TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) - As a teenager, Steve Libert was mesmerized by a
teacher’s stories of the brash 17th Century French explorer La Salle, who
journeyed across the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi in a quest for a
trade route to the Far East that he hoped would bring riches and renown.
Particularly intriguing was the tale of the Griffin, a vessel that La Salle
built and sailed from Niagara Falls to the shores of present-day Wisconsin
before sending it back for more supplies. It departed with a crew of six and
a cargo of furs in September 1679 - and was never seen again. Although
widely considered the first wreck of a European-type ship in the upper Great
Lakes, its fate has never been documented nor its gravesite found.
After nearly three decades of research, dives and legal tussles, Libert
believes he is about to solve the mystery.
Beginning this weekend, he will lead a diving expedition to an underwater
site in northern Lake Michigan, where archaeologists and technicians will
try to determine whether a timber jutting from the bottom and other items
beneath layers of sediment are what remain of the legendary Griffin.
“I’m numb from the excitement,” said Libert, 59, a burly ex-football player
who talks passionately of his mission and whose flair for adventure bears
some resemblance to La Salle’s. Raised primarily in Dayton, Ohio, home of
the Wright Brothers, he learned to fly before making underwater exploration
The just-retired intelligence analyst with the U.S. Department of Defense
has a passion for maritime mysteries and has journeyed from Okinawa to the
Florida Keys for diving expeditions. A biography posted on his website says
he’s advised searches for the Titanic, five Navy torpedo bombers lost in the
Bermuda Triangle during World War II, and John Paul Jones’ warship Bon Homme
Richard, among others.
But his biggest goal is finding the Griffin. “It’s the Holy Grail for the
Great Lakes; it’s No. 1 on the list,” said Libert, who has homes in the
Washington, D.C., area and Charlevoix, Mich.
It carried no gold or other treasure; its value is historic and cultural.
“Just to know where she went and where she is would be of great interest,”
said Matthew Daley, a Grand Valley State University history professor and
maritime researcher. “If we’re lucky, it also could open a window into an
era that we know very little about.”
The fabled explorer, whose full name was Rene Robert Cavelier de la Salle,
secured a grant from King Louis XIV of France to explore the American
continent, build forts and seek the reputed passage to China and Japan. His
team constructed the Griffin on the Niagara River a few miles from the
falls, naming it for the mythological figure with the head and wings of an
eagle and the body of a lion. Although small by modern standards - an
estimated 50 feet long and 13 feet wide - it was an impressive sight on the
inland seas, with its three masts, square sails and two cannons.
The vessel traversed Lakes Erie and Huron, then headed west on Lake
Michigan, eventually stopping at Washington Island near the entrance to
Green Bay. La Salle continued south by canoe while the Griffin prepared to
retrace its journey. Father Louis Hennepin, a Catholic missionary who
accompanied La Salle, wrote that the ship fired a farewell cannon blast as
it glided into open water.
Among theories about its demise: It succumbed to a fierce storm; Native
Americans attacked and burned the ship; mutinous crewmen scuttled it and
stole the furs. Libert, who says he spent years scouring the area and
studying the writings of La Salle and Hennepin, is convinced it traveled
only a short distance before sinking in a gale.
His big break came in October 2001. While scuba diving near tiny Poverty
Island in murky Michigan waters, he smacked into a timber sticking nearly 11
feet out of the lake bed. It looked like part of a ship, with a tapered end
and fastening pegs. Carbon testing of small samples indicated it could date
to the Griffin time period but wasn’t conclusive.
Libert says the water depth is less than 100 feet in the area but won’t
divulge the precise location, saying other divers could loot or damage the
Sonar surveys over the next decade suggested objects were buried in nearby
sediments. But determining whether this was actually a shipwreck would
A legal dispute slowed things. State officials said all shipwrecks in
Michigan’s Great Lakes waters were government property. France later
submitted a claim.
An agreement reached three years ago acknowledged France’s ownership but
gave Libert’s Great Lakes Exploration Group permission to continue
inspecting the site. Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources granted
permits this month for digging a few shallow pits to reveal clues.
Cannons with Louis XIV’s insignia would be dead giveaways. But even without
such conclusive evidence, the team hopes to find ornamental beads, knives,
cooking pots or similar items that French vessels of that period likely
would have carried, said archaeologist Misty Jackson, one of several
scientists and technicians joining the mission.
If Libert’s team identifies the Griffin during his self-financed expedition,
he’ll negotiate with the two governments over what to do next. He’d like the
wreckage to be put on public display. But that would require careful
planning to prevent the wood from corroding after being preserved in chilly
water for more than 330 years, said Sandra Clarke, director of the Michigan
The agreement calls for Great Lakes Exploration Group to have exclusive
rights to photos, video footage, field notes and other intellectual property
from the mission for a limited period. They could use the material for
books, movies and other moneymaking ventures.
Some remain skeptical that Libert has discovered the Griffin or that it
remains intact. Ronald Mason, a professor emeritus in anthropology at
Lawrence University in Wisconsin, said previous claims came up empty.
“I just cannot see a wooden framed sailing vessel keeping together for a
prolonged period of time, given the increasing and decreasing pressures and
movement of currents in fairly shallow water,” he said. “I wish them good
luck. I wouldn’t want to bet money on their chances.”
Libert said he’s done his homework and believes he’ll be proved right.
“It’s a little scary after all these years,” he acknowledged. “I’ve dreamed
about this being the Griffin so much. After all the research, time, money
we’ve spent ... it’d be the greatest disappointment if this is not it. But
even if it isn’t, we’ve opened up doors for educational opportunities, we’ve
encouraged underwater tourism. And I’ll find the Griffin one day.”