FAIRPORT, Mich. – After searching for about four decades, an exploration group says it has found Lake Michigan’s oldest known shipwreck.
French explorer Robert La Salle’s Le Griffon and its six-member crew disappeared in 1679 after leaving Washington Island.
The Great Lakes Exploration Group thought it found the long-lost Griffon in 2001 when it found a wooden beam sticking out of the bed of Lake Michigan. After years of court battles, excavation around the beam last summer found it wasn’t connected to a ship.
The group says it found what it believes is the rest of the Griffon last week, 118 feet southwest of where the beam was.
“There’s a lot of wreckage there,” said Steve Libert, the leader of the group.
Libert says his group found a ship bow and planks. He says fasteners that hold the hull to different parts of the ship were also found. Libert says the fasteners are identical to ones from La Belle, which is another La Salle shipwreck. La Belle was discovered in the Gulf of Mexico in 1995.
“That information was sent off to France,” said Libert. “They are pretty excited. They definitely said it was consistent with La Belle.”
Libert says the new findings support his theory that the wooden beam is the Griffon’s bowsprit. State archaeologists haven’t agreed.
“In my opinion, I haven’t seen any evidence that suggests that anyone has found wreckage of the Griffon there,” said Dean Anderson, Michigan’s state archaeologist.
Anderson believes the wooden beam is a stake used for fishing.
“That piece of wood certainly bears a very striking resemblance to a net stake,” said Anderson.
Three of France’s top underwater archaeologists side with Libert. They dove into Lake Michigan last summer. Libert says one of them plans to come back to confirm the Griffon has been found.
“There’s no question about it, so we’re pretty anxious,” said Libert. “Now we just have to get the permits to excavate down.”
Libert says he hopes to have federal and state excavation permits ready for September.
Watch the documentary “Shipwrecked: The Search for Le Griffon,” detailing last year’s expedition: