing excludes the site.” [...]

In 2001, Libert, who has a second home in Charlevoix, found what seems to be the Griffon sitting in less than 100 feet of water on the bottom of Lake Michigan. [...]

Recently, carbon-dating tests have been performed by Beta Analytic Laboratories of Miami, Fla., and the University of Arizona, confirming that the wood dates back to before the 1670s. Vrana said ax marks on the wood indicating it was hand hewn, is a sign that it may be the Griffon.

Libert believes the Griffon's bowsprit and the rest of the ship may be buried behind it. The location matches historical accounts of the ship in Father Luis Hennepin's journals. Hennepin chronicled La Salle's voyages. [...]

The Great Lakes Exploration Group has filed an admiralty arrest to bring the wreck under the protection of the court.[...]

The next phase may solve a 325-year-old puzzle. [...]

Alan Butler, of the Discovery Channel, said viewers are drawn to maritime mysteries.

“The Griffon once found would be of historical significance,” Butler said. “Stories like this appeal to our adventurous spirit.”

The archeological adventure is also piquing the interest of area history buffs.


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