Marine researcher, shipwreck historian says Manitoulin has solid claim as location of Griffon shipwreck

1679 wreck thought to be at Mississagi Straits off Island’s West end

MICHIGAN—If there are any experts on the mystery of the whereabouts of the wreck of La Salle’s Le Griffon, the first deck vessel to ply the waters of the Great lakes, authors Chris Kohl and his wife and writing partner Joan Forsberg have to be among the most likely candidates—they literally wrote the book on it. Mr. Kohl, for one, remains cautiously skeptical on the claims of Muskegon, Michigan divers Kevin Dykstra and Frederick Munroe, who announced on December 23 that they believe they found the Griffon, by accident, while allegedly searching in 2011 for a Civil War era boxcar full of gold the said was washed off of the deck of a ferry.

“I don’t know, I haven’t seen the wreck,” said Mr. Kohl when contacted for his opinion on the likely veracity of the claims. The co-author of ‘The Wreck of the Griffon’ said he had been made aware of the discovery shortly after the original discovery and while the discovery of a square hafted nail similar to the type common prior to the 17th century and the presence of what appears to be a larger than typical figurehead on the vessel, he is withholding judgment for the time being.

“There are a lot of zebra mussels attached to the wood, layers upon layers built up,” he said. “It is difficult to say that it is a griffin.” A colour photograph in ‘The Wreck of the Griffon’ shows both the figurehead and a superimposed figure of a 17th century carving of a griffin. The superimposed image on the figurehead certainly seems to match up with the griffin, but before the superimposed overlay is seen, an untrained eye might say the figurehead somewhat resembles a Labrador retriever, albeit one with a significant underbite.

Mr. Kohl said he was concerned about attempts to clean the crustaceous buildup from the wood. “The zebra mussel excretes a very caustic substance and they have this filament that they extrude as well,” he said. “Any attempt to just remove the zebra mussel shells would severely damage the wood.”

Bringing up the figurehead is also a very problematic endeavour, as there is “quite a lot of paperwork” involved in recovering artifacts from a shipwreck in the Great Lakes. Add to that the possibility of the vessel being the Griffon, which would make it a French military vessel and thus still the property of that nation, and you have quite a quandary for the would-be discoverers.

Future dives will likely determine the veracity of the claim, but Mr. Kohl said that he still believes the most likely candidate for the wreck of the Griffon is that discovered on the southern shores of Manitoulin Island, just a few miles from a treacherous magnetic reef south of Cockburn Island.

Long a subject of local lore and backed up with some convincing historical archival work and artifacts, including 16th century coins and several bodies, the Mississagi Straits wreck, which local Native oral tradition had named “the whiteman’s ship,” remains a strong candidate.

Unfortunately, the book remains unfinished, said Mr. Kohl of his seminal work on the Griffon. “It will remain so until the mystery is finally solved.”

A Great Lakes explorer with a lot of Griffon cred has to be Steve Libert, whose eight-year long battle with the State of Michigan for permits to dive on a site near Green Bay he believes is the last resting place of the Griffon, proves just how arduous the search can be.

Mr. Libert has researched the final days of La Salle’s vessel from original sources and his search has been based on that research. He wasn’t happy about some of the media coverage of the Michigan divers’ claims, particularly as some news outlets used video footage from his own company, Great Lakes Exploration, as part of their reportage.

The overlaid image of the griffin carving is also problematic for Mr. Libert. “I told them when they contacted me that you could overlay a picture of a diver’s helmet on the artifact and it would look like that,” he said.

The original Griffon would not have sported a griffin image as a figurehead, said Mr. Libert, who cites the original source documents describing the vessel. “The only thing on the front of the ship was a carved image of a raven,” he said.

The mystery of the fate of Le Griffon remains one of the most sought after grails of diving on the Great Lakes.

Mr. Kohl said that he hoped that now that one of the Franklin expedition ships had been found, Parks Canada might be induced to survey the magnetic reef south of Cockburn Island where the Manitoulin claim to the Griffon’s resting place might be.

“Nobody has found the smoking gun,” said Mr. Kohl. “That would be a cannon.”

The Griffon would have sported a number of small (four-foot long) cannon as part of its complement. Finding one of those cannon would definitively prove the identity of the wreck.

Mr. Kohl believes that the Griffon might have come to grief on the reef south of Cockburn Island and split in two. His theory is that some of the crew managed to cling to the other half of the ship and washed up on Manitoulin’s shores. “There might have been six men who were washed ashore, four of them perhaps dead,” he said. Mr. Kohl suggests the surviving two sailors might have buried the four dead, laying them out carefully in a local cave (as was discovered in 1927). The other two then perished from hunger or exposure in another cave nearby.

Details on the story of the Griffon can be found in ‘The Wreck of the Griffon’ on sale in the bookstore at The Expositor office in Little Current.