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)