Lesson #19: Sir John Franklin: His Life and Afterlife
(c) 1996 Russell A. Potter, PhD
Captain Sir John Franklin's disappearance in the Arctic—along with two ships and
128 officers and crew—was a celebrated mystery in the nineteenth century, attracting
enormous public attention both in Great Britain and the United States. Some forty
expeditions were launched in search of his party, funded both by governments and
In a way, Franklin's expedition was the Apollo 13 of his times—only, in his times,
without radio or modern communications, such potential martyrdom came with painful
slowness. It is probably impossible to be quite as lost today anywhere on the planet
at Sir John was by 1848, and his plight was only worsened by the hundreds of theories
pursued by experts and amateurs alike as to where help might best be sent.
In the end, the few sober voices (and two remarkably accurate psychics) who made
the right guess as to his location were drowned out by a bevy of British and American
Arctic experts, including more than a few of Franklin's old friends, and much-needed
relief never reached him. Franklin himself, it was later learned, had died in 1847,
before concerns had really reached their peak—and within the next two or three years,
every single one of the men under his leadership joined their commander in anonymous
Franklin's holy grail was the long-sought Northwest Passage, through the Arctic from
the Atlantic to the Pacific. Many sailors had tried to find such a route in centuries
past, but it was not until 1819 that Captain William Edward Parry succeeded in making
any headway into the inland Arctic , where winter freeze-ups left sailors with only
a month or two out of twelve in which there was any open water to navigate.
When an expedition was contemplated to follow that last remaining link, it was little
surprise that Franklin—though nearing sixty and grown rather sedentary—was selected
to lead it. He departed from England in May of 1845, his two ships, the "Erebus"
and "Terror," packed to the gunwales with pickled potatoes, pemmican, and a relatively
new invention—canned meat, Goldner's Patent. He reached Lancaster Sound, the gateway
to Barrow's straits, in August of that year, and was afterwards never seen again
It was not, in fact, until 1854 that Dr. John Rae, a surveyor for the Hudson's Bay
Company, heard the first intelligence of Franklin's fate. By that time, a dozen expeditions,
including official and un-official British ones as well as the American Grinnell
Expedition (on which E.K. Kane served as surgeon) had tried to find him, but discovered
nothing beyond the site of his first wintering (1845-6), marked by three graves an
a heap of empty meat tins. Dr. Rae, far to the south, did not expect to hear anything
of Franklin during his survey. Yet he always asked the Inuit, among whom he traveled,
if they had heard any stories of white men and ships, and one day his question received
a startling answer.
Sledging along the coastline not far from Pelly Bay, Rae encountered an Inuk hunter
with an unusual cap-band; it was made of gold cloth and looked to have come from
a naval officer. Questioning the man, he was told that "a party of Ka-bloo-nans [white
men] had died of starvation, a long distance to the west of where we were then, and
beyond a large River."
Rae did not get the full story until his return trip to Repulse Bay, by which time
it was too late for sledging; the coastal areas were thawing, making for treacherous
travel. Yet having heard of his offer of a reward for artifacts, the Repulse Bay
Inuit offered a trove of items from the Franklin expedition, including the officers'
silver plate, broken chronometers and astronomical instruments, and even one of Sir
John Franklin's medals—a Guelphic Order of Hanover.
Rae hastened to convey this news to England, where it caused consternation among
many. Franklin's widow, the inestimable Lady Jane Franklin, was incensed that Rae
had not tried to go further, and outraged that the government reward of ten thousand
pounds for information about her husband was given to Rae. Newspapers seized on the
accounts of cannibalism, which was widely attacked as impossible—by, among others,
Charles Dickens. Rae defended his Inuit informants, however, and as we now know,
these stories were entirely true, though some of the geographical details had been
confused by various informants who had not actually been to the places named.
One indirect result of Rae's news was that Jane Franklin decided to fund yet another
private expedition to visit the area named by Rae's informants. She obtained & refurbished
a small yacht, and enlisted Captain (later Admiral Sir) Leopold M'Clintock to head
a small but tested crew.
Finally, in 1858, M'Clintock and his second-in-command Hobson made their way to the
Franklin party's camps on King William Island, where they found a number of melancholy
sights: bodies left lying face down in the snow, decapitated skeletons inside a boat
lashed to a sledge (and filled with all manner of weighty and useless material),
abandoned heaps of clothing, and two enigmatic paper records—the only official records
ever found. Both were standard Admiralty forms, and one simply gave the expedition's
progress report, followed by "All Well" and the officer's names. The other was nearly
identical, except that around its margins Captains Fitzjames and Crozier (in command
after Franklin's death) had scrawled the following message:
"25th April 1848. H M Ships Terror and Erebus were deserted on the 22nd April 5 leagues
NNW of this, having been beset since 12th Sept. 1846. The officers and crews consisting
of 105 souls under the command of Captain F.R.M. Crozier landed here in Lat. 69o
37' 42" Long. 98o 41' ... Sir John Franklin died on the 11th June 1847 and the total
loss by deaths in the Expedition had been to this date 9 officers & 15 men. [signed]
James Fitzjames, Captain H M S Erebus, F.R.M. Crozier Captain & Senior Officer, and
start on tomorrow 26th for Back's Fish River."
This was grim news, and still enigmatic. Why was the proportion of deaths among the
officers nearly twice that of the crew? How were 105 souls reduced to the "forty"
seen hauling sledges to the south? Why did it take them from April to sometime late
in the summer to travel eighty or ninety miles? And why, above all, were they headed
to Back's Fish River?
True, the ascent of that river would take them to a Hudson's Bay outpost, but this
1,200 mile trek over rapids and waterfalls would have been a hard haul for men full
of life and vigor. For the Franklin crews, clearly affected by scurvy (and possibly
by lead-poisoning as well, from badly-soldered meat tins), it was an insane destination.
The boat found by M'Clintock, one of the ship's sizable whaleboats, was lashed to
a heavy sledge of solid oak planks and filled with all manner of oddments from silver
teaspoons to carpet slippers to a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield; hauling it to the
mouth of the Fish River would have been a death sentence.
Nonetheless, despite the unresolved problems, M'Clintock returned to public accolades
as the man who finally "solved" the Franklin mystery. And that was where the matter
lay for many a year, until other men revisited these sites and re-interviewed the
The boldest of these was Charles Francis Hall, an eccentric newspaperman whose mind
was inflamed with Franklin after he heard of Kane's expedition. Hall knew—as did
others - that the Ross expedition had survived four Arctic winters with the help
of the Inuit—could not some of the Franklin crew have done the same? Hall hitched
a ride on a friendly whaler & headed north to find out.
His first two years, frustratingly, were spent far from the Franklin sites, though
he was able—by following Inuit remembrances—to re-discover the site where Martin
Frobisher dug for gold some three hundred years previous. This discovery only furthered
Hall's passion; if the Inuit could still remember tales of Frobisher's men, what
might they be able to tell of Franklin's!
Hall returned to the U.S., raised more money through lectures & subscriptions, and
went back to the Arctic, where he would spend nearly six years tracking Franklin
stories. Astonishingly, he managed to interview a number of Inuit who had actually
talked with Franklin parties, including an elderly couple who had joined Sir John
for dinner on board the "Erebus." He interviewed In-nook-poo-zhe-jook, as well as
several of the hunters who were eye-witnesses to the band of 40 starving men.
All the stories meshed with amazing reliability, and Hall thus was the first to learn
that one of the ships—probably the "Erebus" had sunk not far from where it was abandoned,
while the other had drifted or been piloted a substantial distance south. Some of
his informants told of three or four final survivors from this second ship, including
a man who may have been Captain Crozier himself. These survivors had indeed wintered
among the Inuit, but had departed for the south many years ago. See-gar, one of the
men who had met them, told that he had heard that they had arrived safely in the
country of the Kin-na-pa-too Inuit on the shores of Hudson's Bay. Only much later,
Hall heard from a whaling captain stationed near the Kin-na-pa-too's territory that
this man who had been among them himself either starved or was killed, and thus never
reached the Hudson's Bay outposts that were his likely destination.
Others passed through the Franklin sites—military expeditions from the U.S. and Canada,
and even the intrepid Rasmussen, who in the 1920's heard once more of the Franklin
survivors, this time from the elderly sons of the hunters who had originally seen
them. In the twentieth century, most interest in the Franklin disaster has been among
those interested in filling out the minutiae of events, or speculating on minor details,
all the while accepting the general idea of a single abandonment, aimed at the Fish
River, with the party dying off along the way.
A final answer to the Franklin mystery seems unlikely. From the very start, the one
thing most sought by every searcher was some kind of cache of papers that would fully
explain the expedition's fate. Yet despite the fact that two sets of duplicate records—one
for each ship—were ordered to be kept, not a single scrap of either has been found.
The Inuit, regarding papers and books as useless, often left them where they found
them, or gave them to their children as playthings.
The only other surviving paper items were a couple of pages from "The "Student's
Manual," some prayer books, a New Testament in French, a book of "Christian Melodies"
(inscribed to G.G., possibly Lieutenant Graham Gore), and a copy of "The Vicar of
Wakefield." Back at Franklin's first winter camp, not a single official record was
found, though a scrap reading "until called" and another reading "Macdonald" (name
of one of the ship's surgeons) survived.
In 1973 a perfectly legible note was recovered from a cairn in the middle of Cornwallis
Island which had been deposited by Commander Phillips in 1851. Even more remarkably,
a letter written by William Barents, the intrepid Dutch explorer who spent the winter
of 1595 at Ice Haven on Novaya Zemlya, was recovered intact in 1871, 276 years later!
So the search goes on. The permafrost can preserve other things, besides; in 1985,
Owen Beattie opened the graves from Franklin's first winter camp, and found inside
three remarkably well-preserved bodies, looking not much different from the way they
did when first buried. One, John Torrington, his eyes open, looks almost as if he
could yet be alive—a deceptive look for a man who had spent 139 years in a simple
black wooden coffin.
Beattie also measured lead levels in the soft tissue and hair from these bodies,
as well as from bones recovered from King William Island, and found that at least
some of the Franklin crew-members were suffering from lead-poisoning brought about
by their canned foods. Yet whether this ailment, or scurvy, or starvation was the
ultimate killer, one fact remains: not a single survivor ever returned. The finality
of the tragedy is perfectly encapsulated by the words of the well-known ballad, "Lord
In Baffin's Bay where the whale-fishes blow The fate of Franklin no man can know The
fate of Franklin no tongue can tell Lord Franklin with his seamen does dwell.