The Graves at Beechey Island: Then and Now


The engraving by James Hamilton, based on a sketch of Elisha Kent Kane of the three Franklin expedition graves at Beechey Island, is the source for numerous representations of the scene in the 1850's, and even today. But is it really an accurate portrait?

The site has changed little since Kane's day; although the original grave markers were replaced by replicas with bronze plaques a few years ago, they still sit atop the orginal grave-mounds, which were reconstructed precisely, stone by stone, following the exhumation and re-burial of the sailors' bodies in the 1980's. Yet try as one may, the cliffs of Beechey -- impressive as they are -- are not nearly as high or jagged as this early image depicts, nor are the graves so close together, or so near the shore. A comparison of a detail of the engraving with a photograph I took in 2004 shows the discrepancy.

Yet despite the artistic license of this image, the site remains a striking and deeply moving scene, a kind of sacred ground for all who have followed -- or tried to follow -- in Franklin's footsteps.

A further mystery involves the question of just exactly how many graves there are at Beechey. The three of Franklin's sailors were augmented by a fourth, that of Thomas Morgan of the Investigator, who died aboard the North Star on May 22, 1854. Yet in 1875, a sketch made by the crew of the Pandora showed five graves:


There are also rumors that one or more Franklin fanatics have elected to have themselves buried at Beechey, though I know of no confirmed evidence that they carried through on their intentions.