Robert de La Salle arrived in New France intent on finding a passage to the Orient. He settled on the Island of Montreal, and his grant soon became known as Lachine (French for China). When the native Mohawks told him of a great river, the Ohio, which flowed into another great river, the Mississippi, La Salle organized a grand expedition to explore the west and set off up the St. Lawrence and across Lake Ontario.
Arriving at the head of the lake, he found that there was no way he could navigate around Niagara Falls to the upper Niagara River. Unable to transport a ship above the falls, he portaged around it and set camp on Cayuga creek where his men set to work hand-hewing timbers and laid the keel for a new ship for the upper lakes, a schooner.
On August 3, the first ship built in America slid into the creek. “The vessel was sixty tons burthen, completely rigged, and found with all necessaries, arms, provisions and merchandise; besides seven pieces of cannon, two of which were of brass. There was a griffin flying at the jib-boom and an eagle above, and the other ornaments that were used to grace a ship of war.”
The vessel was christened “Le Griffon”. She carried seven small cannon, a flag with an eagle at her mast, and a carved griffin on her prow. On August 7, aided by a northeast wind and a dozen men tugging at a tow line from the shore, Le Griffon passed up into Lake Erie.
As she entered the lake a dozen Iroquois gaped from the banks, amazed at the vision of a ship with wings. Her sails spread to the wind, a salute was fired from the cannon and all on board joined in the “Te Deum Laudamus.” Then her prow turned toward the great Northwest.
The vast inland seas to which she headed had never been explored except by canoe. A moonless night and a thick fog settled about the boat; Lake Erie was full of shoals – suddenly the sound of breakers was heard. LaSalle ordered the pilot to steer east northeast. The next day they passed Long Point; at sunset they had sailed forty-five leagues.
On the 9th of August they reached the mouth of the Detroit River. Le Griffon entered the river and sailed between Grosse Isle and Bois Blanc Island where all kinds of game abounded. On the 10th of August, the festival of Saint Claire, they crossed the lake which they named for the saint, and entered Lake Huron on August 23. A fresh wind drove them along its shore, and then Le Griffon tacked to the northwest, and crossed Saginaw Bay.
On the 25th of August the wind veered to the southwest. A furious gale started to blow and LaSalle’s crew was forced to haul down their topmasts, lash the yards to the deck, and drift at the mercy of the storm.
Finally, on the 27th they rounded Point St. Ignace and entered the calm waters of the bay of Michilimackinac where they encountered a settlement of Hurons, Ottawas and a few Frenchmen. The arrival of the Griffon was the occasion for great rejoicing – more than a hundred bark canoes gathered around her, a salute was fired from the deck, and mass was celebrated.
By then fall was in the air – it was time to return home. Le Griffon sailed to an island peopled by the Pottawatomies at the entrance of Green Bay. While LaSalle made plans to continue his explorations by canoe as far as he could on the lakes, and from there to the country of the Illinois, he loaded Le Griffon with furs, to send them back to the store house he had built above the Falls.
Le Griffon sailed for the Niagara September 18 under the command of the pilot, Luc, assisted by a supercargo and five good sailors, with directions to call at Michilimackinac, and then to proceed to the Niagara. She bore a cargo valued at sixty thousand francs.
A favorable wind bore her from the harbor, and with a single gun she bade adieu to her builder. Le Griffon was never seen again.