Woodcut of Le Griffon
|Builder:||French explorer La Salle|
|Fate:||Disappeared on the return trip of her maiden voyage in 1679|
|Notes:||First full sized sailing ship on the upper Great Lakes|
|Class & type:||Barque|
|Tons burthen:||45 tons|
|Length:||30 to 40 feet (9.1 to 12 m)|
|Beam:||10-to-15-foot (3.0 to 4.6 m)|
|Sail plan:||Single mast with several square sails|
|Notes:||Led the way to commercial shipping in the upper Great Lakes|
Le Griffon (French pronunciation: [lə ɡʁifɔ̃], The Griffin) was a 17th-century sailing ship built by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle in his quest to find the Northwest Passage to China and Japan.
Le Griffon was constructed and launched at or near Cayuga Creek on the Niagara River as a seven-cannon, 45-ton barque. La Salle and Father Louis Hennepin set out on the Le Griffon's maiden voyage on August 7, 1679 with a crew of 32, sailing across Lake Erie, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan through uncharted waters that only canoes had previously explored. La Salle disembarked and on September 18 sent the ship back toward Niagara. On its return trip from Green Bay, Wisconsin, it vanished with all six crew members and a load of furs.
Le Griffon may have been found recently by the Great Lakes Exploration Group but the potential remains are the subject of lawsuits involving the discoverers, the state of Michigan, the U.S. federal government and the government of France.
Historical context 
Le Griffon was the first full-sized sailing ship on the upper Great Lakes of North America and she led the way to modern commercial shipping in that part of the world. Historian J.B. Mansfield reported that this "excited the deepest emotions of the Indian tribes, then occupying the shores of these inland waters".
French explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, sought a Northwest Passage to China and Japan to extend France's trade. Creating a fur trade monopoly with the Native Americans would finance his quest and building Le Griffon was an "essential link in the scheme". While work continued on Le Griffon in the spring of 1679 as soon as the ice began to break up along the shores of Lake Erie, La Salle sent out men from Fort Frontenac in 15 canoes laden with supplies and merchandise to trade with the Illinois for furs at the trading posts of the upper Huron and Michigan Lakes.
First Ships and Preparations 
Le Griffon may or may not be considered the first ship on the Great Lakes, depending on what factors one deems necessary to qualify a vessel for that designation. Decking, permanent masts, and bearing a name are a few of the criteria one might use.
Before 1673, the most common vessel on the lakes was the canoe. While smaller canoes were used on rivers and streams, lake canoes were more commonly larger vessels measuring up to about 35 feet long. While some of these were made from a single carved log ("dug out" or "pirogue"), most were bark canoes. Bateaux were also common. They were open vessels (no deck) made of wood measuring up to about 35 feet long and capable of carrying three or four tons of cargo. While they were at times fitted with mast and sails, their primary propulsion was either oars or poles. The sails were merely supplemental for traveling down wind. Their inefficiency at beating to windward made them impractical as sailing vessels, and they were not very safe in open water.
Below Niagara Falls: first ships on Lake Ontario 
James Mansfield says that in the fall of 1678, LaSalle built a vessel of about 10 tons burden at Fort Frontenac and that this vessel, named the Frontenac, was the first real sailing vessel on the Great Lakes; specifically, on Lake Ontario (which some at the time called Lac de Frontenac). Many authors since Mansfield have followed suit. There is reason, however, to question his assertion.
Justin Windsor notes that Count Frontenac by August 1, 1673, "had already ordered the construction of a vessel on Ontario to be used as an auxiliary force to Fort Frontenac."  He also says that at Fort Frontenac in 1676, LaSalle "laid the keels of the vessels which he depended on to frighten the English." J.C. Mills  quotes a letter from LaSalle to the Minister of Marine that says, "The fort at Cataraqui [Fort Frontenac] with the aid of a vessel now building, will command Lake Ontario..."  While no date is given for the letter, the location of Mill's reference to it suggests that it was sent before 1677, perhaps as early as 1675. Francis Parkman  says that by 1677, "four vessels of 25 to 40 tons had been built for the lake [Ontario] and the river [St. Lawrence]." H.W. Beckwith  says that in September, 1678, LaSalle "already had three small vessels on Lake Ontario, which he had made use of in a coasting trade with the Indians." None of these sources ascribe a name to any of these vessels. While the journals of Tonti, Hennepin, and LeClercq (participants with LaSalle) do mention a little vessel of 10 tons, none of them apply a name to it.
Above Niagara Falls: Le Griffon 
LaSalle's prime focus in 1678 was building Le Griffon. Arriving at Fort Frontenac in late September, he had neither the time for nor the interest in building a vessel at Fort Frontenac to transport building materials, some of which he had recently obtained in France, to a site above Niagara Falls where he could build his new ship. So, Beckwith's conclusion must be correct that he chose one of his existing vessels, one of about ten tons burden, for sending the first group of men to Niagara. Some of LaSalle's associates called this vessel a brigantine; others called it a bark. The accounts agree that this little vessel played a part in the building of Le Griffon. William Kingsford  seems to have done a credible job of combining the references by LaSalle and his contemporaries into a cohesive account. On his work the following synopsis is primarily based.
On November 18, 1678, after just over a month of preparations at Fort Frontenac, LaSalle dispatched Captain La Motte and Father Louis Hennepin together with 15 men and supplies in a vessel of 10 tons. Their mission was to begin selecting a site for the construction of Le Griffon and to erect necessary structures for shelter, storage, and defense. Because the wind was strong from the north, they sailed close to the north shore of the lake, putting in for the nights in various bays along the way. Somewhere near present-day Toronto they were frozen in and had to chop their way out of the ice. From there they struck out across the lake toward the mouth of the Niagara River. They arrived late on December 5, but the weather was rough and they did not want to run the surf and outflow of the river at night, so they stayed a few miles off shore. On December 6, they landed safely on the east bank of the river at about where Lewiston, New York is today. They attempted to sail further upstream, but the current was too strong. Ice flowing down the river threatened to damage their little brigantine and after a cable was broken, they hauled the vessel ashore and into a small ravine for protection.
Relations with the Iroquois were uneasy, so beginning on Christmas Day, 1678, La Motte and Hennepin together with four of their men, went by snowshoe to a prominent Seneca chief who resided at Tagarondies  a village about 75 miles east of Niagara and about 20 miles south of Lake Ontario. They wished to secure a reliable truce lest the natives interfere with their projects. Those left behind proceeded with needed building projects. Negotiations with the Senecas were only moderately successful, so when they left the village they still wondered if the natives would permit them to finish their project. They reached Niagara again on January 14.
Meanwhile, LaSalle and Henri de Tonti, had departed Fort Frontenac in a second vessel some days after La Mothe and Hennepin. This was a "great bark" (Hennepin's words) of about 20 tons burden, and carried anchors, chain, guns, cordage, and cable for Le Griffon, as well as supplies and provisions for the anticipated journey. La Salle followed the southern shore of the lake. LaSalle decided to visit the Senecas at Tagarondies himself. He put ashore near present-day Rochester, NY, and arrived at Tagarondies very shortly after La Motte and Hennepin had left. He was more successful in securing the Indians' tolerance of his proposed "big canoe" and support buildings. With LaSalle back aboard their vessel, the company again sailed west until, about 25 miles from Niagara, weather checked their progress. There was some disagreement between LaSalle and the ship's pilot, and LaSalle and Tonti went ahead on foot to Niagara. When they arrived there La Motte and Hennepin had not yet returned. While there LaSalle selected a site for building Le Griffon.
After LaSalle and Tonti left, the pilot and the rest of the crew were to follow with the supply vessel. On January 8, 1679, the pilot and crew decided to spend the night ashore where they could light a fire and sleep in some warmth. It was a calm night and they believed the vessel was securely moored. When a strong wind suddenly arose, they could not make it back to the ship. The vessel dragged its anchor for about nine miles to the east before grounding and breaking up near present-day Thirty Mile Point. When LaSalle heard of the loss (through a messenger or one of the natives), he left Niagara and joined in the salvage effort. They recovered the anchors, chain, and most of the materials critical for Le Griffon, but most of the supplies and provisions were lost. They dragged the materials to the mouth of the Niagara, rested and warmed up a few days in an Indian village, then carried the materials single file through the snow to their settlement above the falls. They arrived there on January 20, and were welcomed by La Motte and Hennepin.
The site LaSalle had selected for building Le Griffon has conclusively been identified as at or near the mouth of Cayuga Creek. There the keel was laid on January 26, 1679. LaSalle offered Hennepin the honor of driving the first spike, but Hennepin deferred to his leader. Having lost needed supplies, LaSalle left the building of Le Griffon under Tonti's care, and set out on foot to return to Fort Frontenac. While frozen rivers made traveling easy, finding food was not. He arrived there nearly starved only to find that his detractors had succeeded in stirring up doubt and opposition with his creditors. Addressing his problems long delayed his return to the expedition.
After LaSalle's departure, Tonti refloated the little brigantine, and attempted to use it for more salvage work at the wreck, but the winter weather prevented success. He then charged La Motte with salvage by use of canoes. (Some time later, Hennepin would use this little vessel to sail to Fort Frontenac and again back to Niagara.)
Progress on Le Griffon was fraught with problems. Suffering from cold and low on supplies, the men were close to mutiny. The uneasy truce with the Indians was tested by threats and attempts of sabotage and murder. Tonti learned of a plan to burn the ship before it could be launched, so he launched ahead of schedule and Le Griffon entered the waters in early May, 1679. Hennepin's first account says she was a vessel of about 45 tons; his second says 60 tons. Because his second account has numerous exaggerations and cases where he credits himself for things that LaSalle had done, Hennepin's first account is considered more reliable. In any case, Le Griffon was larger than any other vessel on the lakes at the time, and as far as contemporary reports can confirm, the first named vessel. Her fitting out continued the next couple of months and when LaSalle arrived in July he was encouraged by her readiness.
La Salle had Le Griffon built in the winter of 1678–79 at a distance of several hundred miles from any settlements on Cayuga Creek (at Cayuga Island) on the Niagara River. Le Griffon's pattern closely followed the prevailing type used by explorers to cross the Atlantic Ocean to the New World. The exact size and construction of Le Griffon is not known. The widely referenced antique woodcutting of Le Griffon shows her with 2 masts but many researchers believe she was a 45 ton barque with a single mast with several square sails and 30 to 40 feet (9.1 to 12 m) long with a 10-to-15-foot (3.0 to 4.6 m) beam.
La Salle's men first had to build their lodging and then guard against the Iroquois who were hostile to this invasion of their ancient homeland. La Salle had instructed Hennepin and La Mothe to go 75 miles into wilderness in knee-deep snow on an embassy to the great village of the Seneca tribe, bringing gifts and promises in order to obtain their good will to build "the big canoe" (Le Griffon), but many tribal members did not approve. La Salle arrived on 20 January 1679 from Fort Frontenac with the full rigging, anchors, chains, cordage, and cannon that were transported by barge, then salvaged and dragged 30 miles overland to the construction site. La Salle oversaw the laying of Le Griffon's keel and drove her first bolt. Crude tools, green and wet timbers, and the cold winter months caused slow progress in the construction of Le Griffon. La Salle left Italian officer Henri de Tonti and Father Hennepin in charge while he journeyed to Fort Frontenac to secure replacements for lost supplies.
A female Native informant who was of the tribe foiled the plans of hostile Senecas to burn Le Griffon as she grew on her stocks. The unrest of the Seneca and dissatisfied workmen were continually incited by secret agents of merchants and traders who feared La Salle would break their monopoly on the fur trade. When the Seneca again threatened to burn the ship, she was launched earlier than planned in Cayuga Creek channel of the upper Niagara River with ceremony and the roar of her cannons. A party from the Iroquois tribe who witnessed the launching were so impressed by the "large floating fort" that they named the French builders Ot-kon, meaning penetrating minds, which corresponds to the Seneca word Ot-goh, meaning supernatural beings or spirits. The tumultuous sound of Le Griffon's cannons so amazed the Native Americans that the Frenchmen were able sleep at ease for the first time in months when they anchored off shore. After Le Griffon was launched, she was rigged with sails and provisioned with 7 cannon of which 2 were brass. The French flag flew above the cabin placed on top of main deck that was elevated above the hull. She had the figure of a griffin mounted on her jib-boom and an eagle flying above. Some say Le Griffon was named for Count Frontenac whose coat of arms was ornamented with the mythical griffin. Hennepin said she was named to protect her from the fire that threatened her.
Maiden voyage 
Niagara River to Saginaw Bay 
In July 1679, La Salle directed 12 men to tow Le Griffon through the rapids of the Niagara River with long lines stretched from the bank. They moored in quiet water off Squaw Island 3 miles from Lake Erie waiting for favorable northeast winds. La Salle sent Tonti ahead on 22 July 1679 with a few selected men, canoes, and trading goods to secure furs and supplies. Le Griffon set off on 7 August with unfurled sails, a 34-man crew, and a salute from her cannon and musketry. They were navigating Le Griffon through uncharted waters that only canoes had previously explored. They made their way around Long Point, Ontario, constantly sounding as they went through the first moonless, fog-laden night to the sound of breaking waves and guided only by La Salle's knowledge of Galinée's crude, 10-year-old chart. They sailed across the open water of Lake Erie whose shores were forested and "unbroken by the faintest signs of civilization". They reached the mouth of the Detroit River on 10 August 1679 where they were greeted by 3 columns of smoke signaling the location of Tonti's camp whom they received on board. They entered Lake St. Clair on 12 August, the feast day of Saint Clare of Assisi, and named the lake after her. They again sounded their way through the narrow channel of the St. Clair River to its mouth where they were delayed by contrary winds until 24 August. For the second time, they used a dozen men and ropes to tow Le Griffon over the rapids of the St. Clair River into lower Lake Huron. They made their way north and west to Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron where they were becalmed until noon of 25 August. La Salle took personal command at this point due to evidence that the pilot was negligent.
Lake Huron storm 
On noon of 25 August they started out northwest with a favoring northerly wind. When the wind suddenly veered to the southeast they changed course to avoid Presque Isle. However, the ferocity of the gale forced them to retreat windward and lie-to until morning. By 26 August the violence of the gale caused them to "haul down their topmasts, to lash their yards to the deck, and drift at the mercy of storm. At noon the waves ran so high, and the lake became so rough, as to compel them to stand in for land." Father Hennepin wrote that during the fearful crisis of the storm, La Salle vowed that if God would deliver them, the first chapel erected in Louisiana would be dedicated to the memory of Saint Anthony of Padua, the patron of the sailor. The wind did slightly decrease but they drifted slowly all night, unable to find anchorage or shelter. They were driven northwesterly until the evening of 27 August when under a light southerly breeze they finally rounded Point St. Ignace and anchored in the calm waters of the natural harbor at Mackinac Island where there was a settlement of Hurons, Ottawas, and a few Frenchmen.
Mackinac Island 
Upon Le Griffon's safe arrival at Mackinac Island, the voyagers fired a salute from her deck that the Hurons on shore volleyed three times with their firearms. More than 100 Native American bark canoes gathered around Le Griffon to look at the "big wood canoe". La Salle dressed in a scarlet cloak bordered with lace and a highly plumed cap, laid aside his arms in charge of a sentinel and attended mass with his crew in the chapel of the Ottawas and then made a visit of ceremony with the chiefs.
La Salle found some of the 15 men he sent ahead from Fort Frontenac to trade with the Illinois but they had listened to La Salle's enemies who said he would never reach Mackinac Island. La Salle seized 2 of the deserters and sent Tonti with 6 men to arrest 2 more at Sault Ste. Marie.
Green Bay 
The short open-water season of the upper Great Lakes compelled La Salle to depart for Green Bay on 12 September, 5 days before Tonti's return. They sailed from the Straits of Mackinac to an island (either Washington Island or Rock Island) located at the entrance of Green Bay (Lake Michigan). They anchored on the south shore of the island and found it occupied by friendly Pottawatomies and 15 of the fur traders La Salle sent ahead. The traders had collected 12,000 pounds (5,400 kg) of furs in anticipation of the arrival of the Le Griffon. La Salle decided to stay behind with 4 canoes to explore the head of Lake Michigan. La Salle gave instructions for Le Griffon to off-load merchandise for him at Mackinac Island that would be picked up on the return trip. Le Griffon rode out a violent storm for 4 days and then on 18 September, the pilot Luc and 5 crew sailed under a favorable wind for the Niagara River with a parting salute from a single gun. She carried a cargo of furs valued at from 50,000 to 60,000 francs ($10,000 – $12,000) and the rigging and anchors for another vessel that La Salle intended to build to find passage to the West Indies. La Salle never saw Le Griffon again.
Father Hennepin wrote that Le Griffon was lost in a violent storm. Some charged fur traders, and even Jesuits with her destruction. Some said that the Ottawas or Pottawatomies boarded her, murdered her crew, and then burned her. La Salle was convinced that the pilot and crew treacherously sank her and made off with the goods. There is no conclusive evidence about any of the theories about Le Griffon's loss.
Le Griffon is reported to be the "Holy Grail" of Great Lakes shipwreck hunters. A number of sunken old sailing ships have been suggested to be Le Griffon but, except for the ones proven to be other ships, there has been no positive identification. One candidate is a wreck at the western end of Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron, with another wreck near Escanaba, Michigan, also proposed. Le Griffon was the second in a string of thousands of ships that found their last berth on the bottom of the Great Lakes.
Le Griffon is considered by some to have been the first ship lost on the Great Lakes. It was another vessel used by LaSalle and Tonti, however, that was the first loss on January 8, 1679. As noted above, sources give its size as either 20 tons or 40 tons. It dragged anchor and ran aground near Thirty Mile Point on Lake Ontario, where it broke apart. Some say that this vessel was named the Frontenac, while others say the other vessel used on LaSalle's expedition was the Frontenac. Some sources confuse the two vessels.
Le Griffon may have been found by the Great Lakes Exploration Group but the potential remains were the subject of lawsuits involving the discoverers, the state of Michigan, the U.S. federal government and the government of France.
In July, 2010 the Great Lakes Exploration Group issued a press release stating that they, the state of Michigan and France had reached agreement to co-operate in the next phase of an archaeological site assessment for identifying the shipwreck.
- Mansfield, J.B., Ed. (1899). History of the Great Lakes: Volume I. Chicago, Illinois: J.H. Beers & Co. pp. 78–90. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
- "An expedition of historic significance: the search for the elusive Griffon". Great Lakes Exploration Group. Retrieved 19 March 2009.
- Boswell, Randy (17 February 2009). "France claims historic Great Lakes wreck". Postmedia Network, Inc. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
- Mills, James Cooke (1910). Our Inland Seas: Their Shipping & Commerce for Three Centuries. Chicago, Illinois: A. C. McClurg & Co. pp. 36, 37, 43, 50–56, 59–64, 112, 193. Retrieved 8 February 2011.
- In this article, the word "ship" is used in its broader sense, not in the technical sense of referring to a vessel with three or more masts rigged with square sails.
- Mansfield, James Brandt; History of the Great Lakes; J.H. Beers & Co.; Chicago; 1899; Vol. 1; p. 81
- Windsor, Justin; Geographical Discovery in the Interior of North America in its Historical Relations, 1534-1700; Houghton, Mifflin & Co.; Boston and New York; 1894
- Windsor, p. 252
- Windsor, p. 255
- Mills, p. 40
- Parkman, Francis; LaSalle and the Discovery of the Great West; Little Brown & Co.; Boston; 1879
- Parkman, p. 109
- Beckwith, Hiram Williams; History of Montgomery County together with Historic Notes on the Wabash Valley; H.H. Hillan and N. Iddings, Publishers; Chicago; 1881
- Beckwith, p. 59
- Parkman, p. 124, agrees.
- Kingsford, William; The History of Canada -- Vol. 1, Canada Under French Rule, 1608-1682; Roswell & Hutchinson, Toronto/Trubner & Co., Ludgate Hill, London; 1887
- About a mile south of present-day Victor, NY, currently preserved as Ganondagon State Historic Site
- Hennepin's journal says 32 leagues(converts to 96 miles), but his figure is an estimate made while snowshoing through the country. The straight line distance is about 75 miles.
- The New International Encyclopedia (Gilman, Peck, and Colby, Editors; Dodd Mead & Co.; New York; 1906; Volume 11, p. 789) confuses the first vessel with this one. It does not apply the name Frontenac. Those who repeat this confusion and who accept Mansfield's assertion that the Frontenac was the first sailing vessel on the lakes, conclude that the Frontenac was both the first built and the first lost on the lakes. The evidence, however, establishes that there were two separate vessels.
- Kingsford, p. 455; Tonti's journal says this was a 40 ton vessel. The journeys of Rene Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle. Volume 1, (hosted by the Portal to Texas History)
- Kingsford says it was either contrary wind or they were becalmed. Tonti's journal says it was adverse winds.
- Kingsford's text says Thirty-nine Mile Point, but modern charts do not show that name. Thirty Mile Point is an established location and fits better with the rest of the narrative. That would also put their forward progress on Jan. 8, at about 20 miles from Niagara. It is not clear if the ship had advanced west after the departure of LaSalle and Tonti.
- Kingsford, p. 455; Parkman, p. 133; The various arguments for the site are compared and evaluated in The Shipyard of the Griffon by Cyrus Kingsbury Remington; Buffalo, N.Y.; 1891; Accessed March 20, 2011
- Sources disagree on how long this delay was. Some say LaSalle made multiple trips, especially after the spring thaw. Others say he did not return to Niagara until July.
- Kingsford, p. 458
- Sullivan, Patrick (25 July 2005). "Treasure hunter sues for rights". Traverse City Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Michigan). Retrieved 19 March 2009.
- "Great Lakes Exploration Group, France and Michigan Establish Cooperative Agreement For Shipwreck Exploration" (PDF) (Press release). Great Lakes Exploration Group. July 2010. Retrieved 17 September 2010.
Additional reading 
- Kohl, Cris (2004). Shipwreck Tales of the GreatLakes. West Chicago: Seawolf Communications, Inc. ISBN 0-9679976-7-4.
- MacLean, Harrison John (1974). The Fate of the Griffon. Chicago: The Swallow Press, Inc; Sage Books. ISBN 0-8040-0674-1.
- Allen, Durward L. (1959). "If you are in need of a mystery, here is a historic puzzle: What happened to LaSalle's Griffon?". Boys' Life (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Boy Scouts of America) 49 (9): 18, 76–77.</ref>
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