Team to excavate Griffin, Lake Michigan shipwreck

An organization that believes it has discovered the wreckage of the oldest known shipwreck in the Great Lakes has received a state permit to conduct a test excavation at the site in northern Lake Michigan, officials said Tuesday.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the state archaeologist's office approved a plan by Great Lakes Exploration Group, which hopes to identify the vessel as the Griffin, also known by the French equivalent Le Griffon. Legendary explorer Rene-Robert Sieur de La Salle built and commanded the ship on behalf of King Louis XIV.

During its maiden voyage in September 1679, the Griffin departed from the area near present-day Green Bay, Wis. Carrying a crew of six and cargo of furs, the ship was never seen again.

Steve Libert, founder of the private exploration group, said he was excited to get the permit after years of legal wrangling with the state of Michigan, which claims ownership of shipwrecks on Great Lakes bottomlands under its jurisdiction.

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"We look forward to working together in this public-private cooperative relationship to uncover an important part of the United States, France and Canadian history," he said.

The Griffin was the first full-sized ship to sail on the Great Lakes, and its fate is one of the Great Lakes' most enduring mysteries. Among many theories are that the vessel sank in a storm, was scuttled by a mutinous crew or was captured and burned by Native Americans. Libert, 59, has been studying and searching for the Griffin for nearly three decades, calling it "the Holy Grail" of Great Lakes shipwrecks. He hasn't disclosed the exact location he is targeting but says it's near a group of islands near the Wisconsin line.

While diving in the area in 2001, he came across a length of timber protruding from the lake bottom. He says it could be the bowsprit or another part of the vessel, most of which is buried in sand and mud. He has assembled a team of archaeologists, some from France, and scientific divers who plan to conduct their most thorough examination this month. The state permit allows them to dig two test pits on the lake bottom and search for evidence that a shipwreck is there and that it's the Griffin, said Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan Historical Center, part of the DNR.

Among the things the researchers will look for is a cannon with Louis XIV's insignia, Libert said. A sonar examination in 2006 detected numerous artifacts on the bottom and embedded in sediments, said Ken Vrana, Great Lakes Exploration Group's project manager. The organization reached an agreement with the state and the French government in 2010 to cooperate in an effort to identify the wreck. If it is indeed the Griffin, they will reopen negotiations about how to deal with it, including whether it could be salvaged and publicly displayed.

"We're all comfortable with what they're planning to do in the next few weeks," Clark said. "This seems like a reasonable way for us to see if there is really anything there, which we are all very interested in knowing."