Searching for the Franklin Expedition:

The Arctic Journal of Robert Randolph Carter.

Edited by Harold B. Gill Jr. & Joanne Young

Naval Institute Press, $32.95


Reviewed by David Owen


By 1850 Sir John Franklin's expedition to discover the North West passage had not been heard from for 5 years. Fear for the fate of the unreported expedition had risen to a new pitch. Sir James Ross had gone to search in 1848-9 and returned empty-handed, as had Sir John Richardson on an overland expedition with Dr. John Rae. Had Franklin, his two ships and 130 men simply vanished?

The outcry intensified and the response, in the spring of 1850, was that the largest number of ships yet assembled set out in search of the lost Arctic expedition. The Royal Navy provisioned two squadrons of ships, one headed by Horatio Austin, the other by William Penny; while Lady Franklin launched her own expedition led by Lieutenant Forsyth (aboard The Prince Albert). There was also a private expedition lead by 72-year old Arctic veteran Sir John Ross; and finally, the two ships of the American Arctic Expedition.

These were the flagship Advance, commanded by Edwin DeHaven, and the Rescue, with acting master Samuel Griffin, and his first mate Robert Randolph Carter. The American expedition was a curious combination of public and private resources; the ships were provided by philanthropist Henry Grinnell, and manned by an American Navy crew. The standard and, until now sole, published account of this expedition is Elisha Kent Kane's celebrated The US Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin, A Personal Narrative, a journal which the editors tell us "sold sixty-five thousand copies in the first few months" of publication in 1853.

Now the journal of the Rescue's first officer Robert Randolph Carter has been published by the Naval Institute Press for the first time as Searching for The Franklin Expedition, an account whose bristling honesty makes it unique among Franklin search journals.

Carter's account is a different species of writing from Kane's. It is an informal unrevised journal of 144 pages, each headed: Latitude/ Longitude /Wind/ Weather/ Temperature. Kane's 552-page tome is the official published record, full of engravings, lengthy digressions, and meteorological appendices. Carter's record originated below decks, a private journal of an unsuccessful and very difficult voyage. As the editors note, this work is "the canvas-covered book given him by Samuel Griffin, the Rescue's captain, which he believed would be a journal only expressing his feelings -one he thought no one but his family and close friends would read." It is not a formal account but an unrehearsed performance, honest and telling in ways the other can never be.

Robert Randolph Carter was a son of a Virginian antebellum plantation owner from a family with a long history of Naval service. He had entered the Navy as a midshipman at the age of 16, a not unusual age for the time, and thus was a veteran of 8 years when he came to New York to be first officer and Navigator for Samuel Griffin the acting master of the Rescue.

Upon his arrival at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Carter was "astonished to find the brigs so small". His first short entry concludes "Considerably disgusted or rather disappointed in my anticipations." Disgust and disappointment are two recurring points on Carter's emotional compass. In his initial entries not only does he complain about the size of the ship, but after they set sail, he complains about how badly she sails and how much it leaks:

May 24th -A little sea and this vile boat seems to think it her duty to make every motion except that of going through the water. Oh, what an ass I was for joining this business!

June 13th - A heavy cross sea wetting her all over wherever. How I wish I was to home. Confounded be the art of building wet vessels.

August 20th - Horrible, wet, seasick day. May nobody ever see such another unless it be to cure some poor ass of a taste for the sea.

What is remarkable about Carter's journal is how openly he complains. Neither his upper nor lower lip remained stiff for long. Yet it is the one place where he can speak his mind openly and write what he would not say in public. And, in fairness, all his complaints stem from very real causes. The motion of the ship leaves him seasick, and provides so little refuge from water that he is wet even below decks. In addition the Rescue sails so badly every other ship beats it, an obvious liability in the short season of Arctic navigation. Even the swifter sailing Advance is unable to take advantage of leads of water,tethered to its consort. The situation is a bad one and Carter simply calls it what it is.

By mid-August the two ships having fought through the middle ice of Baffin's Bay arrived at last in Lancaster Sound the vicinity of their search. They encountered the British ships of Penny, the Lady Franklin and the Sophia on August 19th. Although following different sailing orders the realities of the open water served to funnel the many search vessels to the same vicinities and 10 days later Carter noted "nine vessels between Capes Riley and Hothany".

Clearly the most significant discovery of the entire flotilla that August was the discovery of Franklin's first winter camp on Beechey Island. The journal of Carter's gives us another perspective on this key event in the history of the Franklin search. The first mention of the Franklin artifacts comes on August 24th, when Carter recorded Captain Penny's report that Captain Cator in the Pioneer had gone "to Cape Riley and Beechey Island and found some articles which no one but Franklin could have left ". Then on August 26 the Rescue's master Griffin goes ashore on Cape Riley and "picked up some scraps of cloth, leather &c and an empty meat can with Golden (the name of Franklin's victualer) stamped on it. Saw marks of four tents but by the moss upon the stones, they must have been there two or three years ago "

The trail of Franklin relics proliferates, culminating finally in the discovery by Penny's men of the cairn and three graves on Beechey Island. This discovery of the cairn, built by Franklin's men but apparently empty, is one of the key enigmas in the Franklin mystery. Its vacancy has led to endless speculation. Kane describes the situation: "The cairn was mounted on a high and conspicuous portion of the shore, and evidently intended to attract observation; but, though several parties examined it, digging round it in every direction, not a single particle of information could be gleaned. This is remarkable; and for so able and practiced an Arctic commander as Sir John Franklin , an incomprehensible omission."

Carter seems the source of mischief, in an episode relating to the discovery of Franklin's Beechey Island camp. One of Carter's shipmates (Davis the sail maker) claims the men of the Assistance (a ship of Austin's British squadron whose Captain was Erasumus Ommanney) had told him of the graves "where the capts say they found no traces but the useless cairn"…Then their advising us to search to Eastward and not saying what they intended to do…caused me to suspect that Capts Ommanney & Kator had found notices certainly under the cairn on Beechey Island (which thoughtful men such as Franklin built for some use)…and that they had concealed them from us,… this suspicion I communicated to Griffin…and in five minutes the officers of the five vessels were in an uproarious state suspecting themselves of being humbugged by Ommanney…"

In the end no one was humbugging anybody. Ommanney hadn't found anything and the incident, not mentionned by Kane, is dismissed by Carter in a subsequent entry some days later "By the way all our suspicions of him (Ommanney) and Capt. Cator were as unjust and as unfounded as galley yarns generally are". Part of the confusion was the initial interpretation of sledging tracks pointing eastward as those of a retreating party. But further deliberation concluded that they were simply the marks of Franklin's winter sledging activity.

Carter seems to shrug off his involvement but nevertheless appears to be guilty of stirring the pot by construing the supposed facts against Ommanney. It appears in fact he didn't like Ommanney, who he seems to have found pretentious. Further evidence of his disdain is found in a subsequent entry:

Opened a cairn erected only yesterday with a paper in the same bombastic style of Capt Ommanney's other document, not mentioning which way he is going nor where provision are left &c. but that no traces have been found on Cornwallis Island of which perhaps he has examined one one hundredth poorly…Perhaps this isnt the place to express such uncharitable sentiments but it does look so ridiculous for that party to be rushing ahead so as to be first at every place then leaving it unexamined to say there are no traces there.

Personal dislikes were of course nothing out of the ordinary, Captains Penny and Austin (the one a whaling captain, the other a career naval officer) apparently clashed almost every time they encountered each other. The difference being that no British search journal would ever openly admit it.

As well as presenting further evidence of Carter's disdain for Ommanney, it illustrates the uncoordinated nature of the search -one group arriving where another had been only the day before, to dig up what the other had just finished burying. The reader is struck by how unstructured the search was .To those of us used to the forensic formalities of cop shows or the notion of an ordered archeological dig, these Franklin searchers appear more like well-meaning souvenir hunters.

The frantic month of August was to be the only one truly spent looking for the lost Franklin; September's weather locked them down, reducing the navigable leads as the ice reclaimed the channels. Carter vividly describes the conditions in which they labored to make open water before freeze-up: "Our clothes were saturated with the spray in half an hour after starting, but they froze immediately and so were perhaps warmer. But the annoyance was the stiffness of the ropes which were iced and twice their usual size . …and the sea breaking over the bow rail soon had a solid mass (of ice) from the knights head to the windlass … she looked like an iceberg under sail."(pg. 75) But their struggles were in vain.

"Yes one day of open water would have put us whence we have every reason to suppose returning home certain or at all events in some harbor. But here we are fast, tight as wax in the middle of the mouth of Wellington Straight with a six knot fair wind." Carter concludes his entry with a comment of wry resignation "Home stock was up high but the young ice has caused a great fall." They were frozen in, drifting in the pack, being slowly expelled back down the straits they had so recently sailed up.

It meant the end of communication with the other search ships, none of which even knew that the Americans hadn't managed to escape, Carter notes "Strange fatality which has kept us from communicating with the English squadron at Assistance harbor when we were so long within reach of them, and also strange that no record of our having failed to get home after leaving them under the impression that we are at home. "

At the end of October the crews of both ships amalgamated on the larger Advance leaving the Rescue a "deserted mansion" loaded with their extra supplies as they began the long winter's drift awaiting for release from the ice.

Carter's journal reveals a solitary man, an outsider to the events he describes. He is a very religious man and although he doesn't mention a particular church he remained a devout Christian. Since most Sundays aboard the ship were spent working and without religious service, almost no Sunday passes without Carter's censure:

June 9th - Am illy satisfied with the manner of passing this Sabbath day.

Sept. 8th -The bay ice formed thick enough for all the men who can raise skates to be breaking the sabbath all day

September 22rd -Strange indeed does it seem to me that Enlightened Americans should openly profane the Sabbath.

There was a tradition on Arctic voyages of putting on winter shows to keep the men occupied. At Christmas the crew onboard the Advance contrived some humble theatrical entertainments and ate special food (including a cake from Mrs. Grinnell) saved for the occasion.

Nowhere else does Carter seem so desolate: "And in the evening Theatricals, patriotic and sentimental songs from the stage ending at 10 p.m. with a dance (the hornpipe) to the Jews harp. Fit commemoration of the birth of a Saviour. It being my watch the forenoon and evening I was fortunate enough to be exempted without censure from participating in the race or having to clap at the exquisite performances on the Stage…" There is something Scrooge-like in this willful abstention from social contact, a contrast to the social, gregarious Kane who the same Christmas while admitting "the depressing influences of each man's home thoughts", gives a good spirited account mentioning that they even "sang Negro songs, wanting only tune, measure, and harmony but abounding in noise."

As the ships ride down Barrow's Straits on their winter ice bed, Carters entries become smaller and smaller, sometimes abating altogether, leaving only the Latitude/ Longitude /Wind/ Weather/ Temperature headings, occasionally not all filled in. Gone are the lengthy entries of the heady days of the previous August replaced by the perilous monotony of their uncontrolled drift.

In April they begin to reclaim the Rescue preparing it for its hoped-for release as they approach the Greenland shore. The ship is again afloat on May 21st but they don't have open water to make sail until June 7th.

While off Baffin island on July 12th Carter notes "Saw a small vessel to Southward supposed to be the Prince Albert." This was not the Prince Albert captained by C.C. Forsyth who had failed to get through and returned to England in 1850, but that same ship outfitted anew by Lady Franklin and sent out again this time commanded by William Kennedy and his second the French Lieutenant Joseph René Bellot.

The Rescue and Advance keep company with the Prince Albert for about a month each trying to work its way from the Greenland coast across Baffin's Bay into the area of the search. As a result the crews were able to visit back and forth on a number of occasions. Carter liked both Kennedy and Bellot writing after their first meeting "we find the officers very nice people".

The Canadian Captain Kennedy was renowned for his religous zeal, and regular calls to prayer were a feature of life on the Prince Albert. In fact when Kennedy was missing for a time from the ship Bellot insisted on keeping up his daily prayers which he led despite being Roman Catholic. So it's no surprise and a source of relief to the reader whose has followed Carter's sabbath laments when at last Carter is able to write, on Sunday July 27, 1851 -"Attended Divine Service on board the Prince Albert. Mr Kenedy officiated and pleased me much."

DeHaven continued to try and find a passage northward while Kennedy and Bellot took a more southernly tack and so parted company with the Americans. But DeHaven persisted in his efforts Northward and was completely frustrated.

Here Kane's words seem quite appropriate:

I ought perhaps, as a book-maker, to go on with a diary of our second progress toward the North. But my work is almost done…I feel that my readers , like myself, must be tired of efforts that had no result.

Kane goes on to say that from the 13th of July to the 13th of August they made only thirty-seven miles. Carter adds "I have given up all hope of getting that way this season in time to reach Lancaster sound before it will be dangerous to be there, So good bye Sir John, the Yankees have failed to aid you and can only pray for you. God Almighty aid you to escape from what by this time must be an awful position, if any of your party are still in the hands of Arctic deities."

So both Kane and Carter wholeheartedly endorse the decision of Dehaven's some days later when he decides to head for home. Kane remarks "for our scury-riddled crew, a nine months' winter in the ice of North Baffin would have been disastrous."

What Carter's journal brings us are the small details of day to day ship life left out of official narratives. It is more alive, more fresh, the events spill onto the page as they occur, petty and profound side by side. But a day to day log is a different kind of text from a formal search narrative and has a different set of requirements for its fullest reading. To this end Harold B. Gill Jr. & Joanne Young have made a manuscript into a useful book. The footnotes and the glossary are essential and regularly enlightening. The only note of regret is that a usable map was not included in the book. The maps reproduced in the books pictoral section are so small that most of the type on them is illegible. Reproduced at a readable size it would have been a great addition to Carter's narrative.

The Forward provides essential context in terms of the history of the Franklin search and the biography of Robert Carter. The Epilogue contains a sketch of American Arctic expeditions later in the century, the legitimate descendants of Carter's expedition.

Of course all true stories end in death and we learn sadly of the all too short lives of Kane and DeHaven, bringing some sense of context and closure to the open-ended journal. And, of course, they provide the details of the subsequent life of our Robert Randolph Carter who lived a full life going back to the sea as a an American Naval officer many times, wherever he might have written in his journal to the contrary. His life included such fascinating episodes as working as a Confederate spy abroad and at the end of the Civil War and needing a presidential pardon to be able to be allowed return to America. Only then did he finally end his travels and return to run his beloved Virginia plantation where lived until his death in 1888.


David Owen