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Excavating this shipwreck not so simple

Wreck hunter and State of Michigan at odds over who can lay claim to what might be Le Griffon

Wreck hunter and State of Michigan at odds over who can lay claim to what might be Le Griffon

The Great Lakes’ oldest shipwreck mystery remains in limbo while a shipwreck hunter and the State of Michigan go hammer-and-tongs in court over salvage rights to what is suspected to be Le Griffon, considered to be the first sailing ship to travel the upper lakes.

In the latest court ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati says the U.S. District Court was right to order Steve Libert, the underwater explorer who discovered the wreck, to turn its exact location over to the state, so Michigan can press its claim that it owns it. But the three-judge panel also says the district court in Grand Rapids, Mich., erred in deciding not to “arrest” the wreck — assert federal jurisdiction over it — to protect Libert’s interest in it before ordering him to reveal where it is. (He had given its approximate location in court filings.)


Judge Ronald Lee Gilman, who wrote the decision for the court, agreed with Libert that without a federal arrest of the vessel the state could take possession of it and edge the federal court out of the case under the 11th Amendment. That amendment bars federal courts from determining salvage rights in cases where the state has actual possession of a wreck, and Gilman says there was every indication Michigan intended to take possession of it once Libert told the state where it was.

So the case goes back to U.S. District Court, where Libert wants to press his interest in leading an archaeological excavation of the remains to determine once and for all if they are the historic Le Griffon. “There’s no reason this should have taken me 5-1/2 years to get to this point,” says Libert, 54, of Oak Hill, Va.

A shipwreck researcher for many years and currently an analyst for a U.S. intelligence agency, Libert discovered a hand-hewn bowsprit on the bottom of northern Lake Michigan in summer 2001. He believes it is a piece of Le Griffon, a brig built by the French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle in 1679. Libert has been searching for the historic vessel for nearly 30 years.


 Built along the Niagara River in what is now New York, Le Griffon is believed to be the oldest sailing ship to travel the upper Great Lakes.

Le Griffon was built in wilderness near the junction of Cayuga Creek and the Niagara River in what is now New York, according to Lincoln Paine in “Ships of the World.” On Aug. 7, 1679, La Salle and 34 of his men set sail from Niagara for Lake Michigan on the ship’s maiden voyage. The explorer dispatched the ship back to Niagara from Washington Island, Wis., on northern Lake Michigan Sept. 18 with a crew of six and 6,000 pounds of pelts, tools and trade goods on board. La Salle stayed behind to continue his explorations. It was the last time Le Griffon was seen.

Some think Indians captured the vessel and its crew, seized the cargo, and burned the ship. Others, La Salle included, suspected the captain and crew mutinied, absconded with the goods, and scuttled the ship. Libert believes Le Griffon went down in a storm that pounded Lake Michigan Sept. 19-23, 1679.

He says carbon dating of the bowsprit, though not conclusive, suggests it could be from a vessel built in the 17th century. The bowsprit is rough-hewn, with no metal fastenings, and located where his years of research suggest it should be if Le Griffon sank in the storm, he says. The piece’s construction also suggests measurements were made using the old French foot (12.8 inches) instead of an English foot.

“Le Griffon was the only vessel that sank in that time period,” Libert says. “That is the only one documented.”

Michigan state archaeologist John Halsey declined to comment on the decision because the litigation is ongoing. But in a 2004 posting on the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Web site, he said Great Lakes Exploration Group, Libert’s private undersea exploration company (, “does not know at this point what is there. And it does not know whether, in fact, it is Le Griffon or not.” The state nonetheless asked the district court to dismiss Libert’s claim to salvage rights and claimed title to the wreck under the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987, which gives states title to wrecks in their waters.

Libert says there’s no question the wreck lies in Michigan waters, but for Michigan to claim title to it the state either must have actual possession of it or show it is abandoned and “imbedded” in Michigan’s submerged lands. Libert says the law is not settled yet about exactly what “imbedded” means. Also, if this wreck is Le Griffon he thinks he can make a case that the vessel was never abandoned, because Louis XIV gave La Salle a patent, or royal license, to explore New France, so the wreck could belong to the French or Canadian government. According to a 2000 U.S. appellate decision in King of Spain v. Sea Hunt Inc., nations that don’t formally abandon their wrecked ships still own them.

Michigan, meanwhile, argues that the wreck belongs to the “people of Michigan.”

Libert is under no illusion that he owns the wreck he has found, and he says he doesn’t want to be in the fight over who does own it. He just wants to be able to excavate the site using expert marine archaeologists. He says after his 2001 discovery he tried to negotiate an agreement with the Michigan Office of Archaeology to do the excavation. He says Michigan turned him down flat.

“We want to be known not just as the discoverers,” he says. “We want to be the ones who identify it.”