The text below is a reprint from a series published by the The Courier-Express
Reprinted with Permission

The Building of the Griffon
By Dr. Joseph A. Grande

By the mid-1670s, Rene Robert Cavalier Sieur de La Salle had designed a scheme for building a fleet of ships to operate between trading posts on the Great Lakes, carrying goods east to Montreal. One would sail between Fort Frontenac, where Lake Ontario empties into the St. Lawrence, and the Niagara wilderness. Others would navigate the upper lakes, bringing goods to Niagara for transshipment to Montreal.

The young explorer returned to France in 1677 to obtain royal permission and recruit followers to assist him. Accompanied by a group of capable lieutenants, he journeyed back to the New World with a license to explore, trade and erect forts in the interior of New France.

Among La Salle's chief lieutenants was Father Louis Hennepin, a zealous Franciscan missionary who did not hesitate to engage in secular as well as spiritual activities when circumstances demanded.

Also included was Dominque de La Motte-Lussiere lured by tales of great wealth waiting to be extracted from the American wilderness.

And, too, there was "The Man with the Iron Hand," Enrico Tonti, son of an Italian banker from Naples. Tonti had served in the French military for nearly a decade and recently had lost a hand in a grenade explosion at Messina, Sicily. Thus, the iron hand, a sight which struck fear into the Indians.

LaSalle eagerly plunged into preparations as soon as he arrived back in New France. A party of eighteen men led by La Motte and Hennepin were ordered to proceed to the Niagara region; and on a gusty day in mid-November, during the season of winter turbulence, they sailed west from Frontenac in a 10-ton brigantine. More than two weeks later, they landed on the eastern shore of what the Franciscan called "the beautiful ... Niagara into which no bark similar to ours had ever sailed."

Discovery of Niagara Falls

Hennepin and several others ascended the Niagara in a canoe as far as Queenston landing on the western shore, where they climbed the heights through the wintry forests. It was during this trek that the small band of white men first beheld the awesome majesty of Niagara Falls. After exploring a few miles above the Falls they retraced their steps and crossed to Lewiston. Four days later, the entire expedition moved down to Lewiston and constructed a warehouse which served as the first church on the Niagara Frontier.

The Senecas

The white men's activities did not go unnoticed by nearby Seneca Indians who were deeply involved in bringing western furs to the British trade center at Albany. The French presence must have disturbed them, because control of the straits at Niagara meant control of the interior fur trade. Sensing this uneasiness, La Motte and Hennepin, bearing with gifts, visited the Seneca chiefs at their village southeast of Rochester to assure them that building posts on the Niagara would facilitate trade for everyone.

Meanwhile La Salle and Tonti were sailing west from Fort Frontenac to join the advance party. Their ship dropped anchor near the mouth of the Genesee River, enabling the young explorer, who had established his friendship with the Senecas on his earlier visit to Niagara Land with Fathers Casson and Galinee to go ashore and proceed inland for a meeting with the chiefs. The Senecas had just bade farewell to La Motte and Hennepin. La Salle consequently received permission, albeit less than wholehearted, to erect a fortified warehouse on the shores of the Niagara River and to construct a vessel above the falls.

Building the Griffon

Following this fruitful journey, he returned aboard ship and voyaged west to join la Motte at Lewiston. He then ascended the Niagara escarpment in search of a suitable place to build the projected ship. On January 22, 1679, he directed the expedition to move 12 miles through the snow and gloomy forests to Cayuga Creek a stream above the falls which emptied into the Niagara. Here in the bitter cold of the wilderness, a command was given to begin construction. Forests echoed with the stroke of axes felling oaks for the vessel, while two Mohican Indians attached to the expedition erected bark wigwams to house the men.

Once the work was underway, LaSalle went back to the mouth of the Niagara to mark out the foundations of two blockhouses for a fort to be called Fort Conti in honor of the Prince of Conti. A small band of men was left behind to build the installation while the explorer traveled east to Frontenac for supplies. Fort Conti existed for only a short time before it was destroyed by fire. It was never reconstructed. It was, however, the first fort ever built on the site of Fort Niagara, with its strategic control of the entrance into the straits from Lake Ontario.

In the meantime, a difficult situation developed at Cayuga Creek, where Tonti had been left in charge. The Senecas refused to supply corn for the workers, threatening a serious food shortage. Fortunately deer and other game were brought into camp by the Mohicans. Uneasy Seneca braves loitered about the camp, and as the ribs of the skip rose on the stocks, they conspired to set fire to the works. This scheme failed only because an Indian woman revealed it to the white men.

Drawing source: "An Old Frontier of France," by Frank H. Severance. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1917, Vol. 1

The knowledge of Indian hostility forced the white men to rush work on the ship and by spring, an imposing 45-ton craft was ready for launching. Father Hennepin gave his blessing, cannon roared and the workmen cheered as the ship guided into the waters of Cayuga Creek. It was described as "a peculiar ship ... full rigged and equipped, having many of the appointments of a man-of-war." A battery of seven small cannon, along with some muskets, constituted the armaments, and a carved griffin jutted out from the bow. The griffin, a mythical monster, half lion and half eagle, signified the name bestowed on the ship, the "Griffon," in honor of the governor of New France, Count Frontenac. To the natives, the vessel must have appeared a veritable wooden monster.

The Griffon was first anchored a safe distance off shore to avoid the perils of Indian attack, but it soon was taken miles upstream and made fast near Squaw Island. Here finishing touches were added as the expedition awaited its leader's return. From the deck on Sunday mornings, Father Hennepin delivered sermons to men assembled on the beach. LaSalle finally arrived in early August and immediately ordered cargo and supplies loaded aboard. On August 7, when the newly-completed ship failed to move into Lake Erie due to a swift downstream current, 12 men on the beach drew it into the lake with towlines. Prayers of thanksgiving were offered, and the craft sailed west to begin what proved to be a short career.

Disappearance of the Griffon

During the next year, trading posts were founded on the shores of the upper Great Lakes, and LaSalle periodically sent the Griffon back to the Niagara laden with furs, until it disappeared mysteriously, leaving no trace to this very day. It thus became the legendary "Ghost Ship of the Great Lakes."

La Salle continued his exploration and discovery, reaching the mouth of the Mississippi River and Texas, where be died in 1687. And so ended an exciting and colorful career which embodied elements of a great drama enacted by an international cast with several scenes set in the beautiful virgin wilderness of Niagara Land.


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