The Griffon is the holy grail of Great Lakes Shipwrecks. While it’s highly unlikely that it’s the oldest shipwreck out there (there have to be some native vessels like canoes resting down there too, after all) it’s the oldest named boat known to be in the Upper Great Lakes, and even more interestingly, it is the first ship built by Europeans on the Great Lakes using native timbers. Her discovery, if confirmed, could shed light on the very earliest shipbuilding in the New World, and even more interestingly, a ship built on temporary shipyards constructed because no one could get around Niagara Falls! (The “shipyard” was destroyed shortly thereafter.)
Back in 2001, Steven Libert found a timber jutting out of the sandy Lake Michigan bed, one that was obviously squared off with wooden pegs embedded within it. He believed that it was a portion of the Griffon, hopefully, the bowsprit or the mast and the rest of her was buried beneath.
But the archaeological laws in Michigan are complex. The shipwreck barely lies within the Michigan property lines that run through Lake Michigan. The Michigan laws state that all archaeological finds beneath Lake Michigan belong to the state itself. This is in part to prevent salvage or destruction or theft before scientific study.
The side effect, however, is that discoverers, like Libert, can often be pushed out of any subsequent explorations, and he wasn’t about to let that happen. In a twelve-year-long negotiation, Libert kept the location of the suspected “Griffon” a secret while he negotiated with the state to be part of the exploration.
But, in another twist, the French government, claiming that the Griffon, or any remains thereof, having been built by a Frenchman in French-claimed territory at that time, belongs to France. It lead to an international exploration last summer.
The French archaeologists on the exploration declared that the exposed beam shared many characteristics with French bowsprits from the late 17th century.
But the Griffon was not beneath the “bowsprit”. After digging around the base, the bowsprit came free, revealing nothing but sand and bedrock below. It was a disappointment, and a huge question: where was the Griffon? IF this “bowsprit” was her, where was the rest of her? If it wasn’t the Griffon, and the initial core tests which indicated it was from the late 17th century were accurate, what on earth was this thing?
As the permitted time to explore closed, the “bowsprit” was taken to Michigan State University for further tests, the results to be shared with the state archaeologists and the French team.
Samples were sent to be carbon-14 dated in Florida, and a CT scan in a Gaylord Hospital allowed for tree ring analysis without having to take a sample and thus potentially destroy some other evidence.
Nothing came back definitive, but at the same time, nothing came back excluding the “bowsprit” from potentially belonging to the “Griffon” That is to say, the carbon dating suggests that the beam could be as old as the Griffon is supposed to be (the most recent carbon-14 test suggests the tree was cut down between 1680 and 1740, well within the margin of error for a 1679 “Le Griffon”) but in order to exclude a more modern date, different tests will be needed.
And there were 29 clear tree rings documented in the CT scan done by Otsego Memorial Hospital’s CT scanner. These were sent to Cornell University so Carol Griggs, an expert at the Tree Ring Laboratory at Cornell, can compare it to other trees of the same location and time period in Cornell’s database. The hope was she could match these tree rings to another tree of the same region and species to “date” the bowsprit to a specific time period. But in the end, she concluded at least 50 tree rings are needed to make a definitive match to a specific time period, so this test, too, fell through.
So nothing has yet said, “Nope—this is too young to be part of the Griffon”, which really, is the best you can hope for at this point. Of course, nothing has definitively said, “Yes this IS the Griffon!” either. What role this “bowsprit” will play in history’s future depends on what happens next.
Is it the Griffon? There are now two camps about that.
In the “yes/it’s possible” camp are Steve Libert, its discoverer, and the three French archaeologists headed by Michel L’Hour, director of the Department of Underwater Archaeological Research, who joined the expedition last year.
Evidence that this is the Griffon’s bowsprit includes the beam’s general length and width, and shape of the buried end of the post.
Keep in mind, wood does not rot in the same manner in Lake Michigan as it does in the salt water of the oceans. The cool water of the Lake keep wood in better condition for much longer. While 19th century wooden shipwrecks are often mostly disintegrated by the 21st century, in Lake Michigan they are mostly intact.
So the buried end of the “bowsprit” shows signs of being beveled to an edge, but not sharpened to a point. Buried as it was, this beveled edge is most likely deliberate, and original to the “bowsprit”.
This beveling on the end is consistent with how bowsprits were shaped to be fitted to the ship itself. The other end, with the two man-made holes and pegs could be the attachement the “elbow” used to belong to, which would then attach to the flagpole. This type of bowsprit is at least consistent with the “La Belle”, built by La Salle five years after “Le Griffon”.
Among the individuals in the “no” camp is state archaeologist, Dean Anderson, and two scientists who were on the 2013 expedition: Misty Jackson and Ken Vrana. They believe that the “bowsprit” is most likely a stake from a “pound stake net”.
What’s a “Pound Stake Net”?
A pound stake net is a net strung among a number of submerged, vertical stakes pounded into the sandy Lake Michigan bed 35 or more feet below the surface. Shaped like nested hearts, or hearts in bowls, these nets allowed large schools of fish to swim inside in large numbers, but few could find the way out.
These nets were so successful at capturing fish that whole populations of fish, especially the prized lake Whitefish, disappeared in the Green Bay region, where the “bowsprit” was recovered.
During the summer 2013 expedition, no one mentioned the Pound Stake Theory, because none of these recovered stakes had the type of cross-way pins that the “bowsprit” did.
But a modern fisherman, Bob Ruleau of Wisconsin, submitted a photograph of a pound stake his nets had recovered years earlier. His recovered artifact revealed that pound stakes had, at times, been spliced together using cross-wise pins. (see the photo here)
Moreover, each pound stake was pounded in deeply once, using a pole driver, a method that would lead to a single erosion ring right at the surface of the lake bed.
The “bowsprit” has this type of fairly clean erosion line, leading many to believe that whenever and however the “bowsprit” was driven into the lake bed, it was driven extremely forcefully. How could the ship-side end of the bowsprit be driven so forcefully that there is only one clear cut erosion line, but no remains of the ship?
Is it possible that the “bowsprit” broke off, and embedded itself in a small amount of sand, and thus created a catalyst for a dune to form around it within afew days? The storm that sank the Griffon was four days long, and very violent, so such a thing would be possible.
Or is is a partially spliced pound stake left over from 19th century fishermen looking to make a large catch?
Only one way to find out.
Libert went back to the site and began to search around. Now, he’s announced that there is a large field of debris about 120 feet (36 meters) south-west from the original “bowsprit”, and hopes to gain the archaeology permits in time for another exploratory excavation in September of this year.
While the new “debris field” has yet to yield any definitive artifacts like cannon marked with the correct French seals, it does, apparently, have a partial ship’s pow, several kinds of nails and hand hewn boards. The nails within the debris field are consistent with a known La Salle shipwreck from the Gulf of Mexico, the “La Belle”. If this is the case, it’s a circumstantial point to this “debris field” potentially being the Griffon.
If all goes well, this fall could be a very exciting year for Michigan archaeology!
Maybe I should do an entry on the “La Belle” and how what we’ve learned about her by studying her shipwreck could impact the search for the Griffon.
Wooden Beam Gets CT Scan (This article supplies great photos of the “bowsprit” in the CT machine–really gives nice views of the formerly exposed end with the cross pins and holes)