‘Voices from the Past’: The story of the ‘Griffon’–first sailing ship on the St. Clair River

woodcut of Le griffon
Father Hennepin: our 'Voice from the Past'
LaSalle, capitain of the 'Griffon'

By Bob McCarthy Learning about the heritage of Lambton County is like having a dialogue with the past. What might you discover if you had a chance to listen to voices of our past and be able to better picture what really happened, what it may really have been like?

I have always believed that history is best told when it is presented as a series of stories. But where do all of the stories come from in the first place?
In Voices from the Past, I will take information I have gathered about Lambton County’s heritage and present it as stories told by the people who lived in our past.
I hope that these verbal images presented as Voices from the Past will help to illustrate our history as it might have been experienced by the people of Lambton’s past.
These dialogues allow me a way to present glimpses of our culture and the hearing of these stories hopefully will allow you to create a picture in your mind of what it might have been like to have lived in another time.
The First Sailing Ship on the St Clair as told by Father Hennepin
It is the month of August in the year of our Lord 1679. The new ship, the Griffon is about to sail by. Our capitaine is René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle and I, Father Louis Hennepin, am also on board this expedition of King Louis the Fourteenth of France.
I am a Recollet missionary, assigned by my superiors as a map-maker and as a spiritual advisor to this expedition and to all the native peoples whom we may meet and convert to the way of our Blessed Lord.
After receiving the ‘lettres patentes’ from our King to work at discovering the Western parts of our country of New France and to build forts where he felt them necessary, Le Sieur de La Salle sailed from La Rochelle in France last year. Our crew includes shipwrights, carpenters and also La Salle’s friend, Henri de Tontoy, a naval officer who several years ago lost his right hand in battle. He is now fitted with an iron hand with a glove over it, quite a sight to see, a marvel of what man can do with God’s help.
We arrived at la Ville de Quebec on the 15th day of September last year. This spring, with 16 of our companions, we went to the ‘Sault de Conty’ (Niagara Falls) to build a ship on la rivière above the Falls so that we may engage in trading of furs on the upper lakes.
In this ship, we will sail the waters of Lakes Erie, Huron and Michigan in this year of our Lord 1679, the first sailing ship to enter these upper lakes. This is a key part of a grand design by the Sieur de La Salle to organize the fur trade on a vast scale and to create a French empire here in North America extending from the Gulf of St. Lawrence all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Our ship’s capitaine believes furs can be carried more cheaply in our bateau à voile (sailing ship) than by canoes or over the land. His plans call for a bateau on Lake Ontario, one for the lake route from the Niagara River to Lake Michigan, and one to be built later on the Illinois River to explore for trade on the Mississippi.
Alors, mes amis! This will not happen. It is not known now, but our bateau will not return this way.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me first tell to you the story of the Griffon.
In January of this year, our ship building party arrived at the mouth of Cayuga Creek to build our first ship. Thanks to our Lord. This land is so blessed. Everywhere we see a panorama of plenty, vast meadows, trees bearing good fruit, and vineyards. The countryside abounds in stags, wild goats and bears which are good for food and are not as fierce as in other countries. Turkey-cocks and swans are also very common and our men have found several other beasts and birds that we were unable to identify.
The forests are chiefly made up of walnut trees, chestnut, plum and pear trees so laden down with their own fruit. There is also an abundance of timber for building homes for those who will be fortunate enough to inhabit this noble Country in the future I will not live to see. They should remember with gratitude those of us who will discover the way for them by venturing to sail upon the unknown lakes ahead of us that stretch for more one hundred leagues.
The keel of the Griffon was laid on the 26th day of January and by the 7th day of August, our ship was launched into Cayuga Creek and hauled to Lake Erie to immediately begin the journey toward Green Bay, Wisconsin.
She is a wonderful ship, a Ship of Sixty Tuns of cubic content and almost 45 feet in length.
It was on this same day that our ship would sail into Lake Erie to begin its voyage against the flow of the water up to Green Bay with a crew of 34, including Le Sieur de La Salle and myself.
We nearly ran aground the first night out, but were able to cover 240 miles in the first four days, reaching the mouth of what is now called the Detroit River on August 10. My description of these wondrous lands was later sent back to France. Soon after, French settlers began to come to the Detroit area creating long and narrow French farms, often 400 feet wide and 4,000 feet long. Another Frenchman, by the name of Cadillac, will found Detroit twenty-two years later in 1701.

The building of the 'Griffon' as pictured in Hennepin's Nouvelle Decouverte

But our passage up this river, which passes in front of us into Lake Huron, would take twelve days. Let me tell you more about this part of our voyage that brought our ship the Griffon up this river along the shore of what you now call Lambton County.
It was on the twelfth day of August 1679 that we left the straits near what is now Detroit and sailed into the lake to the east. We paused to give thanks to our Lord and to claim this new Lake in the name of our King Louis XIV.
Our Patron Saint for August 12 is Ste. Claire of Assissi, who was proclaimed a femme d’Évangile (female saint) in the year 1210. In the name of our King, we named the Lake and its contributory river to honour our Lord and the good Lady Ste. Claire.
We were able to pass through le lac de Ste. Claire without any difficulty and soon entered the mouth of la rivière de Ste. Claire, passing up channel through a group of islands (Bassett and Squirrel, all part of the Walpole Island First Nation). We were now sailing along the river which borders your present day county of Lambton.
As we travelled up the Ste. Claire, we saw on the east side a water and land view combining so much that is rich and beautiful. I remember thinking that this land will one day be home to many families.
When the wind was right, we could travel by sail. But when the wind died, it was necessary to come close to the east shore and have a party of our crew go ashore to tow our ship up the river.
As we approached the source of the river, it became more difficult because of the strong current of la rivière de Ste. Claire where it flowed south from the great Lake (Huron) to our north. We had to wait several days because of the extraordinary quantity of Waters which came down from the upper Lake (Lake Huron).
The wind from the north-west was so strong that it increased the rapidity of the current of this Strait so much that it seemed as violent as that of Niagara. We had to wait for the wind to turn Southerly after which we were able to sail again.
But the current was still so strong that we needed the help of twelve of our crew, who hauled our ship from along the eastern shore. Finally, we got safely into the Lake Huron on the twenty-third day of August in the year 1679. Our ship continued to sail north through the Lake of the Hurons.
In spite of a frightful storm on our second day on the lake, we entered the Straits of Mackinac just four days after exiting the mouth of the Ste. Claire. It was the twenty-seventh day of August. Le Sieur de La Salle fired a round from the brass cannon and went ashore dressed in his fine wig and ceremonial scarlet cloak trimmed with gold lace for the benefit of the settlement of Hurons, Ottowas and some French at St. Ignace.
He was infuriated when told that his advance party to Green Bay had deserted to Sault St. Marie. Our capitaine sailed the Griffon on to Green Bay and loaded on the waiting furs, after ordering Henri de Tontoy to go by canoe after the deserters and bring them back to him for punishment.
By the eighteenth day of September, de Tontoy had not yet arrived, so le Sieur de La Salle entrusted the ship to one of our crew, a Danish pilot known as Luc. With a skeleton crew of five men, Luc was ordered to sail the ship back the way we had come, unload the furs, load the iron work for the new ship and return along the same route.
The rest of us, including La Salle, canoed and portaged our way down Lake Michigan and the Illinois River to begin to build a second ship near to present day Peoria, Illinois.
When we reached the area, we built a fort and began preparing the timbers for a second ship to be built to a plan similar to the Griffon.
But the Griffon had not returned by December. After we made inquiries, we learned only the following.
The ship came to anchor to the north of the Lake of the Illinois (Michigan) where she was seen by some Natives, who told us that they advised the men of our crew to sail along the shoreline and stay clear of the middle of the Lake, because of the sands (bars, rocks, shoals) that make navigation dangerous when there are high winds.
Luc, the pilot who had been appointed by the Sieur de La Salle for the Griffon’s journey south, had been dissatisfied through much of the up-bound route. When appointed master for the journey south, Luc apparently decided to steer as he pleased, without listening to the advice of the Natives, who I believed had more Sense than most Europeans think at first. It seems that our ship was hardly a league from the coast, when it was tossed up by a violent storm in such a manner that the crew of our ship were never heard of since.
It is likely that the Griffon struck upon a Sand, and was buried in the northern reaches of Lake Michigan, never again to return down the Ste. Claire past this same spot. Le Sieur de La Salle always believed that the pilot and crew scuttled the Griffon after making off with its valuable cargo.
Now that you know where the name for the Lake of Ste Claire came from, you may wonder where the name Huron came from.
Even before we sailed into la rivière de Ste. Claire, my people the French had traversed by land to explore near to what we named le lac des Hurons. The Indians living on the islands in Georgian Bay were then known as the Wendat or Wyandot, from "agwawendarahk" which means "we are the people which live of a floating land."
When some Wendat chiefs visited our king in France, they appeared with bristly Mohawk?style haircuts. Many of the French who had never seen people like this before looked at these strange looking savages and referred to them as les huron, a term which originally referred to a boar's head and later took on a meaning of someone with a scary or repulsive appearance. This name was applied to the Wendat because their hair resembled the bristles on a boar's head and because my people in Europe, the French, felt superior enough to label the Wendat as repulsive.
HISTORICAL NOTES from the author:
Father Hennepin recorded the voyage of the Griffon in his book “A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America,” an English version of his travels, printed in 1698. Following are some excerpts from his book.
In writing about the strong current of the St. Clair River where it flows out of Lake Huron, Hennepin said: “. . . the extraordinary quantity of Waters which came down from the upper Lake (Lake Huron), and that of Illinois (Lake Michigan), because of a strong North-West Wind, had so much augmented the Rapidity of the Current of this Streight, that it was as violent as that of Niagara. The Wind turning Southerly, we sail’d again; and with the help of twelve Men, who hall’d our Ship from the Shoar, got safely the 23th of August into the Lake Huron.”
During the upbound leg of the journey, the Griffon survived a violent storm. Hennepin observed: “M. la Salle, notwithstanding he was a Courageous Man, began to fear, and told us we were undone; and therefore everybody fell upon his Knees to say his Prayers, and prepare himself for Death, except our Pilot, whom we could never oblige to pray; and he did nothing all that while but curse and swear against M. la Salle, who, as he said, had brought him thither to make him perish in a nasty Lake, and lose the Glory he had acquir’d by his long and happy Navigations on the Ocean.”
Hennepin gives us this account of the last days of the Griffon: “M. la Salle, without asking any body’s Advice, resolv’d to send back his Ship to Niagara, laden with Furrs and Skins to discharge his Debts; our Pilot and five Men with him were therefore sent back, and order’d to return with all imaginable speed, to join us toward the Southern Parts of the Lake, where we should stay for them among the Illinois. They sailed the 18th of September with a Westerly Wind, and fir’d a Gun to take their leave. Tho’ the Wind was favourable, it was never known what Course they steer’d, nor how they perish’d; for after all the Enquiries we have been able to make, we could never learn anything else but the following Particulars.
“The Ship came to an Anchor to the North of the Lake of the Illinois (Lake Michigan), where she was seen by some Savages, who told us that they advised our Men to sail along the Coast, and not towards the middle of the Lake, because of the Sands (bars, rocks, shoals) that make the Navigation dangerous when there is any high Wind.
“Our Pilot, as I said before, was dissatisfy’d, and would steer as he pleas’d, without hearkning to the Advice of the Savages, who, generally speaking, have more Sense than the Europeans think at first; but the Ship was hardly a League from the Coast, when it was toss’d up by a violent Storm in such a manner that our Men were never heard of since; and it is suppos’d that the Ship struck upon a Sand, and was there bury’d.”
The Grfffon plaque (photo by Bob McCarthy)
A Plaque located at the Bluewater Bridge at the end of Michigan Avenue in Point Edward reads:
First ship to sail Lakes, Erie, Huron and Michigan, the "Griffon"’, probably 40-45 feet long, was built by Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, several miles above Niagara Falls in 1679. La Salle came to New France in 1667, became seigneur of Cataracoui (Kingston), engaged in the fur trade and sought a western route to China.
In August, 1679, the "Griffon" sailed from the Niagara River with La Salle and a company of about thirty-three.
In this vicinity the crew had to haul the ship up the swift current of the St. Clair River. La Salle remained in the West while the "Griffon", laden with furs, vanished enroute from Green Bay to Niagara.
Archaeological and Historic Sites Board of Ontario

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