Building of the First Vessel on the Upper Lakes

The enterprise of Sa Salle, in constructing a vessel above the falls of Niagara, in 1679, to facilitate his voyage to the Illinois and the Mississippi, is well known; but while the fact of his having thus been the pioneer of naval architecture on the upper lakes, is familiar to historical readers, the particular place of its construction, has been matter of various opinions. Gen. Cass in his historical discourse, places it at Erie; Mr. Bancroft in his history, designates the mouth of the Tonawanda. Mr. Sparks in the biography of Marquette, decides to place it on the Canadian side of the Niagara. These variances result in a measure from the vague and jarring accounts of the narrators, whose works had been consulted in some instances in abridged or mutilated translations, and not from doubt or ambiguity in the missionary “Letters.”

Literary associations in America, who aimed to increase the means of reference to standard works, began their labors in feebleness. The New York Historical Society, which dates its origin in 1804, and has vindicated its claims to be the pioneer of historical letters in America, published Tonti s account of the Chevalier La Salle s enterprise, in one of the volumes of its first series. It is since known, however, that this account was a bookseller s compilation from, it is believed generally correct sources, but it was disclaimed by Tonti. It is at least but an abbreviation, and cannot be regarded as an original work.

In 1820, the American Antiquarian Society published in their first volume of collections, an account of Hennepin discoveries, which is known to bibliographers to be a translation of a mere abridgment of the original work, reduced to less than half its volume of matter. There was also an edition of this author, published in London in 1698; but still clipped of some of its matter, or otherwise defective; the tastes and wants of an English public being constantly consulted in the admission of continental books of this cast. The original work of Hennepin was published in French, at Amsterdam in 1698. Being of the order of Recollects, and not a Jesuit, there was much feeling and prejudice against him in France, of which Charlevoix, the accomplished historian of New France, partook in no small degree. Yet whatever may have been the justice or injustice of these impeachments of the missionary s veracity, there could be no motive for disagreement in a fact of this kind.

Hennepin was the camp missionary of the party on the way to Illinois, and the companion of La Salle and Tonti on the occasion. By adverting to his narrative, in the appendix, the most satisfactory and circumstantial details on this subject will be found. The vessel, according to him, was built ” two leagues above the falls,” that is, about three miles above the present site of Fort Schlosser, on Cayuga Creek. There is no stream, at this distance, on the Canadian side. They reached the spot on the 22d of January, set up the keel on the 26th, and, after laboring all winter, amidst discouragements, during which the Senecas threatened to burn it, at one time, and refused to sell corn to support the workmen, at another, it was launched in the spring, and named the Griffin, ” in allusion to the arms of the Count de Frotenac, which was supported by two griffins.” The figure of a griffin adorned the prow, surmounted by an eagle, the symbolic type of the embryo power, which was destined, in due time, to sway the political destinies of the continent. There were seven small cannon, and thirty persons, including the crew. With great difficulty, and by the use of the cordelle, they ascended the rapids, the present site of Black-Rock, and finally, after many delays, they set sail, freighted with merchandize, on the 7th of August 1679, just six months and twelve days after they had laid the keel. Thus the honor of furnishing the first vessel on our great chain of inland lakes, above the falls, is due to the present area of Niagara County, New York. How this initiatory step has been fol lowed up, in the course of one hundred and sixty-seven years, until these lakes are whitened by the canvass of the republic, and decorated with its self-moving palaces of wood and iron, under the guise of steamboats, it would be interesting to note. But we have no statistics of this kind to turn to. As an increment in such an inquiry. I subjoin, in the appendix, lists kept at my office, in the west, of the various species of vessels, which entered and departed from the remote little harbor of Michilimackinac, during the sailing seasons of 1839 and 1840, respectively.


Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Notes on the Iroquois: Or, Contributions to American History, Antiquities, and General Ethnology. E. H. Pease & Company. 1847.

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