Maps to Disaster: The Arctic Surveys of Dease and Simpson





Along with the latest technology, the Franklin expedition took the latest maps, specially engraved for the Lords of the Admiralty by the firm of John Arrowsmith. "Arrowsmith's Charts" were the maps of the British Empire upon which the sun never set (especially in summer and north of 60 degrees latitude!).

Unfortunately, the latest surveys of the area Franklin would be exploring contained grave errors which would help seal his fate. The first error was that of James Ross who, in his trip to what he called "King William Land" on the Ross Expedition of 1829-33, traversed land and water indifferently, most frequently mistaking water for land. As a result, the only viable "Northwest Passage," which lay to the east of King William, was falsely regarded as a dead-end bay, which was shown on the maps as "Poctes Bay." Ross thus led credence to the false idea that King William was an extension of Boothia, whereas in fact it was an island. Both James and his uncle Sir John Ross persisted in the equally false notion that the "Gulf of Boothia," named by them for their sponsor, Felix Booth (he of Booth's Gin fame), opened out into the waters at the mouth of the Great Fish River. Arrowsmith's map, shown below, made a seeming reality of both errors.

Map courtesy of Einer Dawson

Dease and Simpson, who had mapped the southern coast of what was then still called the "Polar Ocean," added their own errors to the charts; their latitudes were accurate enough, but their longitudes seemed to drift with the tides; they misaligned the entire coast of King William Land with that of the mainland, and grossly misstated the longitude of their "farthest point" (the aptly named "Castor and Pollux River."

With these charts as their guide, it's little wonder that Franklin's men, on their death march along the southern coast of King William Island, failed to cross Simpson's Strait at its narrowest point; they may well have planned to continue by land as far as the Gulf of Boothia! For a more detailed image of the area where Franklin's sailors perished, click on the map or click here.