Le Griffon Expeditions 1930-2015


Manitoulin FLEMING

Roy Franklin Fleming was an artist and teacher from Ottawa that teamed up with a local islander named Captain Thomas James Batman to petition the Canadian government for a permit to recover a small shipwreck found on the western end of Manitoulin Island in Ontario, Canada.  The burned pieces of the wreck were somewhat of a celebrity near the Mississagi Lighthouse, and they were allegedly called ‘the white man’s ship’ by early Indians.  Further legend (mostly from writings by island reporter Grant Turner of Little Current, Ontario) was that a local lighthouse keeper named W.A. Grant witnessed many natives taking lead from the seams of the wreck, creating fish weights and bullets.   Undocumented stories also mention an artifact that seemed like a 3.5 inch swab that was found next to the wreck, allegedly used to load a cannon. Another reporter,  Charles Henry Jeremiah  Snider of the Toronto Evening Telegram also wrote about the wreck in 1931. 

Fleming said that they recovered a bolt and sent it to metallurgist Sir Robert A. Hadfield in London, who confirmed the high phosphorous content indicated a very early artifact manufactured before the 18th century.  An investigation into the wood ‘proved’ it was white oak, but Fleming would write in an unfinished manuscript that it didn’t match the oak grown near Niagara, where Griffon was built.

Local legend also told of several skeletons being found in a cave on Manitoulin Island.  One report is that they were found by Mennonite hunters and that one skeleton was nearly 7 feet tall with a skull the size of a pumpkin.  Another version of the story was the find was made by lighthouse keepers Cullis and Holdsworth in 1934.  “Tokens” were found near the bones; one was square, one triangular, and two circular.  Other reports called these buttons with French insignia.  Another account said a brass (or silver) watch was also recovered at the grave site.  There is a “Skull Cave” on the island, but it is a privately owned tourist attraction where the author's access was denied.  Photos of the ‘cave’  in 1938 showed it wasn’t the Mindemoya Cave, but a depression near a large boulder. 


Fleming’s book on Griffon was published as “The Search for LaSalle’s Brigantine Le Griffon Part Two” .  He also wrote several articles on the subject for Inland Seas between 1952-53.  A painting of Griffon is attributed to Fleming as well.  The lighthouse also has a sketch made by Fleming that shows the extent of the keel section in the early 1930’s.

CHJ Snider also published a book on the subject in 1952.  Strangely, Fleming would be credited for finding the wreck at Manitoulin when investigators returned to the site in 1961.  In the news for relocating the wreck of the Carl D Bradley, Norman McCreedy of Indianapolis promised to take his boat “Penmanta” to find the Griffon in 1961.  He credited divers Richard Charbonneau and Tom Spaulding (Spedding in another article) of Cheboygan with finding the Griffon’s bell during dives on the site.  Later divers believed Charbonneau had found the Burlington’s bell in several pieces.  One newspaper (1961)hinted that Charbonneau’s underwater sled found a 3-4 foot cannon but it was never relocated.  It’s believed that bell belonged to the Burlington, lost in the same area.

Wreck of the Burlington, Manitoulin Island, Ontario. (c) 2014 Ric Mixter

Manitoulin Island Mizpah investigation 1937

A centennial celebration in Chicago promised a major find by local millionaire Eugene McDonald in Lake Huron.  McDonald hoped to bring the bones of the Griffon to the “Carnival of the Lakes” event once he recovered the timbers lying off Manitoulin Island.  His yacht Mizpah made headlines as the expedition got underway, but no other news articles were found to indicate what happened in Canada.  What is known is that “Commander” McDonald corresponded with Roy Fleming, getting details for an investigation that included Michigan historian George Fox.  Fox was famous for his investigation of early indian mounds in Michigan and Wisconsin.  Fox would write a manuscript about Le Griffon (found in Bentley Library at the University of Michigan) but the author could find no reference for it ever being published.   Fox gave the location of the wreck as a mile north of the lighthouse at Mississauga Strait.

Fox reports he saw the wreck in 1938 and only two pieces remained, one being the keelson with only five planks remaining.   The wreck had evidence of burning (the lighthouse has a story that said it was the lighthouse keeper who burned it when he was a young boy).

Newspapers said the expedition included over a dozen people, including  McDonald’s 16 year old nephew Gene Kinney.  The teen was to be the lead diver on the project with the commander also diving on the wreckage.   News accounts of the Chicago 100th anniversary shared nothing about the Griffon.

The Meldrum Bay Historical Society coaxed several dive teams to visit the area from Midwest diving clubs including Cleveland’s YMCA.  In 1961 They scoured the bottom for several days, recovering iron artifacts and oak timbers.  Many of the iron washers and bolts seemed to line up to photos of the surface wreckage taken by Roy Fleming in 1939.   Another detail that surfaced was the name Finnie James, which was attributed to finding planking on the beach in the 1920’s.  This was where the lead caulking story seems to originate, with a news article in 1961 saying the lead was completely stripped out by the time it was recovered 40 years after James found it.

Canadian Navy Divers returned to the Manitoulin site Sept 18-20 1965.  At the urging of a local historian, a dozen divers from the HMCS York explored where the wreck was supposed to rest.    

An interesting side note to the Mizpah investigation is the final disposition of the yacht.  McDonald turned over ownership to the boat to the US Government during World War II, and the ship was refitted for war in Sturgeon Bay.  After the war it was given back to McDonald’s nephew, but newspaper records say the propulsion on the yacht was destroyed and the ship was sunk as an artificial reef near West Palm Beach, Florida.   The author visited this reef (which another Sturgeon Bay shipwreck lies nearly on top of) and found Mizpah to be largely intact.  The yacht that was to explore the most famous of Great Lakes shipwrecks is now a famous shipwreck herself on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.


Hessel, Michigan

In February of 1934 the Hessell Chamber of Commerce led newspaper reporters from Detroit, Montreal, and Quebec in a caravan of automobiles over the ice to a remote island (some four miles out into the bay).  “Indian legends” had told local Capt. Louis Goudreau of the ‘ancient’ vessel located north of the island, and local diver Oliver Birge worked with a Native American named Mike Onogwin to locate the wreck.  They found the 70 foot wreck in about 15 feet of water, chipping through nearly two feet of ice to get to the wreck.  A committee was put together to raise the wreck, sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce, but nothing was written after the initial find.  Aerial photos clearly show the wrecksite, which is nearly twice the length of what Griffon would be.  Newspapers of the day said they hoped a ‘nameplate’ would be found to identify the wreck, or perhaps one of the brass cannons.  It was hoped that the discovery would be a showcase for the celebration anniversary at Mackinac.


The old barge in 20 feet of water near Hessel, michigan  (c) 2015 Ric mixter

The old barge in 20 feet of water near Hessel, michigan  (c) 2015 Ric mixter


Russell Island, ontario, canada

Oral tradition had it that the old shipwreck at MacGregor Cove on Russell Island was found by its original white settler, William Vail.  It was his great-grandson who would tell a journalist about the Griffon on August 17th, 1955.  Fisherman Orfred Cleveland Vail took Toronto reporter John Maclean to the wreck that he said he first located in 1932. Maclean photographed the wreck in-situ and then the group removed the keel, breaking it in half.  MacLean published a story on the find in August of 1955.  Much of the wreck had been salvaged by Vail, who kept the pieces in his boatshed.  The reporter was excited about the find and sent details to French authorities who told reporter Frank A Myers that they didn’t think the vessel was of French design.   Soon after writer CHJ Snider and Rowley Murphy came to Tobermory, which led to several more stories in the Toronto paper and the maritime historical magazine “Inland Seas”.

An official survey was made of the site (now renamed Griffon Cove) from June 19-September 1st 1978.  Hundreds of artifacts were found, from timbers to a thimble and padlock (dated between 1790-1830).  Ceramic pieces were also found, estimated from an era between 1840-1860.  In December of 1980, Texas A&M student Paul Hundley released his master’s thesis on the subject, determining that the wreck was perhaps a 44 foot Mackinaw boat.  Hundley reports that some of the wreck has been turned into lamps and other trinkets and several timbers are found within an exhibit at the visitor’s center.  

Poverty Island, MIchigan

The New York Times reported that Steve Libert is a retired intelligence analyst for the federal government who has spent the last 28 years researching Le Griffon.  In 2004 Libert announced that he located what appeared to be the bowsprit of a very old vessel.  A sample was sent to a company in Miami that dated the wood between 1670 and 1950.  Libert’s lawyer was contacted by French authorities whose Ministry of Culture claimed Le Griffon was a French vessel with sovereign immunity.  Almost a decade went by before the team would be allowed to excavate beneath the artifact, where Libert told the media that magnetic and acoustic signatures indicated a 60 foot vessel hiding beneath the sand.  The team was granted three test excavations in 50 feet of water near Poverty Island, Michigan.  French historians, including the director of France’s Underwater Archaeology Research Department (DRASSM) dove on the wrecksite and later issued a report that was inconclusive.  The 19 foot pole fell over during the investigation, and nothing was found beneath the ‘mast’.   It would later be said that a group of quagga mussels created the anomaly.  Libert was granted permission to recover the artifact and it was brought to Otsego Memorial Hospital in Gaylord where it was CT scanned.  This was also inconclusive.

Many historians believe the pole is a pound net stake.  The stakes were pounded into the lake bottom, holding up massive nets that were used heavily in the late 1800’s.  Delta County, where the artifact resided, was one of the most popular areas for pound nets.  Over 844 were used in Michigan in 1890 alone.  A similar stake was recovered from underwater and sawed in half, exposing the peg system that was an exact match to the one Libert had found.

Libert announced that wreckage was found nearby to where the supposed bowsprit had been located.  So far no other details have been announced. 

Dykstra/Monroe Announcement 2015

Two Muskegon area divers announced to a local TV station that they had found Le Griffon's figurehead which was coated in zebra mussels.  A superimposed drawing of a griffin was used in the TV story to give the find credibility, but details of the wreck (which indicated a cannon had been found) were not given.  Subsequent newspaper stories did not indicate cannons had been found.  In early June, 2015 Michigan State Police divers and the state's underwater archaeologist dove the site, in nearly 80 feet of water off Frankfort.  Wayne Lusardi reported that the supposed figurehead was merely a clump of zebra muscles on the sternpost, and steam machinery was found not far away.  The wreck was also over twice the size of what Griffon was alleged to have been.  Lusardi has been on 17 supposed "Griffons" since joining the state in 2002- only two of which were actually shipwrecks.