The fate of the Franklin expedition has long been known, but the true circumstances surrounding how they met their demise in the frozen Arctic have been more difficult to piece together. In recent years, a Parks Canada archaeological team has unsuccessfully been searching for the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, the two ships that brought the ill-fated expedition to Canada’s Far North.
Last week, the Parks Canada crew didn’t find the Franklin expedition ships, but they did locate the HMS Investigator, a ship sent by the British Admiralty to find Franklin that was last seen in 1853 after it was abandoned following two years of being held fast in Arctic ice off the shores of Banks Island in the Northwest Territories. Unlike the Franklin expedition crews, the Investigator’s crew, captained by Robert McClure, were rescued. And unlike Capt. Sir John Franklin, McClure is credited with finding the Northwest Passage.
The Investigator is reported to have been found eleven metres below the waters of Mercy Bay. The shipwreck was found with surprising ease, taking a scant 15 minutes for the torpedo-shaped sonar scanner to unveil the shape of the vessel resting on the bottom of the bay. The wreck is in remarkable condition, with the main deck intact, although the masts and bulwarks above the main deck are gone, presumably the result of ice damage.
The discovery of the Investigator provides the Parks Canada crew with renewed hope that they will find the Erebus and Terror. The first search in 2008 failed, but a second attempt will be made off O’Reilly Island in August.
The British Admiralty 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 in the west end of the region. By following this route, it was believed Franklin would finally unravel the mystery of the Northwest Passage leading to the Orient.
Just before the expedition set out from England on May 19, 1845, Franklin’s second-in-command, Lieut. James Fitzjames, expressed great enthusiasm and determination to be 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 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 after that, not another word was heard from Franklin and it became increasingly clear that some unknown fate had claimed the captain and his men.
William Kennedy, who had retired from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1846 and later settled in St. Andrew’s, Manitoba, was hired by Lady Franklin to lead two expeditions to find her husband, but both were unsuccessful.
Dr. John Rae, another Arctic explorer, who adopted local clothing and techniques to survive the rigours of the Far North, whenever he encountered Inuit would ask if they had seen any “dead white men.” Obviously, Rae was under no illusion that anyone from the Franklin expedition had survived.
Rae compiled an account of the expedition’s fate from Inuit sources: “in the spring of four winters past ... Esquimaux ... near the shore of King William’s Land” saw “about forty white men ... travelling in company southward over the ice, dragging a boat and sledges ... by signs the Natives were led to believe that the ... ships had been crushed by the ice.”
Rae’s report to the British Admiralty — confirmed by later expeditions — showed that Franklin had died in June or July 1847, and in the winter of 1847-48 no less than 24 of the men had died, nine of whom were officers. The Inuit said they found bodies in tents and under a boat used as shelter after the two ships were crushed by the ice.
The admiralty wanted confirmation of Rae’s report, so it asked HBC Governor George Simpson to commission another expedition. “Three Indians and 14 Red River of the North men” (men of the settlement in Manitoba founded by Lord Selkirk) were sent north. They found a pair of snowshoes of the “English make” with the name of Dr. Stanley, surgeon of the Erebus, and a boat with the name Erebus still visible. From the Inuit, iron pots and other items were collected. The Inuit told them, “one by one” the remaining men “laid themselves down and died.”
An expedition headed by Francis Leopard McClintock, commissioned by Lady Franklin, found bodies on King William’s Island lying in the snow and decapitated skeletons inside a boat lashed to a sled. But their most telling find was two reports on a standard admiralty form. The first from Franklin on May 28, 1847, said “All well.” The second told of the death of Franklin on June 11, 1847, and the two ships becoming entrapped in the ice on April 15,1848, forcing them to abandon the vessels.
Artifacts and burial sites associated with the Franklin expedition were found in the ensuing years. Five graves on Beechey Island were reported in 1904 by the crew of Canadian government steamer Neptune, although only two of the graves contained bodies.
Tales of cannibalism and madness are associated with the last days of the Franklin crew, with many academics offering opinions as to the cause of their demise. Some have suggested they died of food-poisoning due to the tinned food they carried being contaminated by botulism bacteria.
Exhumation and forensic testing of two crewmen in recent years found high levels of lead. Experts concluded that many of the men had died of lead-poisoning due to the contamination of food by the lead solder used to seal the cans.
Whatever the cause of their deaths, the Franklin expedition remains an integral part of Canadian Arctic folklore, which is the motivation behind the Parks Canada attempt to find the Erebus and Terror. If successful, yet another piece will be added to the puzzle of the ill-fated crew.