In September 1679, the French ship Le Griffon vanished without a trace in the Great Lakes region of the USA. The ship, owned by fur trader René Robert Cavelier, was last seen en route to Niagara Falls carrying a valuable cargo of furs and trade goods. Its disappearance has been a mystery ever since.
For almost 340 years its disappearance and whereabouts have baffled scientists and marine archaeologists. So, what happened to Le Griffon? How did Le Griffon sink and, perhaps more pertinently, where did Le Griffon sink? Read on to find out.
The French Ship Griffin
Le Griffon was a 45-ton sailing ship built in the Niagara wilderness from local wood. Its owner was fur trader and explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, the latter a purchased title loosely translated as ‘Lord of the Manor’. Cavelier wanted to traverse the Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to extend France’s trade relations with Japan and China.
Its maiden voyage was in July 1679 from the Niagara River west to the Great Lakes to secure furs and supplies. After traversing through the open waters of Lake Erie and Lake Huron, the French ship Griffin arrived at an island in Lake Michigan. There, Cavelier traded with local tribes. Staying on the island, he sent Le Griffon out ahead laden with furs valued at around 50-60 thousand francs, or $10,000 – $12,000. These furs were to be used to pay La Salle’s creditors.
On 18 September 1679 the ship, with six crewmen on board, set off towards Fort Frontenac, a French military fort and trading post. By the end of November Le Griffon still hadn’t arrived.
How did Le Griffon Sink or Disappear?
There are a number of theories about what happened to Le Griffon. However, despite many attempts to discover the ultimate fate of this lost French ship of the Great Lakes, there’s no conclusive proof to this day which establishes the true story. There was even talk of a curse levied by a local prophet which consigned the ship to its doom. A number of the most prominent theories are explored further below:
One suggestion was that it was ransacked, perhaps by rival fur traders or Jesuits. Another suggested that the Odawa or Pottawatomi, indigenous tribes native to the Great Lakes, murdered the crew and set the ship ablaze.
La Salle himself believed that the ship’s pilot and crew committed mutiny, sank the ship and scarpered with the furs.
Sunk By Storm
One of the passengers on the maiden voyage, Father Louis Hennepin, a Belgian Roman Catholic priest later wrote that the ship was lost in a violent storm. This theory is often seen as being the most likely scenario, and if so Le Griffon – like so many ships and boats on the Great Lakes – was taken by adverse and devastating conditions. But whether or not this answers the question of “how did Le Griffon sink”, many more have yet to be answered. For example, where did the Griffon sink? And where is it now? In other words, was The Griffon ever found?
Was The Griffon ever Found?
What has become known as the holy grail of Great Lakes lost French ships, Le Griffon was assumed sunk without trace. However in September 2018, shipwreck hunter Steven Libert and his wife Kathie believe they found it, 42 years after they started looking.
It must be noted that they are not 100% certain they have found the wreckage of Le Griffon, but they say it’s a good match for a shipwreck found in 2018 in Lake Michigan. Three years later, a bowsprit – the long spar running from the ships’ bow – was found which again suggests it is a good match for the French barque. The bowsprit was carbon dated to within a year of the sinking.
Is it Le Griffon? Perhaps. It’s in the right area, the ship seems big enough, it’s round about the right age and bears many hallmarks of similar French ships designed at the same time.
The Liberts certainly believe they have found the French ship Griffin, however the real truth may remain on the lake floor, slowly being reclaimed by nature.
How Many Ships Have Been Lost on the Great Lakes?
Le Griffon is thought to have been the very first ship to navigate the waters of the Great Lakes, but it certainly wasn’t the last. And is not the only ship claimed by these five huge freshwater lakes on the border of America and Canada.
Estimates of how many shipwrecks lie at the bottom of the five lakes vary wildly, from 6,000 up to 25,000, but the truth is there’s really no way of knowing for sure.
One of the most treacherous parts of the entire lake system is Lake Superior’s Shipwreck Coast, an 80 mile stretch of shallow water between Munsing and Whitefish Point in Michigan. Hundreds of ships – and lives – have been lost over the centuries.
What is the Oldest Shipwreck in the World?
The Griffon at a little over 340 years old pales into insignificance in comparison with the oldest shipwrecks in the world.
The world’s oldest shipwreck known to archaeologists is in the waters near the island of Dokos of the southern Greek coast. It is dated to around 2700 – 2200 BC and while the ship is long gone, it carried hundreds of clay vases which were discovered in 1975 and excavated in the early 1990s.
The oldest intact shipwreck in the world is a 23 metre long Greek merchant ship. It has been lying on its side two kilometres below the surface of the Black Sea off the coast of Bulgaria for around 2,400 years. The rudder, rowing benches and the contents of its hold remain in incredibly good condition.