When I came across the story of “Le Griffon” – the first vessel to sail the Great Lakes and sink with loss of life – I was researching topics about the history of Lake Michigan. I was interested in Native American history, early settlers, trade – in short, I wanted to understand how the Lakes played a role in Michigan’s history. The Griffon kept jumping out at me. Every history book about Michigan that touched on the Great Lakes included the story of French Explorer La Salle’s missing ship, how it went missing shortly after its maiden voyage, and had never been found. These books were all at least a “few” years old. Had the Griffon been found?
I started Googling.
Over 40 expeditions and projects had been launched since the Griffon went missing in 1679. The first was by La Salle himself, who was obviously devastated by the loss of his ship. Since then, any time a piece of wood landed on a beach or the hulk of a ship was found in the bottom of the Great Lakes, someone screamed out that they had found Le Griffon. So, when I read that some guy named Steve Libert had found something he was thinking was Le Griffon, this had to be approached with a healthy amount of skepticism – to most people in the “know” at this point, the ship was practically of mythical status – if it had been found, it would be the most historic discovery in North America in a lifetime.
Steve can tell you the whole story about being tied up in court with the Federal Government, the State of Michigan, being stalked by NOAA, being labeled a “Treasure Hunter” (there’s no treasure on the Griffon), and any number of other legal adventures that have delayed the process of identifying whatever it is he found in the cold, dark waters in northern Lake Michigan in 2001. For the purposes of this blog, I’ll focus on my personal experience.
I was working on my Master of Fine Arts degree at American University in Washington, DC in 2011 when I first heard about Le Griffon, Steve Libert, and Great Lakes Exploration Group. Had anyone done a documentary about this group? Was anyone working with them on telling this incredible story of exploration, loss, and discovery? Well, as it turned out, National Geographic had shown major interest at one time, but because of the legal battles, they were unable to back the expedition with funds or a production crew. There were many others, as well. Being 31, not having a major production company of my own, and working on a degree, I thought I’d give the Liberts a call to see where they were with their project and if I could include part of their search in a broader project about the Great Lakes. Just getting ahold of them was difficult. Michigan’s State Historical Office was forbidden from giving details about anything related to the Griffon because of the ongoing gag order by the State and Federal Courts. Eventually, I was directed to the project Archaeologist, who put me in touch with Kathie Libert. Kathie had fielded calls from interested journalists, reporters, documentary crews, broadcast networks – you name it – for years. Now she was getting a call from me. The first conversation went something like this:
ME: “I’m David and I’d like to follow you on an expedition.”
KATHIE: “We’ve had a lot of interest over the years, including National Geographic.”
ME: “That’s cool. I’m really interested in getting kids excited about the history of the Great Lakes and I want to create a project that introduces people to the various reasons people came to this area and where we are now and what is likely to happen in the future to the Great Lakes. I think that searching for this wreck could be exciting for kids. We could make this really exciting.”
KATHIE: “We’ve always wanted to do something with education…. we should talk more.”
Eventually, I sent Kathie a proposal that elaborated on my line of thinking. She loved it. And a few weeks later I was given directions to their condo in Charlevoix, MI, where I would meet Steve and his crew before we headed out on an expedition to scan the bottom of Lake Michigan with some fancy equipment that would hopefully reveal if there was something buried where Steve thinks he found the Griffon. And so it started.