Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Michigan's "Mystery Ship" might soon be a mystery no more

In June, members of the Great Lakes Exploration Group thought they had found the "Holy Grail" of Midwestern shipwrecks. The Griffin (Le Griffon in its native French), the first full-size sailing ship to ply the Great Lakes, went missing under unknown circumstances in 1679. Since then, it has become a sought-after "find" for amateur and professional archaeologists throughout the world. After extensive research, the Great Lakes Exploration Group believed it had found a potential site for The Griffin's final resting place--a location near Poverty Island, situated off the coast of Delta County in northern Lake Michigan. The group searched the site and found, embedded in the bottom of the lake, a wooden beam that may have once been the bowsprit of a ship.

The researchers were off to a promising start, but their luck wouldn't last. After their initial discovery, group members found no other potential wreckage. They also learned that the sound wave scans they had used to select their search site had directed them not to a shipwreck, but to a mass of mussels and sediment that was roughly the same size as The Griffin's rumored wreckage. Group members remained undeterred, however, and planned to continue their search, joining a flood of other researchers who, throughout the past few centuries, have made it their goal to find the Great Lakes' most elusive shipwreck.

The Griffin

The Griffin has remained an enigma for over three hundred years, ever since it disappeared during the "return" portion of its maiden voyage from the Niagara River to Green Bay in September 1679. French fur trader Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, was using the ship to locate a rumored passage leading from the New World (i.e., North America) to markets in China and Japan. The Griffin's aura of mystery extends to its appearance; no one knows exactly what the ship looked like, though many scholars believe that it was probably 30 to 40 feet long, and that it had a single mast (though its woodcut, shown above, portrays The Griffin as having multiple masts). We do know it contained seven cannons, and featured on its bow a griffin, a mythical creature that was part lion, part eagle.

The Griffin started its first--and last--journey in the Niagara River. It then sailed through Lakes Erie, Huron, and Michigan, becoming the first vessel larger than a canoe to travel these bodies of water. The ship encountered various trials throughout its journey, including a wicked storm that it weathered shortly after leaving the safety of Saginaw Bay, in Michigan's "Thumb" area. Ultimately, The Griffin reached Green Bay in one piece, and La Salle disembarked so that he could explore Lake Michigan. He instructed crew members to return to the Niagara River, stopping first at Mackinac Island to drop off merchandise. When it left Green Bay, The Griffin contained a small fortune in furs, as well as material for another boat that La Salle planned to build as part of his effort to locate the Northwest Passage.

After leaving Green Bay, The Griffin simply...disappeared. No one ever heard from its crew, and no confirmed wreckage has ever been found. Theories abound as to its fate. Some scholars believe a storm destroyed the ship, or that it was attacked by fur traders, Native Americans, or Jesuits (yes, Jesuits). La Salle himself believed that the ship's crew sank The Griffin after making off with its cargo.

Just as mysterious is The Griffin's current location. In addition to the Poverty Island site, searchers have proposed that the ship's remains lie off the coast of Escanaba, or at the western end of Manitoulin Island, in the Canadian portion of Lake Huron. The Griffin's mysterious demise has, perhaps not unexpectedly, produced a series of ghost stories that claim its specter haunts the Great Lakes. However, regardless of whether The Griffin has found its resting place on the bottom of a Great Lake, is sailing the inland seas as a ghostly presence, or has simply floated off to that great harbor in the sky, the members of the Great Lakes Exploration Group, as well as other researchers, are working to uncover the mysteries it has kept hidden for more than three hundred years.

For more information:

Great Lakes Exploration Group website

No comments:

Post a Comment