Le Griffon disappeared in 1679: the Great Lakes greatest shipwreck mystery!

Thanks to Petoskey News for this:

CHARLEVOIX — When Steve Libert was in the eighth grade, a history teacher told his class about the French explorer Robert La Salle and his ship, Le Griffon.

The Griffon, built in 1679, sank that same year somewhere in the Great Lakes. Divers and shipwreck enthusiasts have spent years trying to piece together clues from the ship’s last days to find where it had gone down, but with no luck.

“And I was sort of in a daydream, but I was thinking about the ship, like most young kids, boy or girl, would do,” Libert said. “And (the teacher) walked right alongside me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Who knows, maybe someone in this room will find it one of these days.’ That’s what gained my interest.”

Libert, a 67-year-old Charlevoix resident, believes he has found the final resting place of the Griffon in Lake Michigan. The discovery of a colonial-aged shipwreck was made in 2018, and the recent publication of a book detailing Libert and the Great Lakes Exploration Group’s findings has renewed interest in the enduring mystery of the Griffon.

“The research started 40 some years ago,” Libert said. “Actually diving was (started in) like 1981. Everything’s been documented for a book and it’s taken a lot of years to search for it.”

Steve Libert Le Griffon

History and research

The Griffon was built in 1679 above the Niagara Falls. When the ship launched in August 1679, it was the largest ship on the Great Lakes. It began its journey into those lakes and was last seen that September, when La Salle and most of the crew disembarked at islands near the entrance to Lake Michigan’s Green Bay, and the ship was sent back to Niagara with six men aboard. The ship was not seen again.

Libert — who retired as a senior intelligence analyst with the chief of U.S. naval operations — and his group first made a discovery connected to the Griffon in 2001 when Libert bumped into something while swimming.

“I didn’t know what it was,” Libert said. “I thought it was the bowsprit and the reason I thought it was is because I really couldn’t see, but I knew whatever I bumped into wasn’t any anchor line. It was hard … But I did put a marker on it. And we came back the following year.”

However, Libert and his crew ran into legal trouble with the state, which has strict requirements and permits for removing materials from the lake bottom. Litigation dragged on for 12 years, involving the state, tribal governments, the federal government and the country of France, which claims ownership of the Griffon.

Once the legal matters were settled, the Great Lakes Exploration Group launched a major expedition in 2013 with U.S. and French archaeologists at the site where Libert believed the bowsprit was located. The search received widespread news coverage at the time.

However, the resulting excavation showed the bowsprit was not connected to a ship’s hull as originally thought. Other pieces of timber were also recovered at the site, but not a full wreck.

“Once we excavated, we found out that it wasn’t connected to a ship,” Libert said. “So I thought, ‘Well, how can this be wrong?’ But that’s just the way the science goes.”

Libert added that the chief underwater archeologist for France told him that he believed they would find the ship somewhere near the 2013 excavation site.

“He says in all of his experience that when a ship that age goes down, usually all the rigging comes off of it first,” Libert said. “And the ship ends up miles away before it actually sinks or disappears. He says, ‘I think you’re going to find a ship within four miles from this bowsprit.’ Well, he wasn’t too far off. It was exactly 3.8 (miles).”

During a period of ill health that kept him out of the water, Libert decided to continue looking for the ship using satellite imagery.

“My wife always said, ‘You know, you need to look where the historic records says it is. Look in the shallow water.’ She’s been saying that for 20 years,” Libert said. “‘I said, there is no ships going to be in the shallow water. So why am I going to waste my time?’ Well, I should have listened, because sure enough.”

Libert found something that looked like a ship, although when he sent the images for analysis archaeologists said it looked like a tree branch.

“So that question mark was there, and then it took another couple of years before I could get my health back in the condition to go diving on it,” Libert said. “And I was determined that I’d be the first one to dive on it, but I had to get the go ahead from my doctors.”

diver Steve Libert claims this wreck is the famed Le Griffon. Photo by Rich Gross

The 2018 discovery

In 2018, Libert arranged to dive at the new site he had seen in the satellite images. Initially hampered by bad weather, a dive on Sept. 10, 2018 revealed a shipwreck.

“It was the best day I think I’ve ever seen out there,” Libert said. “It was so calm, and I didn’t even have to dive on the ship. I could look at it and see it.”

Following decades of research, dives and delays due to litigation and health concerns, Libert said he felt elation and relief looking at the wreck.

“I think it’s just a lot of tension and pressure,” he said. “We’re talking 40 some years, not only looking but the litigation aspect, it really just drained me of energy and financial resources.”

While diving at the shipwreck, Libert looked for artifacts but didn’t find any.

“And I’m thinking, ‘Well, what’s happened?’ You have to remember, this is a 342-year-old ship, so I can’t find them,” Libert said. “I can’t find any artifacts, but I don’t know enough about ships to know exactly how old this ship could be. I just know what I was not finding is not anything modern, no threaded bolts or nuts.”

Libert knew he had discovered an old ship, but he turned to Al Pertner, a shipwreck interpreter from Charlevoix, to help determine just how old.

“(Libert) had a series of amazing pictures that soon as I saw those pictures, a guy like me right away knows that this is old and very, very old — not a little bit old like me, but extremely old,” Pertner said. “We’re talking several hundreds of years old, and built in the old way.”

In analyzing photos, Pertner identified key elements that pointed to the ship’s age. For example, there was no sign of modern fastenings. Everything was hand forged.

As a naval architect, Pertner also analyzed the shape and size of the wreck and its related pieces to develop a set of lines for the boat.

“And so I came out with a ship just the size that the Griffon should have been,” he said.

Libert called the Griffon both the “holy grail” and the “most sought-after vessel in the Great Lakes.” If the wreckage examined in 2018 is the Griffon, it would be the oldest shipwreck to have been found in the Great Lakes, predating the HMS Ontario, a British warship which sank in Lake Ontario in 1780. The HMS Ontario wreck was found in 2008.

“Different divers have been looking for (the Griffon) for a very long time, and it’s been reported, ‘We found it,'” said Sean Ley, development officer for the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society. “But then again, you have to have proof about that.”

Libert said not much is known about the history of 17th century vessels because they deteriorate over time. But wrecks found in cold, fresh water — like the Great Lakes — are preserved better than wrecks found in warm, salt water.

“What you have to understand is a lot of ships, early ships, we don’t know what they look like,” Libert said. “Why? Because they’re 300, 400 years old in the oceans. They disintegrated, basically, most of them, unless they’re buried and then when they’re buried, you can’t find them. Or you don’t find the whole ship. In this particular case, most of the ship’s here because it’s in cold water and fresh water.”

Both Libert and Pertner said the shipwreck evidence pointing to a specific size and shape of the ship, along with how the ship was constructed, fits what is known about the Griffon.

The Griffon would also have been the only ship of that size and age to be in the Great Lakes at that time.

“The French were the first, obviously, in 1679. The rest of the vessels were Indian canoes and maybe a couple of small boats, but nothing of significant size,” Libert said. “It wasn’t until the probably 1760s, 1780s — almost 100 years after the Griffon sank — before another large vessel would come in to Lake Michigan.”

The final location of the Griffon has long been debated among shipwreck enthusiasts. Historic records state the ship sank among the Huron Islands, and Libert said his research pointed him toward a string of eight islands near the Michigan and Wisconsin border in Lake Michigan. The wreck was found near Poverty Island in the archipelago.

“Now I won’t say any more than that or how deep the water is. We’d like to have the area protected,” Libert said. “But at the same time, I just want to make sure that our group gets the credit where credit’s due.”

Libert said misinformation about the Griffon has been a problem for years. He said the April 2021 publication of “Le Griffon and the Huron Islands -1679: Our Story of Exploration and Discovery,” by Libert and his wife Kathie, aims to clearly lay out their research and findings.

“The reason for this book is to let the public know that this is what we found,” he said. “Here’s the evidence. And if somebody else wants to come out and try to claim they found this vessel, they’re going to have a hard time. Because this vessel is not going to stay hidden much longer, especially after our book. But the information is going to be there.”

What’s next?

Definitively proving that the 2018 shipwreck find is the Griffon is still an ongoing challenge.

“That’s a hard nut to crack,” Pertner said.

Finding artifacts at the wreck would help positively identify the ship, but Pertner said he was not surprised by the lack of artifacts because the ship was built quickly and sank on its maiden voyage. Any artifacts that there were could have been buried, washed away or stolen over the years.

“There was no time for any accumulation of any of this typical stuff you’d see on board a ship,” Pertner said. “And so when she hit and broke up in the surf, there was just nothing there. And if there were a bunch of stuff there, I’d be highly suspicious. But there isn’t. So everything I see, just in the outskirts of the vessel itself, just what would it have on it when it was built in a lickety split pace in the middle of the winter by guys who had a box of tools?”

Libert said they plan to return to the site and look for artifacts and continue examining the wreck.

“A perfect example is the Corolla wreck off North Carolina,” Libert said. “It’s like a 17th century vessel that they found some pieces, not all, but from just the architecture … they can identify the age of the ship. Can they identify the exact vessel? No, but they’re pretty sure it is. From the architecture of this ship we can identify the age, and how many ships do you know that sank in Lake Michigan or the Great Lakes in 1679? None, there’s only one.”

Ley said the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society would love it if somebody found the Griffon, “But that’s the question … if after 300 years, how do you identify it?”

“I would say it would take a lot of research and any kind of writings or markings that are on it, or for example if it had a cannon … sometimes the cannon company would leave a mark on their weapons,” Ley said. “But he’s just going to have to see what he finds out.”


Steve Libert’s Great Lakes Explorations



Jobbie Crew’s article on Le Griffon



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