The Great Lakes are the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth, a vast network of lakes that ultimately connects to the the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence River. They have been traversed for centuries by those that inhabited its shores, first using dug out canoes stretching back 12,000 years ago. These ancient water dwellers lived and utilized the Great Lakes not only as a source of food, but as a network of highways for them to trade. Around 1000 AD these ancient mariners traded copper nuggets from Lake Superior which made their way down the Mississippi River into Southern Ohio, and even into Florida.
It would not be until the 17th century that the Great Lakes would see its first large sailing vessel on its waters, this is when the history books tell us a French brigantine or barque called “Le Griffon”, commissioned by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, was built on the Niagara River. It would be labelled as the first known sailing vessel to travel the Great Lakes in the year 1679. However, LeGriffon disappeared on its maiden voyage, having never been found. It is considered the “holy grail” of shipwrecks, being the first of its kind. *Please note I refer to a “ship” as a large boat, not the official maritime three masted definition of the word*
Artist’s rendition of how “LeGriffon” may have looked like in 1679.
Yet, an obscure letter dated 1673 mentions an even earlier sailing vessel that was part of a fleet of FOUR other vessels built BEFORE LeGriffon at Fort Frontenac, now Kingston, Ontario which would make those boats the earliest known sailing vessels on the Great Lakes. Uncovering old documents and notes from the 1600’s, I believe that LeGriffon was not the first, but actually the FIFTH sailing vessel on the Great Lakes, and as we will learn, the whereabouts of them might be just under our nose.
THE FIRST SHIP
In July of 1673 Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac et de Palluau, better known as Count Frontenac, the Governor of New France, traveled to a place called “Cataraqui”, where the river that bears that name, and the St. Lawrence River meet at the eastern end of Lake Ontario. Now called Kingston, it is a strategic location since it is at the confluence of these three waterways where the fur trade could be easily monitored and controlled. Under the advisement of explorer and fur trader René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, this spot was chosen to build a French fort to control the lucrative fur trade in the Great Lakes Basin to the west. La Salle was left in command of the fort in 1673, where he immediately built a wooden fort and a harbour to contain a future fleet of sailing vessels which could control the expansive waters of the Great Lakes.
A map from 1685 shows Fort Frontenac, which is now Kingston, ON. The harbour where the 4 ships would have been anchored is where the anchor symbol is at the top.
Fort Frontenac ghosted over present day Kingston to show its location in the 1600’s.
It was here, in this Kingston harbour, that it seems the very first sailing vessel on the Great Lakes was constructed and launched. I found this in my research of a document titled “Lettre de Frontenac au Ministre” dated November 13th, 1673, in which Frontenac himself mentions:
“…with the aid of a vessel now building, will command Lake Ontario, keep peace with the Iroquois, and cut off the trade with the English,”
The letter then continues to state that with “another vessel on Lake Erie, we, the French, can command all the Upper Lakes.”
So it would seem that this large sailing vessel mentioned by Frontenac under construction at Fort Frontenac in 1673 pre-dates LeGriffon by six years. Not only that, but another document from 1677 states that:
“Four vessels, of from twenty five to forty tons, had been built for the lake and the river,”
So it seems that LaSalle was busy at his fort’s harbour and built not just 1, but 4 ships in 1677 to command the waters of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. It would be two of these ships that would carry the supplies needed to built the famous “LeGriffon” on the Niagara River, and it is these first ships we will now look try and locate.
My sketch of how the very first sailing vessel on the Great Lakes, “Frontenac” may have looked, launched sometime around 1674.
The first of these ships built in 1673 by LaSalle at Fort Frontenac was constructed at what is now the intersection of Ontario Street and Barrack Street. This would have been the very first sailing vessel built and launched on the Great Lakes, if you don’t believe that Vikings had already ventured down the St. Lawrence and sailed here 600 years earlier. The rapids at LaChine in Montreal had prevented any large sailing vessels to pass south into Lake Ontario, so new ships would have to be built at Fort Frontenac if they wanted to sail the Great Lakes.
This first boat constructed is said to have been called “Frontenac” after the Governor of New France, and was a sloop type vessel of about 10 tonnes, with a single mast. It would be this vessel that would carry two men, LaMotte and Hennepin to Niagara where they would establish a construction site to build LeGriffon.
Of the four sailing vessels that were recorded as being harboured at Fort Frontenac in 1677, one was the sloop Frontenac, with another being recorded as a bigger vessel of about 40 tonnes, likely a ketch, that was used as a supply ship to carry the hardware and equipment needed to build another, bigger ship on the Niagara River. This earlier vessel would carry LaSalle and his companion Tonti (who was deeded Amherst Island, named after him before it was called Amherst Island, Isle Tonti) from Fort Frontenac to Niagara a few weeks after the first, smaller vessel had left Fort Frontenac.
So now we have two large sailing vessels, both built at Fort Frontenac, embarking on a sailing adventure to build another ship at Niagara. But what actually happened to these first ships? LeGriffon gets all the attention, but it was these first ships that were actually the first to sail on the great Lakes, a full six years prior to LeGriffon.
This map tracks the first two ships and their journey on Lake Ontario in 1678.
It would be a cold November day in 1678 when LaSalle sent his comrades LaMotte and Hennepin aboard Frontenac to find a suitable spot to build and launch LeGriffon above Niagara Falls. Setting out on November 18th, 1678, the sloop encountered high winds whipping across Lake Ontario so the crew hugged to the north shore of the lake, stopping in many of its bays for refuge making their way west, likely stopping off in Prince Edward County, Port Hope, and other places until they finally reached the native village of Taiaiagnon on November 26th, which was located at the mouth of the Humber River near present day Mississauga, ON. Here they sought refuge from the cold and were welcomed by the natives, but their boat, Frontenac, was soon locked in ice in the freezing waters. Using axes and knives, they finally chipped out their vessel from this icy grasp, and sailed on across the lake to the mouth of the Niagara River on December 6th. Once there, they dragged Frontenac on shore to protect it from the lake ice, and trudged on to find a spot to build the new larger ship, LeGriffon.
A late 1600s map showing the various locations the ships visited on their journey.
LaSalle’s supply ship he and Tonti took to Niagara from Fort Frontenac on Christmas Eve, 1678.
A month later, on Christmas Eve of 1678, LaSalle and his pal Tonti boarded their bigger sailing vessel of an unknown name at Fort Frontenac filled with anchors, cannons, cords, sails, hardware and other supplies needed to build LeGriffon at Niagara. Leaving Fort Frontenac’s harbour (which was filled in with landfill and now has condos on it) they sailed west to join LaMotte and Hennepin, however, the winds were fierce and they were almost bashed apart somewhere off Prince Edward County, likely around Point Traverse where there are many treacherous rocky shoals.
On Christmas Day, LaSalle and his team aboard their large, unnamed ketch crossed Lake Ontario to arrive at what is now Rochester, NY. They sailed along the southern coast of Lake Ontario where they stopped at a Seneca village. Here LaSalle and his comrades decided to carry on by foot to meet LaMotte at Niagara. Their vessel was left in charge of its pilot and crew, but they did not secure it well enough and on January 8th a wind carried away the supply laden boat 15km west, along the shoreline, where it broke apart near Thirty Mile Point, spewing its precious cargo on the lake floor. A messenger was sent to tell LaSalle his ship had been wrecked, sending him back to try and salvage what was left.
He and his men managed to salvage the anchors, chain, and some materials important for outfitting Le Griffon, but most of the supplies and provisions were lost, and remain there to this day. This would make LaSalle’s ship the first shipwreck in the Great Lakes, before the loss of LeGriffon in 1679.
LaSalle and his men dragged what they could salvage from his wrecked ship 50km overland on foot to the Niagara construction site, which is now Griffon Park in Niagara Falls. After laying LeGriffon’s keel on January 26th, 1679, and driving the first bolt into it, LaSalle left the operation in charge of his comrade, Tonti. LaSalle departed on foot heading back to Fort Frontenac, arriving almost starved to death after an arduous and cold journey of almost 400kms.
Tonti, LaMotte, Hennepin and their team would later re-float the first vessel, Frontenac, to try and salvage more equipment from LaSalle’s wrecked boat, but the winter ice prevented any further success. That first smaller boat would later go back to Fort Frontenac to retrieve more supplies for building LeGriffon, and return to Niagara once again, but what happened to what was the first sailing vessel on the Great Lakes remains a mystery.
An early 1700s illustration of the construction of “LeGriffon” in 1679.
LaSalle’s men continued to build LeGriffon throughout the winter months of 1679, but were met with cold temperatures, disgruntled workers, hostile natives, and the constant threat of sabotage. Tonti made sure to launch ahead of schedule and get out of there as quickly as possible, with LeGriffon hitting the water with great ceremony in early summer of 1679. It would be the largest sailing vessel on the Great Lakes when launched, but not the first as some will have us believe.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
Tonti towed LeGriffon through the turbulent waters of the Niagara River to Lake Erie, before LaSalle climbed aboard, unfurled its sails and steered into the lake on August 7th, 1679. Outfitted with seven cannons, two of which were brass, LeGriffon now sailed the unchartered Great Lakes with LaSalle and headed for Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he got off the vessel to explore the head of Lake Michigan with some four canoes.
La Salle ordered LeGriffon to off-load merchandise for him at Mackinac Island, and then on September 18th, the pilot and crew of 5 left either Rock island or Washington Island for their Niagara River starting point with a cargo hold full of valuable furs.
LeGriffon was never seen again and disappeared into the Great Lakes somewhere between Green Bay and Niagara Falls, its final whereabouts being one of the greatest maritime mysteries of all time.
The last known location of LeGriffon on Lake Michigan before it disappeared in September of 1679.
Some say the crew took the furs and burned the ship, others say it went down in a storm. No one knows for sure what happened or where LeGriffon lies, but it continues to intrigue shipwreck hunters from across the world.
The first shipwreck of the Great Lakes.
Being a special wreck to find, little attention has been paid to where the first vessel was lost off 30 Mile Point. That vessel would in fact be the Great Lakes first shipwreck, and yes, it would be great to find LeGriffon, but wouldn’t it be more interesting to find LaSalle’s first ship, built 6 years earlier, with its supplies to build LeGriffon still lying somewhere on the lake floor?
At least we know the general vicinity where that wreck may lie. It awaits discovery after 342 years, and there might not be much left, but at least we now know where the Great Lakes first shipwreck may be hiding.