Saturday, June 15, 2019

The ill-fated ship of an ill-fated explorer of the Illinois Country, reportedly found in Lake Michigan.

In the 17th century, Europeans came to what they called the 'New World' and started divvying it up and parceling it out under the rubric of ‘exploration’. One particularly Frenchman was explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (Sieur de La Salle is a title only: translating to "Lord of the manor") from a middle-class family. He built a ship named the 'Le Griffon' (first ship built in America), sometimes spelled Griffin, launched on August 3, 1679, to explore Lake Michigan and Mississippi River in search of a western passage to China, but the Griffon was lost the same year.
The Le Griffon.
When La Salle (1643-1687) first came to New France (Canada) in 1666, he landed in Montreal, where the St. Sulpice Seminary was located. The priests were 'granting' their land to settlers upon easy terms. But La Salle was more fortunate than the ordinary settler because Gabriel Thubières de Levy de Queylus, superior of the seminary (a Sulpician priest from France who was a significant leader in the development of New France), made him a gratuitous grant of a large tract of land at a place subsequently named 'Lachine', a settlement was located southwest of Montreal, above the great rapids of that name, and about nine miles north of Montreal (founded in 1642), just at the foot of what has since been called Lake Saint-Louis (Québec, Canada).

Some Iroquois Indians told La Salle of a great river, which they called the Ohio River (which turns out to be the Mississippi River), far to the west, which La Salle thought must flow into the Gulf of California, and would thus give him the western passage to China he was seeking.

He ran out of money and sold some of his lands to make the journey to the western Great Lakes, where he spent some time. He later journeyed east again and returned to France in 1674, where King Louis XIV (b. Louis Dieudonné), known as 'Louis the Great' or 'The Sun King' granted him Fort Frontenac where the St. Lawrence River leaves Lake Ontario.
Fort Frontenac at Cataraqui (the original townsite of what is now downtown Kingston, Ontario), 1685.
The entire area, for thousands of miles around, on the American continent and in the Caribbean, had been the territory of the indigenous people prior to the arrival of Europeans.

La Salle went to Lake Erie in January of 1679 and began building his ship, the Griffon. While the ship was under construction, Seneca Indians planned to burn it. La Salle thwarted the plan, having received intelligence from an Indian woman. He launched the ship and began a journey across the Great Lakes from New York to Lake Michigan.
The routes of La Salle's expeditions; the exact course of some portion of his travels is unknown.
When La Salle arrived, later in 1679, at what is now Wisconsin, he decided to turn his ship and the furs aboard it over to the six crewmen, with the idea that they’d return to Frontenac to satisfy his creditors (as a Jesuit, La Salle was denied his inheritance by French law). He left the ship and men at Washington Island at the north end of the peninsula between Green Bay and Lake Michigan. LaSalle intended to visit the Illiniwek tribe.

The Griffon set sail for Niagara on September 18th. A favorable wind bore her from the harbor, and with a single gun, she bade adieu to her enterprising builder, who never saw her again. She carried a cargo, valued with the vessel at fifty or sixty thousand francs (in furs pelts), obtained at great sacrifice of time and treasure. She was placed under the command of the pilot, Luc, assisted by five good sailors, with directions to call at Mickili-Mackinac, and from there proceed to the Niagara. Nothing more was heard of the Griffon.

It’s unknown if the ship sank or was burned by Indians, the Jesuits, fur traders, or how she was actually lost. La Salle thought Luc and the crew sunk the Griffon.

After leaving the Griffon, La Salle went south to Louisiana on the Mississippi River. He later returned to France and then came back to Louisiana in 1682 on four ships with 228 colonists and claimed Louisiana. The text that follows is a translation of his proclamation, which utterly denies any ownership by the people whose ancestors lived there for millennia before the French arrived.
I, René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle, by virtue of His Majesty’s commission, which I hold in my hands, and which may be seen by all whom it may concern, have taken and do now take, in the name of His Majesty and of his successors to the crown, possession of the country of Louisiana, the seas, harbours, ports, bays, adjacent straits, and all the nations, peoples, provinces, cities, towns, villages, mines, minerals, fisheries, streams and rivers, within the extent of the said Louisana.
By February 1687, the 228 recruits were reduced to 36 people by sickness, shortage of supplies and clean water and desertion. An article at the Canadian Museum of History website describes La Salle as “bad-tempered, haughty and harsh,” adding that “he alienated even those who had remained faithful to him to the end.” In what is now Texas, one of his party shot him at point-blank range, killing him. “It was the nineteenth of March, 1687. Three of his companions had been murdered just before him. The conspirators who committed the murders then set about killing one another,” the article says.

La Salle founded a settlement, near the bay which they called the 'Bay of Saint Louis' (St. Louis Bay is northeast of the Gulf of Mexico along the southwestern coast of Mississippi), on Garcitas Creek in the vicinity of present-day Victoria, Texas. By February of 1687, the 228 recruits were reduced to 36 people by sickness, shortage of supplies and clean water and desertion. La Salle is described as bad-tempered, haughty and harsh. He alienated even those who had remained faithful to him to the end. Some of La Salle's remaining 36 men mutinied, and on March 19, 1687, La Salle was shot him at point-blank range by Pierre Duhaut during an ambush while talking to Duhaut's decoy, Jean L'Archevêque. Duhaut was killed to avenge La Salle. The remaining men in the party, afraid of retribution, killed each other, except for two. The settlement lasted only until 1688 when Karankawa-speaking Indians killed the 20 remaining adults and took five children as captives. Henri de Tonti sent out search missions in 1689 when he learned of the settlers' fate but failed to find survivors. The children of the colony were later recovered by the Spanish.

In 2006, Steve Libert of Muskegon, Michigan, announced that he thought he had located the Griffon.

In 2011, Frederick Monroe and Kevin Dykstra of Michigan seeking the treasure of $2 million in gold bullion," which legend says fell off a ferry in rough waters in the 1800s and sank. They located a shipwreck in northern Lake Michigan. Announcing their find in December 2014, they speculated the ship was the Griffon but agreed more information was needed before it could be verified.
The shipwreck in Lake Michigan, which is claimed to be the Griffon.
“Other experts aren't convinced that the wreck is the Griffon. Rather, it may be the remnants of a tugboat that was scrapped after ‘steam engines became more economical to operate,’ said Brendon Baillod, a Great Lakes historian who has written scholarly papers on the Griffon,” according to LiveScience Magazine.

A mass on the shipwreck’s bow, which Monroe and Dykstra thought might be the Griffon's figurehead, was probably zebra mussels, an exotic shellfish that has no natural predators in the Great Lakes and amass in huge numbers on any available surface.

Some 1,500 shipwrecks have been found in the Great Lakes. The Griffon is believed to be the first European-type ship to sail the Great Lakes.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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