By Dan Egan
July 26, 2004 - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Treasure hunter Steve Libert has spent much of the past three decades scouring the bottom of Lake Michigan for stockpiles of lost gold.
He's never found so much as a nugget, but now the 50-year-old is hinting that he might have struck upon something some would see as far more precious - the lost Griffin, the first European ship to sail the Great Lakes, and the first to sink.
Researchers are dubious that the fabled vessel from the 17th century has finally been found.
"It's possible, but I'd be very surprised," said Ron Mason, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Lawrence University. "If it sank into very shallow water, then it was probably broken up by wave action. If it sank into deeper water, then there would be a good chance of preservation, but it would be very hard to find."
The Griffin, built by French explorer Robert La Salle, was last spotted in September 1679 off the tip of the Door Peninsula. Loaded down with furs, it was bound for the eastern Great Lakes but was never seen again.
The theory is that it was lost somewhere between what is now Wisconsin's Rock Island State Park and the Straits of Mackinac.
Libert, who lives in Virginia but scuba dives extensively in Lake Michigan, evidently thinks he knows exactly where it was lost, but he isn't offering specifics. In fact, in a lawsuit filed last month in federal district court in western Michigan to get salvage rights to the ship, he gives only a dim description of its location, and won't even name the vessel.
He said he won't give away the location for obvious reasons. But he is vague in explaining why he won't reveal the name of the vessel he believes he may have found, saying only that it has something to do with the pending litigation.
Michigan state archaeologist John Halsey said it's obvious Libert believes he has found the Griffin, given the description of the vessel contained in the lawsuit.
"How many other vessels can you think of that would be under the control of a foreign monarch and have that kind of historical value?" he asked.
But Halsey said so far there is scant evidence that what Libert found is the Griffin.
"You've got a small portion (of wood) that may be be a portion of a ship sticking out of the lake bottom, and that's what he's running with," he said.
Halsey said he has no doubts the Griffin rests somewhere at the bottom of the lake, but perhaps in nothing close to a ship's shape.
"Somewhere in Lake Michigan (or) Huron the Griffin must be. But whether it's in anything like the shape of a ship, it's up to question . . . it's sort of an act of faith to assume somewhere out there is something that looks like a ship that is the Griffin."
Libert said he had some slivers of the wreck carbon dated, and the age range for the wood shows it dates between 1640 and 1780.
Mason, who has done extensive research into La Salle's activity in the region, said one telltale sign of the Griffin is that it carried two brass cannons.
Libert won't describe the materials he has located, but says, "put it this way, it definitely belongs to a ship."
Ship is not even a word that people today likely would use to describe the Griffin.
Historian George Irving Quimby wrote in 1966 that records from the time of its construction indicate it was a sailboat no more than 40 feet long - scarcely a worthy life raft aboard some of today's 1,000-foot Great Lakes freighters.
"It wasn't terribly big by our standards, but it was a monster to the Indians who saw it," Mason said.
The Griffin, constructed in late winter and spring of 1679 just above Niagara Falls, was designed to haul trading goods to American Indians in the western Great Lakes in exchange for furs, according to Quimby.
It sank on its first return trip from the upper lakes.
Mason said La Salle and his crew arrived at Rock Island on its maiden voyage. There, most of the men, including La Salle, departed the ship and headed south on Lake Michigan by canoe.
The Griffin, loaded with furs for the return trip, departed for the east from Rock Island with a skeleton crew. It was never seen again.
Mason said the ship most surely sank before the Straits of Mackinac, where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet.
"There was already some French people at the straits and had the Griffin passed there, it seems likely to me we would have some record of that," he said. "My guess is the vessel went down somewhere in northern Lake Michigan, and it probably went down in the terrible storm that hit the area in late September of 1679."
That storm was recorded in the journal of one of the members of the La Salle canoe party headed down the Lake Michigan shoreline.
Mason said the Griffin would be valuable to researchers today because it likely carried things like the everyday tools and utensils the French explorers were using at the time.
"Depending on the preservation, it would be very interesting to see exactly how the vessel was built. We don't have any examples of that period in the Great Lakes," he said.
But we do have other examples of vessels sailed by La Salle, who ventured south after he lost the Griffin.
In the 1680s he led an expedition to the Gulf of Mexico to search for the mouth of the Mississippi River. He spent about two years wandering the Gulf Coast before his men mutinied and executed him.
One of his ships from that expedition, the La Belle, was recovered by researchers in the mid-1990s. The excavation lasted nearly a year and yielded a trove of artifacts, including the ship's hull, three cannons, pottery and skeletal remains, according to the Texas Historical Commission.
The ownership of such artifacts can be tricky business. In fact, it wasn't until last year that the U.S. State Department announced that a formal agreement on the La Belle artifacts had been signed between France and the United States.
The agreement cited France's claim to the ship but gave Texas the artifacts on a long-term loan.
Libert figures he is in for a fight, if it turns out he has landed the Griffin.
"Whatever country it belongs to, I guarantee you they probably will want to raise it," he said.
That likely won't happen any time soon. Libert noted that the judge failed to agree to his request to be granted "custodian" of the vessel, saying he needed more information.
Libert said he has not decided how to respond to the court's need for more specifics "without jeopardizing the whole operation."