Le Griffon

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Woodcut of the Griffon

Woodcut of Le Griffon
Career French Navy Ensign
Name: Le Griffon
Builder: French explorer La Salle
Launched: 1679
Fate: Disappeared on the return trip of her maiden voyage in 1679
Notes: First full sized sailing ship on the upper Great Lakes[1]
General characteristics
Class and type: Barque[2]
Tons burthen: 45 tons[2]
Length: 30 to 40 feet (9.1 to 12 m)[2]
Beam: 10-to-15-foot (3.0 to 4.6 m)[2]
Sail plan: Single mast with several square sails
Armament: 7 cannon
Notes: Led the way to commercial shipping in the upper Great Lakes[1]

Le Griffon ('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 on 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 is often mistakenly called the first ship to be lost to the Great Lakes. The first ship was another built by La Salle, called the Frontenac, a 10-ton single-decked brigantine or barque. The Frontenac was lost in Lake Ontario, on January 8, 1679.

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.[3]

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".[1]

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".[4] 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 the Illinois for furs at the trading posts of the upper Huron and Michigan Lakes.[4]


"Building the Griffon" from Hennepin's Nouvelle Decouverte

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.[1][4] 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.[1][2]

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.[4] LaSalle sent Fathers Hennepin and LaMott 90 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 "the big canoe" (Le Griffon), but many tribal members did not approve.[1][4] La Salle left Italian officer Henri de Tonti and Father Hennepin in charge while he journeyed to Fort Frontenac.[1][4] La Salle returned on 20 January 1679 from Fort Frontenac with the full rigging, anchors, chains, cordage, and cannon that were transported by barge and then 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.[4]

An informant who was a squaw 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.[4] 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.[1] 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.[1] The French flag flew above the cabin placed on top of main deck that was elevated above the hull.[4] She had the figure of a griffin mounted on her jib-boom and an eagle flying above.[1][4] 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.[1]

Maiden voyage

Niagara River to Saginaw Bay

In July of 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.[4] 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".[1] 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.[4] 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 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.[1][4]

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."[1] 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 Mackinaw Island where there was a settlement of Hurons, Ottawas, and a few Frenchmen.[1]

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".[4] 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.[1][4]

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. [1] [4]

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)[1][5] 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 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.[1][4]


Father Hennepin wrote that Le Griffon was lost in a violent storm.[4] 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.[1]

Le Griffon is reported to be the "Holy Grail" of Great Lakes shipwreck hunters.[6] 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 mistakenly called the first ship to be lost to the Great Lakes. The first ship was another built by La Salle, called the Frontenac, a 10-ton single-decked brigantine or barque. The Frontenac was lost in Lake Ontario, on January 8, 1679.

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.[7]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 Mansfield, Ed., J.B. (1899, 2003). "History of the Great Lakes: Volumne I". Maritime History of the Great Lakes; Original: J.H. Beers & Co., Chicago.. http://www.halinet.on.ca/GreatLakes/Documents/HGL/default.asp?ID=c007. Retrieved 11 March 2009. , 78-90. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "History of the Great Lakes" defined multiple times with different content
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 "An expedition of historic significance: the search for the elusive Griffon". Great Lakes Exploration Group. http://greatlakesexploration.org/expedition.htm. Retrieved 19 March 2009. 
  3. France claims historic Great Lakes wreck, Randy Boswell, Canwest News Service, February 17, 2009
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 4.14 4.15 4.16 4.17 Mills, James Cook (1910, 2006). "Our Inland Seas: Their Shipping & Commerce for Three Centuries". Google Books; Original A. C. McClurg, Chicago.. http://books.google.com/books/pdf/Our_Inland_Seas.pdf?id=m2QGAAAAMAAJ&output=pdf&sig=ACfU3U2DOywk4oOQijbKWd5iN4H-S9gmRA. Retrieved 10 March 2009. , 36, 37, 43, 50-56, 59-64, 112, 193.
  5. "The Griffin". Michigan History Magazine. http://www.michiganhistorymagazine.com/kids/pdfs/mittenoct03.pdf. Retrieved 20 March 2009. 
  6. Sullivan, Patrick (25 July 2005). "Treasure hunter sues for rights". Traverse City Record-Eagle. http://archives.record-eagle.com/2004/jul/25wreck.htm. Retrieved 19 March 2009. 
  7. France claims historic Great Lakes wreck, Randy Boswell, Canwest News Service, February 17, 2009

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. 

External links

fr:Le Griffon (bateau) no:«Le Griffon»