Steve Libert had already violated the cardinal rule of scuba diving by losing track of his time on the lake bottom; now his fifth oxygen tank of the day was dangerously close to empty.
His face felt bloated and hot. He recognized the symptoms of nitrogen buildup in his bloodstream, but a storm was closing in. He pressed on, fueled by adrenaline. He was in the last few minutes of the last dive of the season, all alone in the bone-chilling October waters of northern Lake Michigan.
This was the 21st consecutive summer that Libert had spent looking for the 300-year-old remains of le Griffon, the first European ship known to ply the waters of the upper Great Lakes. Each year, he’d travel 18 hours each way from his home in Northern Virginia, spending thousands of dollars on gear and countless hours underwater. A few risky minutes weren’t going to stop him now.
“Lo and behold, on that day in October 2001, bam! Bumped into something,” Libert says. But his air tank had run out and he was forced to surface. At the boat, he asked for a fresh one to go back for another look. “One of my partners looked at me and said, ‘Steve, you can’t go back there,’” Libert says. In retrospect, he acknowledges, the additional dive time would have jeopardized his safety.
The team noted the GPS coordinates near Poverty Island, Michigan, and returned to the shore of the state’s Upper Peninsula. The following summer, Libert retraced his steps to find the massive hunk of debris that had caused him to risk everything: An oak timber that appeared to be protruding 10 feet from the soft sediment of the lake bottom.
Since its disappearance in 1679, the Griffon has taken on a mythic air. Widely considered the Holy Grail of undiscovered Great Lakes shipwrecks, the Griffon carried no treasure, nor anything else that may have retained its value after several centuries underwater. All the wreck offers is a brush with history—and the chance for its discoverer to link their name with that of a legendary explorer.
Shipwreck hunters joke that the Griffon is the most searched for and the most found ship in the Great Lakes—meaning there have been countless false alarms. Wayne Lusardi, a maritime archaeologist for the state of Michigan, has investigated at least 17 Griffon claims since 2002. Only two were actual ships. “I’ve looked at telephone poles, pieces of people’s barns that have washed up on the beach, piles of rocks, things like that,” Lusardi says.
Each new claim inspires a flurry of breathless headlines, but decades of dead ends have made the local shipwreck community wary. So far, the doubters have been right every time. The state’s official position is that no evidence of the Griffon has been found to date.
The cold, fresh water of the Great Lakes is kind to shipwrecks, and the 337-year-old wreckage could theoretically be found almost entirely intact. Each year, the lakes’ eerily preserved wrecks attract thousands of divers, tourists, researchers, and history buffs. Of those, only an elite handful are dead-set on finding the Griffon, but everyone knows the story.
Like any good ghost ship, the tale is steeped in fame, fortune, and intrigue. For the explorer Robert de La Salle (full name: René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle), who staked his wealth and reputation on the ship’s cargo, the disappearance was part of a chain of misfortunes that would eventually claim his life.
On January 26, 1679, Robert de La Salle drove the first bolt into the keel of what would become the Griffon, a barque longue of 30-50 feet. He planned to sail to the western shores of Lake Michigan, where he would hopefully collect enough furs to assuage his debtors while establishing a French presence in the region.
The Griffon set sail from Niagara on August 7 of that year. The crew launched earlier than planned to avert sabotage, then faced a hard slog through the shallow St. Clair River and a near-fatal storm on Lake Huron. Despite all this, La Salle arrived at the mouth of Green Bay almost a month after his initial departure: September 2, 1679. Some of his men had gone ahead via canoe to barter for furs, and awaited him onshore. Sixteen days later, the Griffon re-embarked for Niagara without La Salle aboard.
What happened next is lost to history.
La Salle continued exploring the continent’s interior, but the Griffon was never far from his mind. He began to worry about the ship’s safety after months passed without word from his crew. Neighboring tribes reported seeing the boat sail into a violent storm, then finding a hatch cover, spoiled pelts, and other apparent wreckage the following spring.
La Salle would eventually come to believe something more sinister. In a letter from 1683, he reported hearing strange rumors: A nearby village had been visited by a neighboring tribe. They had brought captive Frenchmen carrying pelts and explosives—both of which the Griffon had been carrying. One of the men may have matched the description of the ship’s pilot, a man most records refer to as Luc the Dane. Luc, La Salle decided, must have sabotaged the ship to sell the furs himself.
Until his death in 1687, La Salle believed his crew had betrayed him.
It was three hand-hewn pegs in the beam that first made Libert suspect he’d finally solved one of the biggest mysteries of the Great Lakes. Given the wood’s shape, apparent age, and location, he concluded the beam was the Griffon’s bowsprit, used to maneuver the sails. And so he returned year after year in search of proof of the Griffon. Fifteen years later, it remains just out of reach.
In 2013, Libert permanently moved to Michigan after retiring from a career as a Washington, D.C.-based intelligence analyst. The home he shares there with his wife, Kathie, doubles as the headquarters of Great Lakes Exploration Group, the company Libert founded to identify, protect, and preserve the timber.
“In a way, it is a treasure hunt,” Libert says of his 36-year quest. “The ship itself is the treasure. It’s the ship itself and the voyage that it made and what it means to the United States.”
La Salle, after all, is the man who discovered the mouth of the Mississippi and named the Louisiana Territory. The Griffon would have tremendous historical value, but it’s the search itself that drives Libert. “Every time I go in the water, it’s just extremely exciting,” Libert says. “You’re reaching, and you’re hoping, ‘If I bump into something, is it the ship?’”
The document Libert says led him to the area is a closely guarded secret, but he stands by the conclusions he’s drawn from it. “There’s just no other place in the Great Lakes that fits that description,” he says. He spends his winters examining maps and firsthand accounts of La Salle’s expeditions, carefully considering translations of early modern French and local tribal languages and counting distances by archaic nautical units. He obsesses over details many amateur historians might find tedious.
On the other hand, diving is expensive. Outfitting each diver for the frigid lake costs Libert thousands of dollars—and even then, a crucial clue on the lake bottom may as well be a needle in a haystack. Libert spent eight years diving the same patch of lake around Poverty Island before he bumped into the timber.
“We can’t get a date on it, but we know it’s old by certain things like erosion marks and the construction of it and the types of wood that it is,” he says. “You can look at the dimensions, the shape… Is it comparable to the size and the shape that the Griffon would’ve had? Yes.”
Valerie van Heest, director of the nonprofit Michigan Shipwreck Research Association, disagrees. Like Libert, she’s been diving the Great Lakes for 40 years.
Van Heest and other skeptics say what Libert believes is a bowsprit is actually an old fishing implement called a pound net stake. She holds up two photos: the first of a pound net stake; the other, an underwater shot of Libert’s timber. “It was like a four-posted device with a net in between it, designed to catch fish,” she explains, then rhetorically adds: “What does that stick in the pegs look like?”
She talks about Libert carefully—diplomatically, but with sympathy for his passion. “I think he truly believes that the piece of wood he’s found was at some point connected to the Griffon,” she says, “but I think his dream has taken him in a direction that’s not real.”
In reality, the Griffon was found and destroyed decades ago, she says, reaching for a slim paperback written by the shipwreck hunters Joan Forsberg and Cris Kohl.
Forsberg and Kohl have collaborated on five books on the underwater graveyards of the Great Lakes. Their latest, The Wreck of the Griffon, is a historical account detailing 22 Griffon claims, including Libert’s timber. Their research has guided them to a wreck documented more than a century ago, on the Canadian side of Lake Huron.
As Forsberg and Kohl tell it, the story goes something like this: In the late 1890s, a man named Albert Cullis, the keeper of the Mississagi Strait Lighthouse on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, discovered a watch chain entangled in the exposed roots of a tree. Underneath, buried in the soil, he then found three small metal tokens made of copper or brass, all supposedly marked with 17th-century dates.
After more searching, Cullis came across a cave with four skeletons and another nearby with an additional two. He reportedly also found more tokens and tools associated with life on a ship.
“There were six skeletons; six members of the crew that left on the Griffon on that fateful day,” Forsberg says. Legend has it that one of the skeletons had a massive skull. Forsberg says that La Salle’s pilot Luc was rumored to be nearly 7 feet tall.
Newspapers at the time reported that the artifacts, debris, and human remains were the last trace of the fabled ship and its crew. Decades passed, and then in the 1920s and 1930s, wealthy advocates sent a bolt from Cullis’s discovery for dating and analysis at the Louvre. The results were inconclusive.
Still, the bolt, Forsberg says, seems consistent with French shipbuilding methods before the 18th century. That doesn’t mean, of course, it was from the Griffon, and not everyone believes it was—but historians know of no other sailing ship, European or otherwise, having traveled the upper Great Lakes at that time.
Some skeptics argue that the bolt could be evidence of a previously unknown European ship from the same time period. Others say the wreck isn’t a sailing ship at all, but a more typical boat for the tribes of the region.
For Forsberg, it’s the pieces of lead caulking scattered near the bolt on the shore that tip the scales in favor of the lighthouse wreck. She and Kohl recently uncovered an order of lead made by La Salle in France, dated right before the Griffon’s construction.
For Forsberg and Kohl to be right, the Griffon would have had to have made it much farther than Poverty Island. They think the ship became incapacitated by a storm and was blown through the Straits of Mackinac, breaking apart on a reef six miles across the Mississagi Strait from the lighthouse. In this telling, pieces of the ship and six crewmembers then blew west. By the time the broken Griffon reached Manitoulin, four of the sailors were dead or dying. Their comrades laid their bodies out in the first cave before moving on, only to die in the second cave.
Manitoulin Island’s claim on the Griffon has all the hallmarks of great small town lore—but even those directly involved in preservation efforts aren’t necessarily believers.
“I like things to be exact,” says Nicole Weppler, curator of the Gore Bay Museum, which held some of the last shards of the wreck until last year. “In France, they have decided it is definitely not the Griffon,” she says, referring to the testing done in Paris 84 years ago.
Her archives include letters from 1956 in French and English that remain vague about a Griffon connection, as well as correspondence between some of the era’s most prominent Griffon hunters. She doesn’t doubt the wreck is historic, just that the pieces are from La Salle’s ship. “Imagine it’s a 17th-century vessel, not the Griffon,” she says. “That’s exciting by itself.”
Still, there are no records of any other ship from that time sailing those waters. “There is an actual ship that was on Manitoulin Island,” Forsberg says. “If it’s not the Griffon, whoa—what the heck is it?”
Rummaging through the trunk of his hatchback, Rich Gross pulls out a copy of Forsberg and Kohl’s book. “These books perpetuate rumors about the Griffon,” Gross says, and tosses it aside. He then grins, and tosses a 10-pound bison pelt at a reporter, followed immediately by another from a full-sized beaver. “This is what La Salle was after,” he says.
The furs are Gross’s way of demonstrating the physical and financial heft of the Griffon’s cargo. “The crown gave them no money,” he says, explaining that La Salle’s voyage was funded solely on the explorer’s fur trade. Today, Gross’s trunk also carries a weightiness: The furs nestle between seemingly endless boxes brimming with a lifetime of research.
Gross didn’t know Libert personally until 2001, when the timber showed up on the regional news circuit. Gross phoned Libert, and ever since he’s been moonlighting as Great Lakes Exploration’s resident historian—when he’s not teaching science at a suburban high school outside Chicago.
“I’m holding at least $100,000 worth of work in my hands right now,” he says, clutching a stack of spiral-bound reports from Great Lakes Exploration. In the reports are geographical surveys, journal articles, and photocopies of primary sources. Combined, the pair have been obsessively researching La Salle for 60-plus years.
From August 1976 to April 1977, a 19-year-old Gross helped reenact the explorer’s 3,300-mile journey from Montreal to the mouth of the Mississippi River. The group wore handmade clothing and built canoes, mimicking the finest details of the original expedition.
“I walked in the man’s footsteps,” Gross says. “What I learned was what was possible.” He leafs through the binders while listing off counterpoints to the Manitoulin hypothesis. First to go is Luc’s fabled, oversized skull. He flips to a letter from La Salle describing a short-legged, not gigantic, Luc. “Have you ever met a tall man with short legs?” Gross asks.
He also disputes that lead would’ve been used to seal the Griffon, or that its builders would have used iron bolts.
“There were bolts on the Manitoulin wreck that were 37 inches long, 1 3/16 inches in diameter, with massive, threaded ends and big, square nuts on them. My friends in France assure me that there were no threaded rods or bolts on any 17th-century ships,” he says, referring to a French archaeological team who have investigated their claim. Threaded bolts, according to Gross, weren’t used until the latter half of the 18th century. Every claim until now, he says, has been debunked—except the timber found off Poverty Island.
Back in the early 2000s, Libert thought the beam he’d found might be attached to the Griffon’s hull, buried under the lake sediment. Sonar had given him hope, revealing a faint signature that resembled a ship. He spent most of the next decade fighting for an excavation permit for the site. He estimates that the cost of the search, combined with the fight for the permit, have totaled well over $1 million.
He says the state is trying to keep him and other private citizens out of the discovery process. “They didn’t want us having any part to do with finding it,” Libert says. “They think academics and government should do it.” When the state of Michigan tried to block him he took the case to court, where it caught the attention of the French government. If the timber is La Salle’s ship, France legally owns the wreck. They not only supported Libert in the courtroom, but sent three government archaeologists to lead the excavation. Seven years later, Libert finally won a six-day excavation permit.
Dean Anderson, state archaeologist for Michigan, says Libert’s application was treated like any other. “We were simply going through the process,” he says, pointing out that the state approved the permit once the French archaeologists were in charge.
The excavation, Libert hoped, would justify his troubles, but the beam extended 9 feet into the lake bottom and stopped. There was nothing attached that might have hinted at a ship. “I do remember that day and I try to forget about it,” Libert says. “When we did the remote sensing, the signals hit the zebra mussels and showed a false positive.”
Libert suffered from congestive heart failure immediately after the 2013 excavation. He acknowledges the toll his search has taken on both his health and finances, but the biggest loss, he says, is less tangible: “My largest regret is not spending time with my wife.”
In 2014, the French team published a paper in the proceedings of the Advisory Council for Underwater Archaeology concluding that the beam’s size and shape is consistent with French bowsprits of La Salle’s era. Their report also says it would be rash to draw broader conclusions without more evidence.
“When we were younger, the first 15, 20 years of his diving, it was really fun,” says Libert’s wife, Kathie. “I enjoyed him coming home; listening to his stories.And then it started not to be fun anymore, when the legal part of it started to come into play.”
The Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 declares states have the right to archaeological wrecks found within their borders. The state’s mandate is to preserve shipwrecks and ensure responsible archaeological practices. Michigan requires that professionals do any tests or removal of artifacts. However, international conventions say that the Griffon’s home nation, France, would own any certified wreckage.
To confirm the beam’s identity, Libert needs state permission to sample the debris for testing. He unsuccessfully applied for dendrochronology permits in both 2013 and 2015. Anderson says the state was concerned about Libert’s proposed use of a manual saw and corers.
Rather than feel discouraged, Libert is certain he’s closer than ever. He now believes the beam was probably dislodged from the rest of the craft, which should be nearby. He spent the summer of 2016 searching for his ultimate prize, the Griffon’s hull.
The search came up empty, but he did learn a few things—the first of which is that because of a May solar storm, which can distort satellite and other electromagnetic signals, he spent some time searching the wrong section of lake. He also says he’s found some intriguing pieces of debris that he’d like to test, but his rejection by the state has made all but superficial observation impossible.
There are dozens of Griffon claims scattered from Lake Michigan to Lake Erie, but some scientists and historians think the wreck itself will always remain out of reach.
The ship should have some kind of confirming artifact, much like its sister ship, la Belle, which was found on the bottom of Matagorda Bay, Texas. La Belle was loaded with evidence: most convincingly, brass cannons marked with the leaping-dolphin sigil of La Salle’s patron, King Louis XIV. According to historical accounts, the Griffon sank with seven similar armaments on board.
Built in 1685, la Belle is a mirror image of the Griffon. The two ships were the same class, close to the same size, and carried hopes of the French Empire on board—but instead of the wilderness of Niagara, la Belle was built by professionals in France. La Salle brought la Belle and three more ships across the Atlantic loaded with settlers and supplies with the dream of founding a French colony on the Gulf of Mexico.
While La Salle left the ship to explore farther inland, la Belle ran into its own troubles and eventually sank, killing several crew members. A long string of losses wore on the struggling party. Eventually, La Salle’s men would lose patience. In March 1687, almost seven years after the disappearance of le Griffon and less than a year after the sinking of la Belle, they shot La Salle to death in a mutiny.
The Texas wreck enjoyed a moment in the spotlight after archaeologists pulled it from the bay in 1996. “Ships have a magnetism to them,” says Peter Fix, from a balcony overlooking la Belle’s reconstructed hull. Fix is part of a restoration team working on the la Belle exhibit at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. The exposure the Griffon has brought to maritime archaeology is great, he says, but adds that the academic community generally has not embraced Libert’s find.
“Archaeologically, I don’t think there’s enough information,” he says. “It’s just the one piece there and nothing else. It just doesn’t seem logical.” He and many of his colleagues believe Libert’s timber is a fish weir, a tool similar to a pound net stake.
On la Belle, a hammering process known as peening, not threaded bolts, secured the beams, but we know so little about the building of the Griffon that Fix can’t say for sure what the shipbuilders used. He will say that access to iron was probably limited, making wooden pegs a more likely choice. Libert says that these pegs are the wooden spikes protruding from his beam.
This key gap in the historical records—a total lack of construction details or plans for the ship—leaves the rivaling assertions of Libert, Gross, Forsberg, and Kohl unanswered.
Since 2013, Libert’s timber has been stored at a facility in Gaylord, Michigan. It’s kept in ideal conditions for preservation under the supervision of an unnamed archaeologist. “I usually go over once every couple months,” Libert says. Shortly after the excavation, Libert attempted to date the timber using tree rings and radioactive carbon isotopes. To avoid damaging the beam, he took it to the radiology department at Otsego Memorial Hospital in Gaylord, where he used a CT scanner to get an image of the beam’s growth rings. The scan was inconclusive.
Radiocarbon dating was also ambiguous. While the average date of all samples put the timber at 100-180 years old—far too young to be the Griffon—one did date to the 1600s.
In 2016, Libert collaborated with a 3D-imaging company to create a computer model of the timber. In one of his recent examinations, he found another clue—a figure carved into the wood resembling the letter D, or the Roman numeral for 500. He thinks it may be part of a date carved into the wood: MDCLXXIX would be the Roman numeral for 1679. La Belle, he says, is similarly dated. He’s sent photos to several researchers, none of whom have replied.
“Probably 99 percent of that wreck’s gonna be there,” Libert says. He’s already been hunting for decades and says he’ll keep hunting until he finds it. He’s very aware of what the shipwreck community is saying about his quest. “I don’t care what other people say—I really don’t,” Libert says. “I know, like Rich knows, my wife knows, my colleagues know, we’ve just got to find the hull of that ship.”
For now, the Griffon stays stranded somewhere between folklore and history. Everyone has proof and disproof; a thrust and a parry. Most hope that some small artifact of Griffon is still out there, waiting for the right diver. Of course, it’s also possible that the ship is simply gone, long ago weathered away on a beach or salvaged for scrap and souvenirs.
Libert can’t entertain that possibility. Summer 2016 was his 37th year searching for the Griffon, and he’s more hopeful than ever that the ship is right around the corner. He’s still talking to the French, finding new collaborators, and buying new remote sensing equipment for the next diving season. He’s got his timber safely tucked away. He’s got everything he needs, except the hull, the missing puzzle piece. He’s sure 2017 will be the year. It’s right around the corner.
Eunice Lee, Joanne Lee, Coral Lu, Lee Won Park, John Rosin, Alice Yin, and Jia You contributed to this story.