Posts Tagged ‘griffin wreck’

Developments in the Griffon Dig, the ‘Bowsprit’ came down…

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Jun 19 2013

Update: Wednesday, June 19, 2013.  With the initial excavation permit (the first underwater permit in Michigan’s history!) due to expire on Friday, and the French archaeologists scheduled to leave the USA shortly thereafter, time is running out at the Griffon site.

A map showing Griffin’s last days in the blue (any route taken by Griffin is pure speculation, though the dates of her ports of call were recorded by Hennepin.As before, click image of larger image.

Initially, the sonar scans done last year suggested a large object, around 40-45 feet long, consistent with the Griffon’s descriptions, was buried only about 2 feet below the surface.  So this week’s excavations have involved dredging around the alleged bowsprit sticking out of the mud, hopefully uncovering the deck of the Griffon.  Unfortunately, what they found first was a near impenetrable layer of quagga mussels, and what the Sonar was picking up earlier seems to be much, much, much, further down. At least another 8-10 feet, if not further.  The extra depth forced the Griffon Excavation Team to bring in new excavation equipment that could handle this new depth.

Then, Tuesday night, as they were working near the “Bowsprit”, it suddenly began to wobble.  Divers realized that if it had once been connected, it wasn’t any longer, just deeply stuck in the mud.  Archaeologists decided to lower it to the lake bed, before it became a safety hazard.  So now we have a nearly twenty-foot long…something.

This is both good and bad news.  The bad news, obviously, is we’re still no officially closer to the Griffon if they’re excavating the right spot.  The good news, however, is multi-fold.

  • With the “bowsprit” down, they can now start excavating wider and with…well, one hates to say “with less care” but they certainly can explore a wider area faster than when they were concerned about the “bowsprit” and its stability.
  • The “Bowsprit” is now eligible to return to the surface and be fully examined.  This will include some really extensive conservation, but would allow it to be examined in controlled conditions.
  • The “Bowsprit” has been examined underwater by French archaeologists, who are convinced that it came from ship, and it a bowsprit, though the top, exposed ten feet are eroded from three centuries of sand and water (ya think?).  And therefore, SOMETHING interesting is in the area.  If she sank in a storm, the Griffon could have broken up, leaving this “bowsprit” where it is, and other items in the area.  Even broken up, she would still be archaeologically very valuable

The Bowsprit is the long, needle-like projection that extends from many (but not all) sailing ships’ bows. Of the four drawings of the Griffon done by Dr. George Quimby based on contemporary descriptions, this is the only one that shows any bowsprit at all, surprisingly. If the Griffon is only 45 feet in length as most scholars believe, I have a hard time believing her bowsprit is nearly half that length, but then again, 17th century sailing ships are not my specialty.

Now, the sand they’re sucking up is being sucked to the fishing vessel “Viking” which is the home base for this expedition.  The sand is filtered and checked, before being put back in the Lake.  This far, one or possibly two artifacts have come to light: a “cultural artifact”, with no further description, and a 15-inch long slab of blackened wood that shows signs of hand shaping.  These artifacts, could, of course, be one and the same.

Ideally, what they’re looking for is a French artifact from the 17th century, which could definitively prove that this place is the site of the Griffon, warranting a larger excavation this year, or a return next.  The perfect artifact would be one of Griffon’s guns, as these would be emblazoned with the arms of Louis XIV, proving beyond doubt that the Griffon settled near here.

Three days down, two to go, and of course, what happened today is not yet known—that’ll hit the papers tomorrow.

What happens to the bowsprit now?  Who knows?  There are two real options: leaving it near the site, and bringing it to the surface.

The exact site of “the Griffon” is a closely guarded secret (in fact, the discoverer, Steve Libert sat on that piece of information for nearly a decade as the rights to this expedition were dragged through court after court after embassy, after court as his trump card. ), but the general location is known.  To prevent theft or vandalism, the “bowsprit” may be buried nearby, and they’ll hopefully return next year.

Or, they could bring the Bowsprit to the surface and return with it to shore.  The problem here is that wood is full of natural oils. What does oil do in water?  Float to the surface.  Carbon-dating tests and archaeological surveys already suggest that that “bowsprit” is centuries old whatever it is and wherever it comes from, and over the hundreds of years, most of the oil in the original wood will have seeped out, up and away.

If it’s brought to the surface and allowed to dry out, the wood will essentially crumble to dust.  Another 17th century shipwreck, the Swedish Vasa, had to be kept damp until it can be sprayed with polyethylene glycol, which filled and the spaces the oil used to and stabilized the water-logged wood.  The Vasa had to be sprayed for seventeen years and dried for nine to allow for full penetration and stabilization, while the Mary Rose was sprayed for sixteen, and is currently drying (the earliest it will be considered “conserved” and ready for visitors will be 2015.).  Being one piece of wood, of course, the process for the “bowsprit” here will be faster, but it’s a long journey from the Lake to the nearest place that would be equipped to do that sort of work, and it would have to be kept wet and stable the whole time.

The Mary Rose undergoing the glycol treatment. If the bowsprit is brought to the surface, it’ll undergo something like this–though obviously, not at this scale! Image from Wikipedia.

The other good news, is the mud surrounding the “wreck” appears to be thick and possibly anaerobic, meaning no oxygen penetrates and therefore, anything that could eat the wreck can’t do anything.  She could possibly be whole down there…I’d say that’s asking too much, but the name Richard III rolls around in my head and reminds me that, yes, every so often, you can strike the Archaeological equivalent of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

But as I was thinking about the bowsprit, it got me to think about some possibilities about the wreck:

If that is the bowsprit, the wreck, if the bowsprit didn’t break at the beginning, could be tilted as much as this. Still, the final dimensions of that “bowsprit” are close to 20 feet, and again, a bowsprit that’s half the length of her ship seems very unusual to me.

 

A set up like this, where the “bowsprit” is actually part of the main or other mast makes a little more sense to my point of view. It at least would explain why the original staff was between 10 and 11 feet high and the hole was reportedly around 8 feet deep when it started to tumble, but sensors indicate the ship, if she’s there, is still several feet further down. It would also explain why we haven’t come across many artifacts yet.

 

Or even this idea. The top right sketch of Quimby’s Griffon drawings shows no bowsprit at all, but a main mast that appears to be two masts joined roughly half-way to two-thirds the way up. If this upper portion came loose and that’s what has just been excavated, (The “mast” to the right would indicate its original position)  that would also account for why no ship was attached to the lower end of the spar, and why sensors show a mass of something several feet down. Of course, there are any number of other possibilities: she could be broken up, she could be on her side, she could be scattered everywhere. Still, it’s fun to wonder…

 

Some of the best from today’s articles:

The Associated Press Article about the mast separating

One of the more detailed articles I found researching today

Another article about the bowsprit coming loose

Grand Haven Tribune article with a map of the area on which I based the one above

Has La Salle’s Legendary Griffon been found?

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Jun 18 2013

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.

Satellite view of the Great Lakes Region as it appears today. The Great Lakes region, or Louisiana, part of New France, as it was called them, would appear very different. It was under these raw conditions that the first cobbled-together shipyard would produce “The Griffin” the first European decked, sailing ship to appear on the upper Great Lakes.

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.

Griffin’s possible appearances based on Hennepin’s period descriptions, other French ships of the time, and the research of Dr. George Quimby, Field Museum curator. Only finding the wreck will prove which, or any, of these designs are accurate.

 

The map below shows where Griffin’s only voyage went.  All things considered, she was very fast for her time.

 

Griffon’s Voyage, based on Quimby’s research and Hennepin’s accounts. Click on the map for a larger image. To read the Griffon’s account in Quimby’s book for yourself, go here:  (Link on the right).

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)[1].  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!

Great Article on the Griffon’s possible wreck, including photos and film footage of the bowsprit/mast spar:

Information Provided by the Great Lakes Exploration Group, who are leading the exploration of the wreck

 More information about the shipwreck and the progress of the preliminary dig taking place this summer (2013)

 

 


[1] 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