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Father Louis Hennepin's woodcut of the Griffon

Ill-fated ship of ill-fated explorer reportedly found in Lake Michigan


In the 17 th century, Europeans came to what they called the New World and started divvying it up and parceling it out under the rubric of ‘exploration’. One particularly grasping Frenchman was explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, from a family of burghers. He built a ship named the Griffin in 1679 to explore Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River, but it was lost the same year.

In 2011, two state of Michigan men seeking a fortune of $2 million in gold bullion that legend says fell from a ferry in the 1800s came across a shipwreck that they thought was the Griffin. Another man announced he’d found the Griffin or Griffon in 2006.

The routes of La Salle's expeditions; the exact course of some parts of his travels is unknown.

The routes of La Salle's expeditions; the exact course of some parts of his travels is unknown. (Charles Edward map on Wikimedia Commons)

La Salle was a Jesuit when he was young, and for this reason French law denied him his inheritance. He came to North America in 1666 to seek his fortune. He went on to “discover” in and explore much of the Great Lakes and followed Marquette and Joliet down the Mississippi River valley to Louisiana, where he later returned to found a colony that failed. One of his party shot La Salle dead in 1687. The rest of the party, which had been reduced by hardship already, set about killing each other off.

When La Salle first came to Canada, “He landed in Montreal, where was located the Seminary of St. Sulpice, the priests of which were granting out their lands to settlers upon easy terms,” says the 1899 book History of the Great Lakes , J.B. Mansfield, editor . “But La Salle was more fortunate than the ordinary settler, for Queylus, superior of the seminary, made him a gratuitous grant of a large tract of land at a place subsequently named La Chine, above the great rapids of that name, and about nine miles above Montreal, just at the foot of what has since been called the Lake of St. Louis.

Certain Iroquois Indians told him of a great river, which they called the Ohio, but which was the Mississippi, far to the west, which La Salle thought must flow into the Gulf of California, and would thus give him a western passage to China.

He ran out of money and sold some of “his” lands to make the journey to the western Great Lakes, where he spent some time. He later journeyed east again and returned to France in 1674, where the king “granted” him Fort Frontenac where the Lawrence River leaves Lake Ontario. All that area for thousands of miles around, on both American continents and in the Caribbean, had been territory of indigenous people prior to the arrival of Europeans.

Fort Frontenac at Cataraqui, 1685

Fort Frontenac at Cataraqui, 1685 ( French National Archives image from Wikimedia Commons )

La Salle went to Lake Erie in January 1679 and began building the Griffin. While the ship was under construction, Seneca Indians planned to burn it. La Salle thwarted the plan, having received intelligence from an Indian woman. He launched the ship and began a journey across the Great Lakes from New York to Lake Michigan.

When La Salle arrived in what is now Wisconsin later that year he decided to turn his ship and the furs aboard it over to the six crewmen, with the idea that they’d return to Frontenac to satisfy his creditors. He left the ship and its six crewmen at Washington Island at the north end of the peninsula between Green Bay and Lake Michigan. LaSalle intended to visit the Illinois tribe.

“The Griffin sailed for the Niagara September 18,” History of the Great Lakes says. “A favorable wind bore her from the harbor, and with a single gun she bade adieu to her enterprising builder, who never saw her again. She bore a cargo, valued with the vessel at fifty or sixty thousand francs [in furs], obtained at great sacrifice of time and treasure. She was placed under the command of the pilot, Luc, assisted by a supercargo and five good sailors, with directions to call at Mickili-mackinac, and from thence proceed to the Niagara. Nothing more was heard of her.”

It’s unknown if the ship sank or was burned by Native Americans, Jesuits or fur traders or how it was lost. La Salle himself thought Luc and the crew sunk the Griffin.

In 2011 treasure hunters Frederick Monroe and Kevin Dykstra of Michigan State located a shipwreck in northern Lake Michigan. Announcing their find in December 2014, they speculated the ship was the Griffin but agreed more information was needed before it could be labeled such.

The shipwreck in Lake Michigan, which is claimed to be the Griffin.

The shipwreck in Lake Michigan, which is claimed to be the Griffin. Credit: Kevin Dykstra

“[O]ther experts aren't convinced that the wreck is the Griffin. Rather, it may be the remnants of a tugboat that was scrapped after ‘steam engines became more economical to operate,’ said Brendon Baillod, a Great Lakes historian who has written scholarly papers on the Griffin,” according to LiveScience .

A mass on the shipwreck’s bow, which Monroe and Dykstra thought might be a griffin figurehead, was probably zebra mussels, an exotic shellfish that has no natural predators in the Great Lakes and which conglomerate in huge numbers on any available surface.

Griffin from a French engraving, circa 1860

Griffin from a French engraving, circa 1860 (Scan from Richard Huber’s book Treasury of Fantastic and Mythological Creatures: 1,087 Renderings from Historic Sources )

LiveScience says 1,500 shipwrecks have been found in the Great Lakes. The Griffin is believed to be the first European-type ship to sail the Great Lakes.

Steve Libert of Muskegon, Michigan, announced in 2006 that he thought he had located the Griffin.

After leaving the Griffin, La Salle went south to Louisiana on the Mississippi River. He later returned to France and then came back to Louisiana in 1682 on four ships with 228 colonists and claimed Louisiana. The text that follows is a translation of his proclamation, which utterly denies any ownership by the people whose ancestors lived there for millennia before the French arrived:

I, René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle, by virtue of His Majesty’s commission, which I hold in my hands, and which may be seen by all whom it may concern, have taken and do now take, in the name of His Majesty and of his successors to the crown, possession of the country of Louisiana, the seas, harbours, ports, bays, adjacent straits, and all the nations, peoples, provinces, cities, towns, villages, mines, minerals, fisheries, streams and rivers, within the extent of the said Louisana.

Louis XIV by Sir Godfrey Kneller

Louis XIV by Sir Godfrey Kneller

By February 1687, the 228 recruits were reduced to 36 people by sickness, shortage of supplies and clean water and desertion. An article at the Canadian Museum of History website describes La Salle as “bad-tempered, haughty and harsh,” adding that “he alienated even those who had remained faithful to him to the end.” In what is now Texas, one of his party shot him at point blank range, killing him. “It was the nineteenth of March, 1687. Three of his companions had been murdered just before him. The conspirators who committed the murders then set about killing one another,” the article says.

Featured image: Father Louis Hennepin’s woodcut of the Griffon ( Wikimedia Commons image )

By Mark Miller

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