Legal fight over shipwreck rests with the French

By Ed White
May 11, 2005 - The Grand Rapids Press

GRAND RAPIDS -- A man who believes he may have discovered the wreck of the first European trade ship on Lake Michigan is getting support from France as he seeks salvage rights to the Griffin, a vessel that disappeared in 1679, a lawyer said.

Steve Libert's Great Lakes Exploration Group is engaged in what could be a long legal fight with the state of Michigan over possession of the site. But he likely will get a boost with France's interest in the case.

"If it's a French vessel, the French have a right to determine the recovery. France wants us to go forward," Great Lakes Exploration attorney Richard Robol told a federal judge Tuesday.

Robol presented an e-mail from the U.S. State Department. It quoted a French diplomat as saying there was an "unequivocal naval connection" between the explorer, Robert de La Salle, and King Louis XIV, and France retains ownership to the Griffin.

Michigan typically has authority over abandoned ships at the bottom of the Great Lakes on its borders. But under law, France's rights could trump all.

No one is touching the site yet. Great Lakes Exploration is not even certain about the ship's identity, but the probability it is the Griffin is "higher than 50 percent," Robol said. Fearing the site could be looted, the group only says the wreck is between Escanaba and the St. Martin Islands, near Wisconsin.

U.S. Chief District Judge Robert Holmes Bell told Robol to get more details to state scientists within two weeks. The state then will check the site and report back in July.

Bell did not rule on Great Lakes Exploration's request to become custodian of the site. Michigan Assistant Attorney General James Piggush said a piece of wood at the bottom of the lake is "more likely a barn timber," not part of a ship. Robol said identification would be "difficult" and would occur only if the judge granted access to the site, less than 150 feet deep.

"Everything points to the Griffin, based on the location and markings," he said. "If it isn't, France isn't interested. My client isn't interested."

The Griffin was believed to have carried furs.

"The only riches on it would be riches of the mind," Robol said outside court. "I don't believe anyone believes there's treasure."

LaSalle's other ship, La Belle, was discovered off the Texas coast in the mid-1990s. With approval from France, state archaeologists recovered nearly 1 million artifacts, from human bones to muskets.

© 2005 Grand Rapids Press. All rights reserved. Used with permission.