On September 18, 1679, a boat set sail from an island in northern Lake Michigan. Bearing a load of pelts, it was headed for eastern Lake Erie. The boat, named the Griffin, was the first sailing vessel on the Great Lakes. During the voyage, it disappeared without a trace.
The story of the Griffin begins on January 26, 1679. On that day, French explorer Rene’-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle hammered in the first pin to construct the Griffin. La Salle planned to use the Griffin to transport pelts from the upper Great Lakes eastward. Built near Niagara Falls, the Griffin was about 40 feet long and about 18 feet wide. It had a single mast with several sails. Except for the timber, which was cut on the site, all the rigging, anchors, sails and guns on the Griffin were brought to Niagara Falls.
According to Father Louis Hennepin, the Native Americans who watched the Griffin being built “expressed some Discontent at what we were doing.” Hennepin noted that the dozen French carpenters who built the boat “made all the haste we could to get it a-float . . . to prevent the Designs of the Natives, who had resolv’d to burn it.” When the vessel was completed, guns were fired, a religious hymn was sung, and there were “loud Acclamations of Joy.” According to Hennepin, the Iroquois joined the celebrations because the French gave them “some Brandy to drink.”
Named after the legendary beast pictured on the coat of arms of the governor of New France, the Griffin left Niagara on August 7, 1679. On board were Father Hennepin, La Salle, the boat’s pilot and about 30 other men. The Griffin reached Mackinac Island on September 2. A few days later, it arrived at Rock Island, south of the Garden Peninsula.
On September 18, the Griffin and a small crew set sail for Niagara. At the same time, La Salle and his men headed south to continue their explorations. They never saw the Griffin again. It sank somewhere in northern Lake Michigan. The first sailing vessel on the Great Lakes also became the first shipwreck on the Great Lakes. The Griffin’s remains have never been found.
For more great stories on Michigan’s past, look to Michigan History magazine. For more information or a free trial issue, call (800) 366-3703 or visit http://www.michiganhistorymagazine.com/.The Story of La Salle and the Griffin from History of the Great Lakes Detailed history & a drawing of the Griffin!