The Pilot of La Salle's Griffon                                                                                            Joe Calnan       2012                     


The French Explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle (1643-1687) had a type of small cargo-carrying sailing vessel called a barque built in 1679 to travel between the Niagara River and Lake Michigan. La Salle hired a skilled and experienced pilot to conduct the vessel on this route, but within ten months of beginning his employment on the Great Lakes, the pilot had lost two barques entrusted to his care and vanished with the entire crew.  The loss of La Salle’s Griffon was chronicled by Recollet missionary Louis Hennepin, and has become one of the great mysteries of the Great Lakes.  Today, the pilot has achieved notoriety as a seven-foot tall, ill-tempered Danish heritic named Luke Dare, but whether this persona has its foundation in primary evidence or folklore has never been made clear.  By systematically examining the origins of the information we have about the pilot both in primary and secondary documents, this paper attempts to separate the folklore from the verifiable sources and begin to bring to light the most accurate possible picture of the pilot of La Salle’s Griffon.

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 When Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle was given permission by Louis XIV to explore the Mississippi to its mouth and build forts wherever he considered it necessary, he determined to use small cargo vessels called barques to transport his men and supplies through Lakes Erie, Huron and Michigan, and down the Illinois and Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. La Salle, as the seigneur of Cataraqui (Kingston, Ontario) had already been using barques for transport on Lake Ontario and the upper Saint Lawrence River since 1676. Under the guidance of Louis Fontaine, the reliable pilot of his barque on Lake Ontario, La Salle had realized a considerable cost savings by using barques rather than canoes for transporting freight wherever possible. Transport on the Great Lakes by barque offered the economy of carrying a larger cargo with fewer men, and a secure place to sleep at night when abroad in unsafe territory. The system had worked well, but all that changed when La Salle hired a new pilot to guide the barque that he intended to build for the lakes above Niagara Falls.

La Salle brought a pilot known as Luc, or Lucas, to the Great Lakes with him in late 1678. He had apparently sailed on the largest vessels trading to Canada and the Caribbean Islands, and was a highly experienced and skilled pilot. However, from his very first voyage in La Salle’s employ, the pilot showed a determination to destroy the vessels that were entrusted to his care. The brief time of the pilot’s career on the Great Lakes was marked by disasters and near disasters that cost La Salle two barques, astronomical financial losses, and nearly his life and the lives of his men.

On 18 September 1679, less than nine months after the pilot’s arrival on the Great Lakes, the 45-ton barque Griffon sailed from Washington Island, Wisconsin into Lake Michigan with a cargo of valuable furs destined for La Salle’s storehouse on the Niagara River. On board were the pilot, five sailors, and a “supercargo,” a man employed to be responsible for the safekeeping of the vessel’s cargo. A storm arose the following night which lasted for several days; the Griffon was lost and none of the men on board were ever seen alive again. Or were they? Two documents written by La Salle that have received very little attention from Great Lakes maritime historians tell that a man matching the pilot’s description was captured by Natives on the upper Mississippi. While often referred to, the actual content of the letters has thus far remained obscure.

The pilot of the Griffon has become a legendary figure in the centuries since this first-ever sailing voyage on the upper Great Lakes. The mystery surrounding the disappearance of the vessel and its crew has tantalized people for over three hundred years. Over a dozen wrecks have been claimed to be the remains of the Griffon, but none has ever been proven. With each discovery of a new Griffon wreck, the popular mythology grows a little more and folklore is intermixed with the verifiable evidence.

Today, contemporary writers tell us that the pilot of La Salle’s Griffon was a seven-foot-tall fiery-tempered heretic from Denmark named Luke Dare or Luc the Dane. Whether this persona can be verified by primary evidence is the question that drives the research presented here. This paper will seek to define the identity of the pilot as clearly as possible with the primary sources that are known to exist. Descriptions of the pilot that have appeared in English will be discussed and then compared against the original French sources in the hope of setting a rather confusing record straight.