Inspired by the words of a Dayton teacher more than five decades ago, former Dayton resident Steve Libert and his team three summers ago found what they believe is French explorer Robert LaSalle’s lost ship under the cold waves of Lake Michigan, a ship sometimes described as the “holy grail” of ships lost on the Great Lakes.
President of Fairport, Mich.-based Great Lakes Exploration Group LLC, Libert, 67, today calls Charlevoix, Michigan, home.
But he recalls how a teacher launched him on what became a 53-year journey, 450 miles from Charlevoix in Dayton.
“It all started when I lived in Huber Heights, back when it was part of Dayton,” Libert said in a new interview, his first with the Dayton Daily News since he was a local athlete in the early 1970s. (Huber Heights was incorporated as its own city in 1981.)
In the aftermath of the discovery, Steve and his wife Kathie authored a book on the subject, “Le Griffon and the Huron Islands - 1679: Our Story of Exploration and Discovery,” recently published by Mission Point Press.
A teacher at what was Titus Junior High, Mr. Kelly, told his students of LaSalle’s ship, Le Griffon, that was mysteriously lost in 1679.
“As he was walking around the room, he put his hands on my shoulder, and he said, ‘Maybe someone in this class will find it one of these days,’” Libert recalled of the classroom experience.
“I assumed he didn’t think I was paying attention,” he said. “That’s why he walked up to me and put his hand on my shoulder. But I was paying attention, believe it or not.”
Paying attention so closely, in fact, that the idea of the ship and of one day finding it never left Libert, even as he went on to careers in sports and intelligence work for the U.S. Navy.
A day didn’t go by when the ship did not occupy his mind in some way, he said, leading to years of travel and research. Much of that research started in Dayton, in local libraries, long before the advent of the Internet.
He professes to having spent “countless hours closing the Library of Congress down and researching there.”
“This thing all started in Dayton,” said Libert, who moved from Dayton with his wife in 1988 when he took a job in Washington, D.C. “And all of us are proud for being from there.”
Also involved in this work were colleagues and friends with current or former Dayton-area connections, Jim and Tom Kucharsky; Vance Skowronski and David Butler.
Another local connection: Tipp City manufacturer SK Mold & Tool, a company that devised a diver’s lift for the group that proved useful.
“Getting into the water with diving equipment on is easy,” Libert said. “Getting back into the boat is sometimes extremely difficult.”
‘The ship wasn’t there’
Today, the debris of what the Liberts believe is the 40-foot-long Griffon are at rest under the sometimes icy surface of Lake Michigan, at the “top” of the lake, about 89 miles northeast of Green Bay, Wisconsin, Libert said.
He and his team first found the ship’s bowsprit or part of it — a wooden spar that once stretched more than 10 feet from the ship’s prow, about 20 years ago.
But when Libert’s group and commercial divers first excavated below the bowsprit, an unpleasant surprise awaited, Libert said. “The ship wasn’t there.”
What they found instead was a legal tussle and years of more work.
After a 12-year legal battle with the state of Michigan and the federal government over the removal of debris from the lake bottom, the identity of the ship was not confirmed until September 2018, he said. U.S. and French archaeologists were involved in much of the work over the years.
At the time, France’s chief underwater archeologist, Michel L’Hour, told Libert he believed the main hull of the ship might lay within four miles of the bowsprit. “He based this on his many years of experience conducting archeology on vessels that were 400 to 800 years old,” the former Dayton resident said.
“The French believe we found a (bowsprit) and still think the ship is within 100 (feet) of that location,” Libert’s company wrote on Facebook back in 2013. “We continue the search!”
And in fact: More debris was indeed found less than four miles from the bowsprit. Searching shallow waters in the area led to nearby telltale clues.
“In 2018, our findings confirmed that,” recalled Libert, adding: “It was quite a large debris field.”
‘The ship right there is the proof of it’
While Libert is confident that the ship he found is the Griffon, there is no academic and scientific consensus. Ken Vrana, an archeologist who retired from Michigan Technological University, told a radio station in Detroit last month there is no way to tell from photos whether the ship is the Griffon or not. (Messages seeking comment were sent to Vrana.)
Libert acknowledges the uncertainty, but he sees the issue differently. He believes the ship’s location matches “about eight different clues,” testimony from historical documents, carbon dating of the wood and maps.
“The ship right there is the proof of it, the construction of it,” he maintains, adding that its construction dovetails with late 17th century Dutch and French ship-building techniques.
“The dates are consistent,” he adds. “There was no other vessel on the Great Lakes at that time.”
The state of Michigan holds that it owns what is found on the lake’s bottom, he said. And the state has not allowed further exploration of the debris field. Libert is pushing for new academic and archaeological work, hoping his book will help inspire that.
A bit of history: The Griffon was built in 1679 and launched that year, believed to be the largest ship on the Great Lakes. It’s not clear what led to the ship’s sinking more than 340 years ago.
From the web site of Libert’s company: “There were plenty of theories of what happened to the flagship. One is that (Native Americans) captured the crew, burned the ship and took the furs. There is however little evidence for this. La Salle himself came to believe that his pilot Luc and crew had mutinied, stolen the furs and scuttled the ship.
“Perhaps the most common assumption is that the ship was lost during a storm that usually frequents the Great Lakes during this time of the year,” the company also said.
“It wasn’t an easy thing; it was quite difficult,” Libert said of finding the ship. “Sometimes I didn’t even know what I was looking for until I saw it.”
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