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Is a 17th Century Wreck Buried in Lake Michigan?

Scuba divers check out shipwreck site
French archaeologists record the wooden artifact during a survey. (Image credit: David Ruck.)

One of the Great Lakes’ most enduring puzzles, the fate of the 17th century vessel the Griffin, continues to be a mystery.

Experts are debating whether a wooden slab found protruding from the bed of Lake Michigan is a wreckage from the long sought vessel or just a pound net stake — an underwater stationary fishing device used in the Great Lakes in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

A 10.5-foot section of the timber was found by shipwreck hunter Steve Libert in 2001 in a remote area of Lake Michigan near Poverty Island.

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Libert, the president of Great Lakes Exploration Group, who has spent three decades and more than $1 million on the hunt for the elusive ship, noticed the timber was protruding from the lake bed.

After 12 years of research and legal tussles, the U.S. government acknowledged France’s claim to the wreck. French archaeologists last June finally dislodged the nearly 20-foot beam and dug beneath it. The results were disappointing.

“Sadly the survey could not confirm the presence of a homogeneous wreck under the thick layer of sediment and zebra mussels which covers the bottom of Lake Michigan,” Libert said.

Long considered the Holy Grail of Great Lakes shipwrecks, the Griffin was built by the legendary French explorer Rene Robert Cavelier de la Salle, who journeyed across the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi in a quest for what he erroneously believed to be a passageway to China and Japan.

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The ship vanished just a few months after her launch with a crew of six men and a cargo of furs.

According to Libert, the Griffin sailed between Green Bay and the Jesuit mission of Michilimackinac on the north bank of the Straits of Mackinac which join lakes Michigan and Huron.

“Searches shortly after her disappearance found nothing and for the following three centuries the circumstances and location of the loss of the Griffon were a mystery,” Libert said.

Theories about her fate included the ship sinking in a fierce storm, being captured and burned by Native Americans or scuttled by a mutinous crew.

Mystery also wraps the retrieved beam. Definitive answers about its original purpose came from neither carbon-14 dating, nor from CT scans.

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The tests indicated the wood could have originated anywhere from 1670 to 1950, opening many possibilities. Analysis of ring patterns also proved incomplete, as only 29 out of the 50 rings necessary for the dating were visible in the scans.

“I’m looking at the evidence, and the evidence is pointing to a net stake,” Dean Anderson, Michigan’s state archaeologist, told the Associated Press.

“I’m not seeing any evidence of a vessel element here,” he added.

Libert hotly disagrees and claims the timber, which features four treenails, is a bowsprit — a spur or pole that extends from a vessel’s stem.

“It cannot be a pound net stake,” he told Discovery News. “Who would have put it there?”

“We know from the French archeologists that the bowsprit is at least 200 years old due to the erosion marks on this piece. It wasn’t until the 1880s that the fishing method was used by white settlers in Lake Michigan,” he said.

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According to the shipwreck hunter, there is no way this piece was dead headed 9 feet into the bottom.

“A tremendous force had to impale this structure into the bottom. A shipwrecked vessel? I believe so,” Liberts said.

He hasn’t lost hope to find the Griffin.

Indeed, his team did recover a few other pieces of what may belong to the vessel.

“A segment of cultural material was recovered from the side of the shaft where the bowsprit was extracted. It has a square hole inlayed and suggests it is part of the ship’s rigging. Other objects were detected but not recovered due to the restraints of the State Permit,” Libert said.

He plans to go back in spring and send a dive team to investigate a debris field on the bottom, 50 yards from where the wooden slab was recovered.

This story was provided by Discovery News.