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Ill-fated Franklin expedition
Aug 21, 2008

by Bruce Cherney

Dr. John Rae differed significantly in one aspect from his contemporary Arctic explorers in that he was willing to learn from the Inuit how to survive in the harsh climate of the Far North. In addition, while on his treks into the unknown, he used men from the Red River Settlement long-accustomed to the chill of a fierce northern wind.

On the other hand, Capt. Sir John Franklin was the embodiment of the stereotypical English officer. Although a seasoned Arctic explorer, Franklin ignored Inuit knowledge and still insisted on using British linen, silver cutlery, fine china and nearly useless European clothing when undertaking his journeys of discovery. During his Coppermine expedition in 1819, Franklin’s failure to heed the advice of aboriginal  and experienced northern fur trapper guides resulted in the death of 10 of his crew from hunger and cold. 

It was a harbinger of an even greater disaster to befall the men who had placed their trust in Franklin to find the elusive Northwest Passage. Instead of returning to England as heroes, all the men of the ill-fated ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror would die ingloriously as a result of the indifferent temperament of the Arctic.

The British Admiralty had charged Franklin and his 129-man crew to travel up Lancaster Sound and then sail southwest across the uncharted central Arctic to link his earlier discoveries at the west end of the region. While performing this task, it was believed that Franklin would finally uncover the mystical Northwest Passage, linking the Arctic and Pacific oceans and opening a new and shorter sealane from Europe and Asia over the top of the North American continent.

“You have no idea how happy we all feel,” said Franklin’s second-in-command, Lieut. James Fitzjames, just before the two ships left England on May 19, 1845. “How determined we all are to be frozen and how anxious to be among the ice. I never left England with less regret.”

At the same time, Dr. Richard King, a veteran Arctic explorer, warned of the folly of British Navy excursions into the Far North, saying Franklin and his men were doomed “to form the nucleus of an iceberg,” but his warning was ignored.

As it turned out, Fitzjames would get his wish “to be frozen” among the Arctic ice.

The last Europeans to contact Franklin and the crews of the two ships were whalers aboard the Enterprise and Prince of Wales in August 1845. From conversations with the expedition leaders during this chance encounter, the whaling ships’ captains learned that Franklin was waiting for an opportunity to cross Baffin Bay to Lancaster Sound.

For three years, not another word was heard from Franklin and it became increasingly clear that some unknown fate had claimed him and his men. 

Prior to the Franklin expedition being officially listed as missing, Rae was commissioned by  Hudson’s Bay Company Governor Sir George Simpson in 1845 to undertake a surveying expedition in the Arctic. While making the presentation, The Arctic Regions and Hudson’s Route, during a meeting of the Manitoba Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba at Wesley College (now incorporated into the University of Winnipeg). Rae said he engaged nearly all his men at “Winnipeg and consisted of Scotchmen, Orcadians (Rae was born on September 30, 1813, in the Orkney Islands), one or two pure Indians and some splendid half-breeds (Métis) ... a better set of men never went to perform any duties.”

Using two boats built at York Factory, the party reached Repulse Bay in early August 1846, but found the bay so filled with ice, they decided to overwinter. At this time, his party numbered 15 men, including “Esquimaux” (Eskimo — then the common name for Inuit, although, surprisingly, an article in the Winnipeg-based Nor’Wester dated November 4, 1865, uses Inuit and only briefly refers to Esquimaux) interpreters.

Rae said he “tried to follow the habits of the Esquimaux ... One thing they (he used the third person throughout his narrative) did which has never been done by those in charge of Government expeditions, as soon as they saw a snow hut (igloo) made they set to construct one themselves ... A great ingenuity was required to build it properly ... and it was the best shelter that could be had. His object in making his men learn to do this was ... when overtaken by the frequent storms in traveling, they might run up in half an hour or less shelter (an igloo) that would completely protect them from the cold until the weather changed for the better.”

A warm igloo using the insulating properties of snow was readily welcomed by his men who had previously constructed a cold and drafty stone hut.

Rae and his men also adopted the use of light-weight Inuit sleds for travel which were highly useful for carrying supplies and safely traversing snow and pack ice.

Throughout the years of his service with the HBC in Canada, commencing in 1833, Rae showed a willingness to learn from the aboriginal people he encountered. While the HBC medical officer at Moose Factory, located at the southern end of James Bay in Ontario, he frequently visited the Cree living around the HBC post, honing his hunting skills (he was called one of the best hunters in the region) and learning their habits and survival skills. 

In total, Dr. Rae spent 22 years in British North America (Canada).

By following the examples of the Inuit in the Arctic, Rae became the first European explorer to learn how to live off the land and to travel unburdened by excess equipment.

The explorer developed a great respect for the Inuit, admiring them for their generosity and the kindness they showed to his party.

What Dr. Rae did not know was that his surveying expedition took him within 240 kilometres of the trapped Franklin ships, then drifting helplessly southward in the pack ice off the northwest end of King William Island. The Erebus and Terror had been stuck in the ice since September 12, 1846, but at the time, Rae would have been completely unaware of the Franklin expedition’s plight.

After Rae’s return to York Factory, he finally heard of the missing Franklin expedition when Dr. John Richardson offered him the position of second-in-command of the first expedition to search for Franklin and his crew.

Although they explored 1,375 kilometres of coastline, their search was futile — no trace of Franklin was found. Rae made another unsuccessful attempt in 1850. 

By this time, Franklin and his mysterious fate had become a cause célèbre, spawning numerous expeditions from Canada, Britain and the United States. Eventually the cost of the expeditions would total nearly £1 million, an enormous sum for the era.

William Kennedy, who had retired from the HBC in 1846 and later settled at St. Andrew’s, Manitoba, was hired by Lady Franklin to lead two expeditions to find her husband, although unsuccessfully.

It was during Rae’s fourth trip into the Arctic that the fate of the Franklin expedition was revealed.

In his account to the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba (now Manitoba Historical Society), Rae said whenever encountering Inuit, he would ask if they had seen any “dead white men.”

Obviously, Rae was under no illusion that any of Franklin’s men had survived their ordeal.

One Inuit showed Rae a gold band which was said to have come from a place with dead people, although the Inuit man would not tell Rae where it was found. He questioned other Inuit and from the information they provided compiled an account of the Franklin expedition’s fate.

In his report, he said the hunter In-nook-poo-zhe-jook with the gold band told him there had been “a party of Ka-bloo-nans (white men)” who had died of starvation.

Using his interviews with Inuit, Rae compiled this narrative of events: “In the spring four winters past, whilst some Esquimaux were killing seals near the shore of King William’s Land, about forty white men were seen travelling in company southward over the ice, dragging a boat and sledges with them. None of the party could speak the Esquimaux language so well as to be understood, but by signs the Natives were led to believe that the ship or ships had been crushed by ice, and that they were going to where they expected to find deer to shoot ... At a later date in the same season but previous to the disruption of the ice, the corpses of some thirty persons and some graves were discovered.”

When relating events years later to the audience at Wesley College in Winnipeg, Rae said: “The lecturer had obtained in the spring either the crest or the initials of fourteen of the sixteen officers of both of the ships. Franklin himself had died in June or July 1847, (the following facts were later confirmed by other expeditions), and in the winter of 1847-48 no less than 24 had died, nine of whom were officers. As but fifteen of the one hundred men had died, the proportion of officers was very large.

“The Esquimaux stated that among the dead bodies they found bones and feathers of geese, showing that the men must have been living in June, when ... the snow was a good deal off the ground and the deer (actually caribou) were going northward, so that men such as Dr. Rae’s party could have got their living. Those men, however, were very hapless, and not accustomed to hunt.”

Rae wrote in his report that some bodies were found in tents and under the boat used by the men as shelter after the two ships had been crushed by the ice.

But one item he related was the most troubling and became the basis of criticism against his findings from Inuit witnesses. Rae wrote, “From the mutilated state of many of the bodies and the contents of kettles, it is evident that our wretched Countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative — cannibalism — as means of prolonging existence.

Among the items recovered by Rae from the Inuit were cutlery, watches and a medal that had once belonged to Franklin.

His critics pointed out that he came to the conclusion that the entire Franklin expedition had perished without visiting the actual site where the Inuit were reputed to have seen the crew’s remains, as a result his report to the British Admiralty was widely dismissed and Rae’s integrity was called into question. 

Quite correctly, Rae had refused to further risk the health and well-being of his men by trying to find the remains in a location that had not been adequately disclosed to him by the Inuit.

The greatest challenge to his claim was simply the Victorian mindset that no “civilized” Royal Navy personnel would indulge in cannibalism, and that the people of the land, whom they called “savages,” could not be relied upon to tell the truth.

Lady Jane Franklin led the attacks on Rae’s report, aided by famous English writer Charles Dickens who published articles rejecting Rae’s conclusions. While Lady Franklin sought to glorify the memory of her husband, Dickens said it was unthinkable that anyone in the British navy “would or could in any extremity of hunger, alleviate that pains of starvation by this horrible means.”

Dickens also wrote, “We believe every savage (in this case Inuit) to be in his heart covetous, treacherous and cruel.”

A belief at the time was that the Franklin expedition may have been murdered by Inuit, but following his probing questioning, Rae was satisfied they had nothing to do with the demise of Franklin’s men. In fact, Rae could think of no possible reason for the Inuit to kill the men.  

Perhaps the most important aspect of Rae’s report is that it alerted subsequent expeditions to where they should be looking for the missing men. Until Rae relayed his information, searches had concentrated in areas hundreds of kilometres away from the true site where Franklin’s two ships floundered in the ice.

The British government wanted confirmation of Rae’s report, so it asked HBC Governor Simpson to commission another expedition. He sent word of the request to the Red River Settlement where James Green Stewart hired “three Indians and 14 Red River of the North men,” who journeyed from the settlement to the Far North. 

Later joined by James Anderson, the HBC party were directed to Montreal Island by the Inuit where they found snow shoes of the “English make” with the name of Dr. Stanley, surgeon of the Erebus. They also found a boat belonging to the Franklin expedition with the name Terror still visible on its side. From the Inuit, iron pots and other items were recovered.

The Inuit said one man had died on Montreal Island, who was too weak for them to help, “and that the balance of the party wandered on the beach of the main land opposite, until, worn out by fatigue and starvation, they, one by one, laid themselves down and died too,” according to an interview with Stewart in the December 12, 1855, St. Paul (Minnesota) Democrat — Stewart being on his way to Eastern Canada to report his findings.

Contrary to Rae’s criticism of the inability of the doomed men to fend for themselves — hinting at Franklin’s incompetence — as well as the possibility of cannibalism, the same newspaper editorialized on solving the “mystery,” by writing of “Brave Sir John, whose fate has awakened the sympathizing curiosity of the civilized world, it is now known ‘sleeps the last sleep’ by the shores of the frozen seas through whose icy island he had vainly sought to pass. Four winters back, as Esquimaux said, the noble party, after escaping from the ships which could no longer float on those dangerous seas, found release from suffering in death. Died manfully, too, as they lived; bravely, like true Englishmen; this much we may believe, for consolation, that they met their fate as became spirits adventurous and noble.” 

In spite of the opposition to his findings, Rae was awarded the £10,000 prize for discovering the fate of the Franklin expedition.

Other evidence of what had happened to the men was found by Francis Leopard McClintock, who led an expedition using the small vessel HMS Fox from 1857 to 1859 sponsored by public subscription at the request of Lady Franklin. 

At Point Victory on the northwest coast of King William’s Island, McClintock and his crew saw bodies left lying in the snow, decapitated skeletons inside a boat lashed to a sledge and abandoned clothing. McClintock reported the boat was filled with a great quantity of heavy and useless items.

But more important were two reports on a standard Admiralty form. 

A May 28, 1847, report on their progress signed by Franklin was followed by “All well.” 

The second report, signed by Capt. James Fitzjames of the Erebus and F.R.M. Crozier, the senior officer of the expedition after the death of Franklin, was scrawled around the margins of the form and contained the messsage: “April 15th, 1848 — HM ships Terror and Erebus were deserted on the 22nd of April five leagues N.N.W. of this, having been beset since 12th September 1846. The officer and crews consisting of 15 souls under the command of Captain F.R.M. Crozier landed here ... Sir John Franklin died on the 11th of June, 1847; and the total loss, by deaths in the expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men.”

The last note said the party was going to Back’s Fish River, but none would reach their destination.

Charles Francis Hall, an American  newspaperman, became fascinated by the tales of Franklin’s fate and raised funds to visit  the Inuit and uncover more details. For six years, he travelled the Arctic, even re-interviewing In-nook-poo-zhe-jook. Astonishingly, he found one elderly couple who said they had joined Franklin aboard the Erebus for dinner.

Hall learned that the Erebus sank not far from where it was abandoned, while the Terror drifted in a more southerly direction until it sank.

Some of his findings were reprinted in the Winnipeg-based Nor’wester on November 4, 1865, from an original article in the New York Journal of Commerce. The article primarily related that Crozier and three companions were found floating on the ice by Inuit.

The Inuit told Hall that Crozier was “skin and bones” when they found him, while the three men with him were “fat” as they had been living on human flesh.

Crozier was saved by an Inuit man — named Ou-e-la (Albert) in Hall’s account — by feeding him tiny pieces of seal meat until he was revived and could eat more substantial amounts of food.

“This noble cousin (the Inuit man), whom the whole world will ever remember for his humanity and his three white men, save one, who died during the ... winter.”

When Crozier and his remaining two crewmen left in the spring, Ou-e-la said they had plenty of ammunition and “many pretty things.”

Hall said Crozier and the men overwintered with the Inuit and then started out for the land of the Kablunas (white men).”

Hall’s report gave people hope that members of the Franklin expedition were still alive in the Arctic. 

Another more important consequence than unraveling the “mystery” of Franklin’s fate was that the many expeditions launched to find him greatly expanded non-native knowledge of the North and added immeasurably to the charts and maps of the region. It can be successfully argued that without public pressure on the British Admiralty and government arising from numerous articles calling for a resolution of Franklin’s fate, as well as the lobbying and financial clout of extremely wealthy Lady Francis, the mapping of the Arctic would not have been undertaken as quickly and thoroughly. 

The real beneficiary of the new knowledge was Canada. Armed with new maps and charts Canada was able to assert its jurisdiction over a good chunk of the Arctic, especially after the British government handed over control of the region to the 13-year-old country in 1880.

Uncovering of the facts behind the “mystery” of Franklin’s expedition were still pursued years after Rae’s report.

The Winnipeg Morning Telegram reported in the article headlined, Five Graves in Frozen North, on October 19, 1904, that Albert Low and the men of the Canadian government steamer Neptune found artifacts and remains of Franklin’s men on Beechey Island (near the southwest coast of Devon Island in Welligton Channel). The newspaper said crude wooden monuments were erected over the graves. Only two graves contained two bodies from the Franklin expedition, while the remainder contained the remains of later expeditions.

It was reported there were ruins of three huts used as “winter quarters in days gone by,” and vast quantities of provisions, oatmeal, peas, beans, flour and cheeses, “all bad,” were scattered around and in the huts. Canned meat known as “Goldner’s Patent” was also found which Low said was eaten by the Franklin expedition.

Low may have been correct in his theory that the canned meat went bad and food poisoning broke out among the remaining 105 men who had abandoned the ships and loaded heavy sledges with food, shelter and firewood. 

Once the fate of the Franklin expedition was known, the British Admiralty blamed Stephan Goldner for supplying the expedition with bad food. It is known that Goldner was rushed to supply the canned food for the expedition and in his haste may have inadequately cooked the food during the canning process. 

Scientist Scott Cookman, who did a study on the Franklin expedition, concluded botulism (food poisoning) contributed to the deaths. He said at first large amounts of fuel was available to cook the tinned food and kill the botulism bacteria, however, in the winter of 1846 there was only enough fuel available to cook one meal a day. The other two meals were eaten cold right out of the tin which meant the bacteria was easily transmitted to the men.

Owen Beattie, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, is noted for having tested hair and bones from Franklin crew members, whose bodies were perfectly preserved by being frozen in their graves on Beechey Island (the graves were originally found in August 1850 by Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane). The bodies of Petty Officer John Torrington, Able-bodied Seaman John Hartnell and Royal Marine William Braine,  examined from 1984 to 1986, were found to contain lead over 100 times the acceptable level. The three men had died early into the Arctic portion of the expedition before the ships became ice-bound.

The lead found in the men’s remains was from the lead solder used to seal the tins containing food. Unfortunately for the men, the overlapping seams of tins were soldered inside and out with lead. Beattie concluded the ships held enough food for the crew to survive for at least five years, as a result there is no evidence the men starved to death. Instead the men died of lead poisoning long before they would have starved to death.

Another symptom of lead poisoning is a lapse into delusion and a loss of mental capacity, which could be used to explain why some of the men resorted to cannibalism. In addition, lead poisoning contributes to weakness in bone and muscle which would have prevented the men from moving their heavy sledges across the ice and snow.

Whatever the cause of their deaths, the Franklin expedition remains part of Canadian Arctic folklore — one of the reasons the Canadian government is now supporting an expedition to find the ships Erebus and Terror  now resting somewhere on the seabed near King William Island.