Le Griffon

Feb 10, 2015, 7:00AM EST
Le Griffon
First major European vessel on the upper Great Lakes

 The French explored and settled in the Saint Lawrence River valley (which they referred to as New France) during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  They sailed their ships as far inland as Lake Ontario, but were stymied by the Niagara Falls.  While they made various pioneering voyages on the upper Great Lakes and their tributaries, these were all accomplished in canoes and bateaux.  Further settlement and more distant exploration, including the search for the Northwest Passage, required a larger vessel.  In 1678, RenĂ©-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, directed construction of a European-style sailing vessel on the Niagara River near Cayuga Creek above the Falls.  The 45-ton, barque-rigged Le Griffon was launched on 7 August 1679.  It had a length of approximately 35 feet and a beam of approximately 12 feet.  For defense, it carried seven small cannons.  The figure of a griffin was mounted on the jib boom.  While small even by contemporary European standards, it was the largest and best-armed vessel seen to date on the upper Great Lakes and inspired awe and fear among the Native Americans.  La Salle sailed on Le Griffon’s maiden voyage to the French trading site near present-day Green Bay, Wisconsin.  There, La Salle departed on an expedition to explore and claim the fabled Mississippi River, previously unseen by Europeans.  Le Griffon was loaded (possibly overloaded) with about 12,000 pounds of furs and supplies for its return voyage to the Niagara River by way of the settlement at Mackinac Island, departing on 18 September 1679.  The ship was never seen again and presumably sank in an early autumn storm in the waters of upper Lake Michigan.  Numerous individuals and groups have, over the years, claimed to have located the wreck of Le Griffon, but verification has eluded them.  La Salle, unaware of the loss of Le Griffon, had departed by canoe down the western shore of Lake Michigan to present-day St. Joseph, Indiana.  After a portage to the Kankakee River, the expedition reached the Illinois River and, later, the Mississippi River.  La Salle claimed the entire river basin for France and named it Louisiana after King Louis XIV.  

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