June expedition may determine if shipwreck is long-lost Griffon

Tribune News Service • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:26 PM

Liberts decades-long quest passed a major milestone earlier this week when his company, Great Lake Exploration Group, was able to make all the necessary arrangements for its next, perhaps definitive expedition to the wreck site in June.

Speaking to the Courier Wednesday, Libert said plans call for his crew to be joined by a team of some of the worlds top underwater archeological experts -- including some from France. He said the team plans to make additional scans to pinpoint locations where they will conduct three small test excavations. They hope the excavations will uncover artifacts at the site that will support that conclusion that the ship is Le Griffon.

The hope, Libert said, is that the team will uncover enough evidence that will warrant a full excavation of the site later in the year. Ultimately, Libert said, if the wreck is confirmed to be Le Griffon, the team will determine if all or part of the wreck can be raised and preserved.

Libert said the team hopes to find some artifacts, such as a cannon with a King Louis XIV insignia on it, or other items that can be tied to the ship. But, he said, making those connections wont be easy.

We wont find pottery with Le Griffon written on it like the Titanic, Libert said.

He said the June expedition could take anywhere from five to 12 days, depending on weather and other factors. If the decision is made to do a full excavation, he expects the team would move quickly to do the work in order to protect the site from would-be scavengers and other possible risks.

As in the past, Libert hopes to use Charlevoix -- which he and wife, Kathie, plan soon make their year-round home -- as the expeditions home port. Libert said hed love to someday see Charlevoix become a home for a museum for the ship and/or its artifacts.

If the wreck turns out to be Le Griffon, the find would be historically significant because the ship belonged to one of the Great Lakes earliest European explorers.

Built by the legendary French explorer, Rene-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, the Griffon was the first European vessel to sail the upper Great Lakes. It was intended to carry out lucrative fur-trading commerce which would support La Salles expedition in search of the mouth of the Mississippi.

According to Liberts website, on Sept. 18, 1679, on its return maiden voyage, the Griffon, loaded with 6,000 pounds of furs, sailed out from present day Washington Harbor on Washington Island in northern Lake Michigan and was never seen again. La Salle scouted the Great Lakes for years in search of the ships whereabouts and was heartsick at her loss. After the ships demise, it was more than a century later before another decked ship attempted to sail on the Great Lakes. Le Griffon is one of the most sought-after shipwrecks in North America and around the world, according to a press release from Liberts group.

A lot of people dont understand the significance of this shipwreck, Libert said. But this had a direct bearing on the way we are as a nation today.

During an expedition in 2001, Great Lakes Exploration Group found what could be the shipwreck site of the long-lost French vessel. Shortly after the discovery -- which amounted to what appears to be a ships mast sticking out of the lake bottom -- Libert became embroiled in a drawn out legal dispute with the State of Michigan and the Republic of France. But in 2010, Libert inked a deal with the state and France allowing research at the site to continue.

Additional research, including radio-carbon dating of a sample from the suspected ships mast, sonar, magnetic and other readings have not been conclusive, but they have been consistent with other research about the ships characteristics. Also, further information has been uncovered through French archives that will help identify the site when test excavations are done.

Recently Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and several Michigan legislators from Northern Michigan publicly announced their support for Great Lakes Explorations efforts to identify the shipwreck. In a special tribute, Snyder praised Great Lakes Exploration Groups dedication to preserving the cultural heritage of the Great Lakes and promoting awareness of Michigans underwater and maritime history. The tribute was signed by Snyder and state legislators Sen. Howard Walker, Sen. Tom Casperson, Rep. Greg MacMaster, and Rep. Ed McBroom.

Congressman Dan Benishek added his support on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. If Le Griffon is found, not only will a centuries-long mystery be solved, but, more importantly, the Great Lakes Exploration Group will add to the historical treasure trove of our nations earliest days of settlement.

— By Petoskey News-Review staff

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