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Tom Kucharsky and Dr. Scott Demel take a specimen for carbon dating analysis.
 
 
 
Loading food and necessities aboard the Karen.
 
 
 

Henri DeTonti, Robert La Salle's Lieutenant and loyal friend.

Portrait - Courtesy of the Arkansas History Commission

 
 
 
 

 
Father Louis Hennepin accompanied La Salle on his first expedition to Illinois.
 
 
 

331 Years Later, Has the Griffon Been Found?

La Salle’s expedition and the loss of Le Griffon in September of 1679 was of great historical significance to our country’s founding and important for New France (Canada). Now, 331 years later, another expedition may prove to be just as important.

If the wreck Libert has found is Le Griffon, it will be a find of tremendous historical significance. Le Griffon was built by Rene-Robert Sieur de La Salle, one of the first French explorers of the Great Lakes Region. He would later claim the Mississippi River watershed for France, a vast expanse of land that extended from the Allegheny Mountains to the Rocky Mountains and North of the Great Lakes, a portion of which became what is presently known as the Louisiana Purchase.

An Underwater Time Capsule

Exploration and study of the ship will tell us much about the history of our country and how our ancestors lived. “The ship is a time capsule that will fill the missing gaps of La Salle’s early exploration of North America,” says Libert. In particular, the wreck is a record of ship construction of that period, about which relatively little is known. La Salle constructed Le Griffon on the banks of the Niagara River, about three miles above the falls. There is strong documentation to support the view that Le Griffon was built on what is now the U.S. side of the Falls. If the wreckage is Le Griffon, however, it may be possible to use samples to establish definitively which side it was built on.

The fact that Le Griffon was built in the wilderness, as opposed to a shipyard, will reveal the circumstances La Salle and his men faced and the tools and technology they possessed. The ship was built with timber cut on site. The exact dimensions of the vessel are not know. It is however known to have been a 40 tun* vessel with three masts, a foremast, main and mizzen, and several square sails.

Le Griffon was armed with two cannons and three rail guns; it also transported soldiers. This has led some to call it a vessel of war. However, Le Griffon was clearly intended to serve as an integral part of La Salle’s supply line from Niagara to Illinois.

The Voyage of Le Griffon

Le Griffon’s maiden voyage started from Niagara on August 7, 1679. La Salle and 16 men sailed across Lake Erie to present day Detroit, where it picked up Henri DeTonti, one of La Salle’s lieutenants, and five other men. From there, Le Griffon sailed to St Ignace, near the Straits of Mackinac, finally stopping at safe anchorage on the shores of Green Bay. On September 18, 1679, La Salle dispatched a crew of six to sail Le Griffon back to Niagara to pick up men and supplies needed for the construction of forts and a second vessel.

Le Griffon sailed from what is known today as Washington Harbor on Washington Island. Father Hennepin, a Franciscan Recollect friar who had accompanied La Salle on the expedition, records that the ship fired a single cannon shot as it set sail. La Salle’s agent and attorney, Claude Bernou, in summarizing La Salle’s letters, wrote, “They set sail on the 18th of September with a light and very favorable wind from the West. It has not been possible to ascertain since what course they steered.” Le Griffon was never seen again.

Rumors, Legends, and Speculation

From this point on, rumors, legends and speculation have abounded, but La Salle was very clear as to what he thought happened to the ship. The three main conjectures about the fate of Le Griffon have been: 1) Indians captured the crew and burned the ship; 2) The ship went down in a sudden storm; 3) Le Griffon's crew mutinied, scuttled the ship, and kept its load of furs.

Of these alternatives, La Salle quickly dismissed the first one, believing that Jesuit missionaries at Missilimackinac had concocted the story in order to induce him to take action against the Pottawatomie Indians who had killed two of their men.

La Salle's letters provide support for either or both of the other two possibilities: Le Griffon sinking in a sudden storm and/or a crew mutiny and scuttling of the ship. It is known that there was a tremendous storm on the day after Le Griffon left Washington Harbor on September 18th. Initially, it seemed likely that the ship had sunk in that storm. Bernou, again summarizing La Salle's letters, wrote, "...the Indians saw the barque tossed about in such an extraordinary way that they could not weather the storm although they had cut down all the sails; a short time after, they lost sight of it..."

Two years later, however, La Salle learned additional information in talking with a young Pana Indian boy who was serving as a translator. The Pana Indian boy said he had seen Le Griffon's pilot (captain) and another Frenchman brought to a village by Sioux warriors. According to this witness, as recorded in La Salle's letters, the ship and crew survived the storm; later the crew scuttled the ship taking a small cargo of furs. Subsequently, the captain and another Frenchman, possibly trying to make their way west, were captured by the Sioux Indians.

However the particulars of the historical record are eventually resolved, Libert found the wreck location primarily by studying the patterns of storms in the area. Libert's experience sailing and diving in the Great Lakes convinced him that Le Griffon had left Washington Island and had anchored in the northern waters of Lake Michigan. Since no debris has ever been found, whether Le Griffon sank in a storm or was scuttled, it appears likely that the vessel went straight to the bottom of the lake intact.

The Great Lakes Expedition Group looks forward to resolving this 300+ year old mystery by relying on historical documents and visually inspecting the ship. Even if the wreck turns out not to be Le Griffon, archeologist Ken Vrana of The Center for Maritime and Underwater Resource Management (CMURM), believes the ship will still be a very noteworthy archaeological find. There are thousands of shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, few of which have ever been recovered.

 

 

 
 
Sieur de La Salle
 
 
Le Griffon from an old wood cut.
 
 
 
Father Hennepin's description of a 17th century explorer.
 
 
  Niagara Falls  
  Aerial view of Niagara Falls and River.  
 
  *Tun
Tun is an old French word for a large cask used in shipping wine, equivalent to 33.7 cubic feet or 953.93 Liters, or 252 U.S. gallons.

League
A league is approximately 2.4 to 4.6 statute miles. Today it is considered 3 statute miles.

Pied
French foot equaling 12.8 English Inches.

 

 

 
  Le Griffon from old wood cut.  
  1684 map made by Jean Franquelin.