Griffon searcher says he’s certain he’s found LaSalle’s lost vessel

Divers search ship pieces of what Steve and Kathie Libert, the authors of the new book, ‘Le Griffon and the Huron Islands 1679,’ feel is part of the ellusive Griffon.

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich.—After having spent most of their adult lives researching the elusive Le Griffon, Steve and Kathie Libert believe they’ve found the remains of the French ship near the Huron Islands, a chain of small, rocky islands northeast of Green Bay, Wisconsin. They have just published their findings in a book titled, ‘Le Griffon and the Huron Islands – 1679, Our story of exploration and discovery.’ 

The book details the research the Liberts have engaged in while searching for the elusive vessel. 

The Griffon disappeared while returning from its maiden voyage in 1679. It was last seen struggling in a storm near what is now Washington Island in the state of Wisconsin. “We feel pretty good that what we found is the Griffon,” Mr. Libert told The Expositor in an interview. In the book, the Liberts take their journey to this conclusion. 

“I was an eighth grader in Dayton, Ohio when I first became intrigued by the mystery of a ship called The Griffon, or Le Griffon in French,” Mr. Libert said. “The story my history teacher told immediately caught my full attention and like most young men, stirred my imagination with tales of early exploration in an unknown country. This ship was the flagship of explorer Rene-Robert Cavelieur, Sieur de La Salle. It was the first upper-decked vessel known to have sailed above Niagara Falls and into the upper Great Lakes but disappeared on its maiden voyage.”

“Unknown to La Salle, the loss of his ship and six crewmen would be the start of a legend filled with mystique and a search that would continue over 340 years,” he continued. “My interest began that day when my teacher touched my shoulder and said, ‘maybe one day someone in this class will find it.’

The Liberts’ research has placed the ship’s final moments near the Huron Islands in Lake Michigan, precisely where they discovered a colonial era shipwreck. They wondered if this could be La Salle’s Le Griffon. It took the Liberts 12 years to secure a permit to raise a bowsprit they first discovered during a dive in 2001. Litigation was involved. Eventually, they came to an agreement with France and Michigan and in 2013, put together an expedition of archaeologists, scientists, French diplomats, American representatives and themselves. They spent five years looking for the rest of that ship. 

“One of the French archaeologists believed the ship was four miles from the bowsprit,” Mr. Libert said. “He was very close. It was 3.8 miles apart. The discovery was of a colonial age shipwreck with uniquely French design features.” Mr. Libert applied for a permit to bring up the wreck but was denied. “I wish we could get the permits to excavate and find out definitively,” he added.

Mr. Libert’s interests in undersea technology and exploration stem from a book he read by a former CIA deputy director about raising a Russian submarine. “I was captivated by the sheer idea and innovations required to raise a submarine from 17,000 feet off the bottom of the Pacific Ocean,” he said. 

Kathy Libert likes a good mystery and the thrill of solving complex puzzles with miniscule clues, said her husband. She is not afraid of getting wet and has been a diver and underwater researcher since 1981. “Kathie knew we needed to first identify the true location of the Huron Islands,” Mr. Libert said. “After all, it was among those islands that historic records said the iconic ship disappeared. But what islands and where are they? The Huron Islands are the impetus for the title of our book.”

“It’s been a long haul with great dangers, happy and sad times,” continued Mr. Libert. “When I started, the whole group was in our early 20s and now the oldest is probably 77 years old.” There have been medical issues and they’ve had to come up with different ways of diving to help with injuries.

The search has been a contentious one too, involving a federal court battle with the state of Michigan that lasted more than a decade. A visit from France’s top marine archaeologist in 2013 ended in a split among researchers on the site. The French team agreed with Libert that the beam of wood they’d found that June was likely the bowsprit of a ship but the American scientist concluded it was probably a piece of a commercial fishing net. The beam was not attached to anything and no ship was found.

Mr. Libert resumed his search with members of his original team, including friends he had met in Dayton while learning to scuba dive in the early 1980s. In 2018 they dove at a location that Mr. Libert had first located using Google’s satellite imagery. It was a site that he and his crew had probably motored over about 100 times, he said. Numerous details about the site suggested a very old ship. “The metal fasteners are not threaded. The wooden pegs are constructed in the manner of seventeenth century shipbuilding and the nails are handmade of wrought iron.”

“It is a colonial age ship from the 1700s,” Mr. Libert argues. “Nothing on it whatsoever says that this is a modern ship. Not the fittings, fastenings or the wooden nails. I’ve never seen a ship that old.”

They had four carbon dating tests done at different labs in Arizona and Miami. The dates confirm each other, he said but pointed out that “sometimes, carbon testing can be wrong.” Because the dates were duplicated the probability is higher they are correct. 

The Liberts have been working with a shipwright and diver named Allen Pertner. Originally from Northport, Michigan he has been studying boats since the 1950s when he found the wreck of a steamboat that had exploded and sank on Lake Leelanau. Mr. Pertner told the Liberts he’d never seen a ship frame like that and also that every piece of this boat was tapered from the centre. Treenails or trenails were used in ship construction at the time. Mr. Pertner suggested this boat was carrying a shipload of wooden nails, likely to be used building La Salle’s next ship as he sought to extend French dominion down the Mississippi River into the heart of North America. 

Ken Vrana, a recently retired Michigan archaeologist who has worked with Mr. Libert in the past said there is no way to tell from the photos on the website whether the ship is the Griffon or not. Ironically, if the ship rumoured to be cursed by local Indian tribes is Le Griffon, she lays under tribal waters, only adding to her mystique, Mr. Libert said. 

“There has always been an argument about where the Griffon’s final resting place was located,” said Mr. Libert. Using primary source documents, the Liberts detail their journey of historical exploration and decoding the first Great Lakes maritime mystery. Since divers and ship historians have long held a great interest in the Griffon, “The location of the shipwreck we found will not stay a secret much longer.”

Any further exploration will require permits from the state to excavate the site. Michigan controls the bottomlands of all its Great Lakes water. The state turned down a proposal from Great Lakes Exploration Group (headed by Mr. Libert) to further assess the found wreck. 

‘Le Griffon and the Huron Islands – 1679’ is published by Mission Point Press, Traverse City, Michigan. It is available in stores and online. The retail price is US $34.95 hardcover and $26.95 softcover. For more information, visit greatlakesexploration.com or lasalle-griffon.com