CLAIM TO HISTORY: Has explorer found ship sunk in 1679?

By Ed White
July 08, 2004 - The Grand Rapids Press

A Virginia man who for years tried to get permission to search for gold in northern Lake Michigan said he is back with the story of another shipwreck, one that could be among the "most significant archeological finds" in U.S. history.

Steve Libert won't divulge the ship's identity or the exact location in Lake Michigan. But state archeologist John Halsey has an idea, based on the scant details filed in federal court in Grand Rapids.

"There is something sticking out of the bottom that he thinks is the Griffin," said Halsey, who has briefly talked to Libert. "I don't think it's possible to know without more discovery."

Historians consider the Griffin to be the first European trade ship to sail lakes Huron and Michigan. It was built for French explorer Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle in 1679 but disappeared that same year, probably in a storm, loaded with furs and bound for Lake Erie.

"I'm not going to say what it is," said Liber, of Great Lakes Exploration Group, based in Ohio. "If I did, everyone would jump out of the woodwork. ... They'll find the ship and tear it apart."

He may have no choice but to divulge more. Great Lakes Exploration has filed a lawsuit seeking to be declared the exclusive owner of the shipwreck. In the short term, it wants to be named custodian.

A judge, however, rejected that request, for now, saying he needs more information.

Great Lakes Exploration "fails to give any identifying information" about the ship, aside from disclosing latitude and longitude coordinates in a large area, U.S. Chief District Judge Robert Holmes Bell said.

Based on the coordinates, the shipwreck is in northern Lake Michigan, somewhere between Escanaba and the St. Martin Islands, near Wisconsin.

"The vessel was owned by a foreign research expedition operating with the authority of ... a foreign sovereign until it became wrecked, lost and abandoned," Great Lakes Exploration said in court documents.

The group said it has "invested substantial time, money and effort" finding the ship and researching its history.

Libert, an experienced diver, said he removed a tiny piece to determine age.

"It's taken me 30 years to locate this," he said. "I last saw it two weeks ago. We're not 100 percent sure, but, so far, all the scientific data is supporting what we think it is."

Halsey has seen only "grainy" underwater videotape. He said he wants the state's maritime archeologist to go to the site.

"You don't have to have a doctorate degree to know how many vessels were under a foreign sovereign on the Great Lakes," Halsey said. "If it turned out to be the Griffin, it would be the preeminent vessel in the Great Lakes.

"But you don't know what's left; sometimes there are just bits and pieces," he said. "Where exactly it was lost is also a real mystery. Back then, you didn't have a whole lot of people watching for it."

And even if it is the Griffin, Libert's group still would have a difficult time gaining control, Halsey predicted.

Michigan typically has authority over abandoned ships on the bottom of the Great Lakes. But the French government could trump everyone if this is the Griffin, he said.

"Unless the French give their blessing, it can't be salvaged," Halsey said.

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

This is not Libert's first visit to federal court. He and partners spent years trying to salvage rights to the Captain Lawrence, a ship ravaged by storm off the Upper Peninsula in 1933.

They believed it went down just after the skipper recovered a chest of gold dating back to the War of 1812.

The state, however, said the ship was abandoned by its owner and must remain untouched. Federal courts agreed.

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