Tuesday, January 03, 2006
Built in the wilderness from hand-cut timber, the Griffon was a one-of-a-kind ship. It was the first European vessel to sail on the upper Great Lakes, making its maiden voyage in 1679.
The Griffon, the first ship to sail the upper Great LakesThe Rev. Louis Hennepin, a priest and member of the expedition headed by the famed French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, wrote that the American Indians were surprised Europeans could build such a large boat from wood. La Salle, known as the explorer who claimed the Mississippi River Valley for France, planned to use the Griffon for fur trading to help pay for his explorations. The Griffon is believed to have been 30 to 40 feet long, 10 to 15 feet wide, with one mast that carried several square sails. Hennepin wrote that it was a "45-tun" ship, with a tun being the weight of a cask of wine, or about 250 gallons. On its maiden voyage, the Griffon sailed from the Upper Niagara to what today is Green Bay, Wis., where it was loaded with 6,000 pounds of furs. La Salle then sent it back on Sept. 18, 1679, with a crew of about five. It was destined for Ft. Michilimackinac in what today is Mackinaw City. As the ship left the harbor, the crew saluted onlookers with a single cannon shot. That was the last recorded sighting of the Griffon. Theories abound about what happened to the ship. An Indian put a curse on it, leading to its demise, according to legend. Some suspect the crew may have scuttled the ship and stolen the furs. Others thought the Iroquois attacked the ship. Another theory is that it sank in a storm. Hennepin wrote that the Iroquois had warned of an impending storm, but the Captain ignored the warnings and sailed anyway. Whatever caused the wreck, researchers and explorers have hunted for the Griffon for generations. If its wreckage is ever found, the Griffon has the potential to be a remarkable time capsule. It could be a snapshot of that era, from the ship's construction to the personal effects of the crew.