One of the most unique shipwrecks in the world may be on the verge of coming to light. And being a native Michigander some four generations back, I’ve always heard about “The Griffin” and her wreck. Part legend, part haunted ship (she’s the “Flying Dutchman” of the Great Lakes by some sources), part wild goose chase, it now appears there may be an end to her story.
In 1679, the Great Lakes region looked much different. The area was known as “New France” or “Louisiana”. French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle was sent by King Louis XVI to explore the New World and formally claim part of it for France. He’d been doing this for a number of years, exploring parts of modern New York, Michigan, and possibly down as far as Kentucky.
Of course, the native peoples of the Great Lakes region were welcoming of Europeans as long as there were few of them and they were eager traders, but as more colonists came desiring land, things got a little more uneasy. Some tribes were welcoming and some were openly hostile, yet others allied with other tribes against the Europeans or with the Europeans against their own enemies. (Of course, individuals have unique agendas, further blurring these lines.)
Setting out to map the Great Lakes, and discover if the rumored Ohio River did lead to the Mississippi and eventually the Gulf of Mexico, de la Salle took a ship up Lake Ontario, but was stopped by a little obstruction called Niagara Falls, and had to figure out what to do next. He couldn’t go around Lake Erie, as the local peoples, the Seneca nation, did not want him in their territory, so he had to continue on ship…and the only one he had was stuck at the base of the falls.
He had two choices, use the large canoes used by the native peoples of the Great Lakes, or build a new, European style ship. Guess which one he went with?
Named “Le Grifon” or “The Griffin”, this ship, only about as long as one of those canoes, but much higher and more heavily armed, was built between January and June 1679. But think for a second: the Griffin’s men first had to build their own lodgings, and guard against attacks from the Seneca and Iroquois, who did not approve of this new ship. They had to fell great, virgin trees, likely hundreds of years old, cut them to length and width, plane them down, shape them, and set them in the ship on-site, while a blacksmith would first have to build a forge, then create all of the metal fastenings to hold Griffin together.
Thankfully, de la Salle had a priest along on this expedition, a Louis Hennepin, who chronicled the entire journey, including Griffin’s short life. It’s his writings that give us the clearest and one of the only first-person accounts of the build to loss of this unique ship. He records that one master carpenter, one blacksmith, and ten other workmen built the Griffon in five months (January – May 1679). The only pre-made items for her construction were the cannons, guns, rigging, chains, sails and anchor. She had a griffon on her bowsprit, and an eagle carving as well.
The map below shows where Griffin’s only voyage went. All things considered, she was very fast for her time.
In September, De la Salle, wanting to continue down Lake Michigan and find a river that could lead to the Gulf, but also needing to return to settle debts and acquire more supplies, decided to divide and conquer. The priest Hennepin wrote what happened next:
“M[onsieur] la Salle, without asking anybody’s Advice, resolv’d to send back his Ship to Niagara, laden with Furrs [sic] and Skins to discharge he Debts: our Pilot [Luc the Dane, by all accounts] and five Men with him were therefore sent back, and ordere’d to return with all imaginable speed, to join us toward the Southern Parts of the Lake…They wailed the 18th of September with a Westerly Wind, and fir’d a Gun [cannon] to take their leave. ..it was never known what Course they steer’d, not how they perished; for after all the Enquiries we have been able to make, we could never learn anything else but the following…
The ship came to an Anchor to the North of the Lake of the Illinois [Lake Michigan] where she was seen by some Savages, who told us that they advised our Men to sail along the Coast, and not towards the middle of the Lake, because the sands [shoals, bars, islands] that make navigation dangerous when there is any high Wind. Our Pilot as I said before, was dissatisfy’d and would steer as he pleas’d, without hearkening to the Advice of the Savages, who, generally speaking, have more sense than the Europeans think at first; the ship as hardly more than a League from the Coast, when it was toss’d up by a violent Storm in such a manner that out Men were never heard of since and it is suppos’d that the Ship struck upon a Sand as was there bury’d.”
The Griffin was never seen again. De la Salle later heard some rumors that the pilot, Luc the Dane, and his men had scuttled the Griffin, and made off with his supply of furs worth £49,830 (in 2005 values) or $90,689.73 (2005 values). Another rumor that floated around was the local peoples had boarded the Griffin, then burned her to the waterline, where she sank. Of course, the most common conclusion was the Griffin had sunk the four-day storm that Hennepin noted in his diary from September 19 to September 24, 1679.
The only European built ship in the Upper Great Lakes for nearly another hundred years, the Griffin is unique for several reasons: she’s the first European style ship built on the Great Lakes, using mostly native materials. She may have utilized unique construction techniques due to this construction. She’s from a time period that few examples survive, even few accurate plans. As a wreck, she would be a time capsule, allowing an unpolluted view into this elusive time period of North American history, when the lines between the native peoples and the European settlers was constantly shifting, the concept of the USA and Canada was not yet born, when a French Flag flew over most of modern New York, Ontario, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, and the whole place was called “Louisiana” (And now you know where the name “Louisiana Purchase” officially originated.) But most important, she seems to have sunk in a relatively deep, cold place in Lake Michigan, and possibly was completely covered in sand.
Why is that important? Because unlike the ocean, where wooden ships quickly rot away, leaving their outlines in weaponry, metal fastenings and other stable cargo, wooden shipwrecks of the Great Lakes can remain whole for decades, if not centuries. Many 19th century shipwrecks in Lake Michigan and Huron still bear their riggings, and hold cargo in perfect condition. The Griffin, if found, even raised, could change our concepts of this time, much as the Mary Rose did Tudor England, or the Vasa about 17th century Sweden.
To give an idea of the excellent condition the Griffin could be found in, if she reached the bottom relatively intact, check out this video of the HMS Ontario, which sank in Lake Erie in 1780, during the Revolutionary War, or the American War of Independence. Outside of some zebra mussels, she’s in such perfect condition, her discoverers said even two windows are still intact.
Or look at these 3D models of shipwrecks from Thunder Bay, most of which sank in the 19th century. Many of them look as though they sank a short while ago, still standing some with masts and some rigging intact.
The Griffin could indeed tell us much of the earliest written history of the Great Lakes. But if the site that’s been investigated now is Griffon, who owns her and what happens next? Heck, her discovery is a story in and of itself.
That’s another post.
For More Information:
This movie was put out by the Great Lakes Expedition team which is heading the Griffin expedition:
And this one is a highlight reel of the excavations taking place this summer (June 2013) Apparently, this spar of “the Griffin” was 10 feet, and they’ve excavated another 8 feet down to find, more spar! If this is the Griffin, I’m wondering if it’s the mast, not the bowsprit as previously thought, but then again, I’m not on site, and 17th century sailing vessels aren’t my specialty!
 Calculations based on “Money and Exchange Rates in 1632” by Francis Turner; “Currency Converter: old Money to new” from the British National Archives online: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency/default0.asp#mid; and X[change] Rates: Great Britain Pound to US Dollar 2005 Exchange Rates: http://www.x-rates.com/average/?from=GBP&to=USD&amount=49830&year=2005