La Salle vessel may be on verge of discovery


The remains of the first European ship to sink in the upper Great Lakes – built by famed French explorer Rene Robert Cavelier de la Salle – may be uncovered shortly.

Beginning this weekend, Steve Libert will head a diving expedition to an underwater site in northern Lake Michigan, where archaeologists and technicians will attempt to determine whether timber jutting from the seabed and other items beneath layers of sediment are the wreckage of La Salle’s legendary vessel, the Griffin.

“I’m numb from the excitement,” Libert told The Associated Press. “It’s the Holy Grail for the Great Lakes; it’s No. 1 on the list.”

Libert, 59, recently retired from a position as an intelligence analyst with the US Department of Defense. He’s long had a passion for maritime mysteries and has journeyed from Okinawa to the Florida Keys for diving expeditions.

He’s long been intrigued by stories of 17th Century French explorer La Salle, who journeyed across the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi in a quest for a trade route to the Far East that he hoped would bring riches and renown, according to The Associated Press.

“Particularly intriguing was the tale of the Griffin, a vessel that La Salle built and sailed from Niagara Falls to the shores of present-day Wisconsin before sending it back for more supplies,” the wire service added.

“It departed with a crew of six and a cargo of furs in September 1679 – and was never seen again. Although widely considered the first wreck of a European-type ship in the upper Great Lakes, its fate has never been documented nor its gravesite found.”

Interestingly, the French government claims it still owns the Griffin.

France filed paperwork in 2009 in US District Court in Grand Rapids, Mich., to meet a deadline for avoiding loss of rights to the ship, according to The Mining Journal.

Libert has spent the nearly three decades on research, dives and legal hassles to get to where he is today. All for a ship that carried no gold or other treasure.

“Just to know where she went and where she is would be of great interest,” said Matthew Daley, a Grand Valley State University history professor and maritime researcher. “If we’re lucky, it also could open a window into an era that we know very little about.”

La Salle and his team built the Griffin on the Niagara River a few miles from the falls, naming it for the mythological figure with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion.

Although unimposing by modern standards – an estimated 50 feet long and 13 feet wide – it was an impressive sight on the inland seas, with its three masts, square sails and two cannons.

The vessel traversed Lakes Erie and Huron, then headed west on Lake Michigan, eventually stopping at near the entrance to Green Bay.

La Salle continued south by canoe while the Griffin prepared to retrace its journey. It was never seen again.

“Among theories about its demise: It succumbed to a fierce storm; Native Americans attacked and burned the ship; mutinous crewmen scuttled it and stole the furs,” according to The Associated Press.

Libert, who says he spent years scouring the area and studying the writings of La Salle and Hennepin, is convinced it traveled only a short distance before sinking in a gale.

Libert said the Griffin lies in less than 100 feet of water, not too far from where it was sighted last, but won’t divulge the precise location, saying other divers could loot or damage the wreckage.

(Above: La Salle’s ship The Griffin)


10 thoughts on “La Salle vessel may be on verge of discovery

    • Ah, yes. He certainly was a well-traveled individual, wasn’t he? For what it’s worth, I once had a 1938 LaSalle – it was 19 feet long and weighed about 20,000 pounds. but did it have some sweet curves. Not much on gas mileage, though.

      • Cool. My first car in the mid-sixties was a ’57 Chevy that came with a bumper sticker, “OUT OF DATE BUT OUT OF DEBT.” For sure, LaSalle must have covered a lot of ground before his men (according to Texas history which can’t be wrong, can it?) killed him and buried him in the “Navasot.” (Navasota River bottom), where the windshield of my Chevy and every other car I ever had got bombarded with a lot of bug splatterings the size of plates in crossing the river bridge on Highway 6.

      • I’ve never read a Texas history book, but I envision it as something akin to a slender volume filled with the following words: “Everything and anything important that ever happened in the US took place in Texas! And don’t you forget it!”

  1. As the serious and real lovers of authentic Texas History call so many of the Texas history books (including the required Texas History courses for all seventh graders), it’s Texas Myth ‘n Brag, not Texas History. The Alamo is a lot more interesting now that we have history scholars giving the Mexican accounts of the story. Mexicans kept diaries and journals too it turns out. Authentic history is always infinitely more interesting though, I don’t have to tell you of all people. Enjoying the “Boll,” as always.

  2. Your articles are always interesting. This was no exception, and my only connection was visiting Michigan in the summer before my 5th grade year. I was so excited in 5th grade because I had to do a state report, and I chose Michigan. My only experience with Lake Michigan, but I loved swimming in the lake, and going to Mackinaw Island. 🙂

    • I never got to visit Mackinaw Island, but Lake Michigan always seemed like such a pretty area. I lived in Michigan in fourth grade and my class toured the state capital in Lansing. I remember very little about the trip – execpt that it was very long. Little did I know just about everyone in that Statehouse was likely on the take to the Teamsters. Of course, back then I didn’t even know what a Teamster was.

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