SIR JOHN FRANKLIN: His Life and Afterlife

(c) 1996 Russell A. Potter, Ph.D.



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 public subscriptions. 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 death.

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. Parry, ironically, made it farther west than anyone was ever to penetrate in the nineteenth century, in the process mapping out all kinds of unexplored estuaries north and south from his main travel route along Barrow's Straits; it was the task of subsequent Naval expeditions to search these for the one that would show the way through. John Franklin, in fact, had his start as an explorer at nearly the same time as Parry, though his expeditions were by land. On one of these he and a number of his party nearly died of starvation, and survived by eating lichens, rotted deer skins, and even their own shoes. Franklin returned home to accolades, a knighthood, and the rather trying "reward" of a term as Governor of Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania), at the time a massive British penal colony.

By 1840, however, Franklin's survey had been much extended, and almost the entire northern coast of North America had been surveyed, from Prudhoe Bay (discovered by Franklin, though he had no idea of the value of the sticky black tar that slowed his march) through to the Simpson straits, which lay only a few hundred miles south of Parry's known waterway. 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 by Europeans.

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, whose name was In-nook-poo-zhe-jook, 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." From him and other Inuit in the area, Rae heard how

  • In the Spring four winters past, (1850) whilst some Esquimaux families were killing Seals near the shore of King William's land, about forty white men were seen travelling in company southward over the ice, dragging a boat and sledges with them. None of the part could speak the Esquimaux language so well as to be understood, but by signs the Natives were led to believe that the Ship or Ships had been crushed by ice, and that they were going to where they expected to find deer to shoot . . . At a later date in the same Season but previous to the disruption of the ice, the corpses of some thirty persons and some Graves were discovered . . . some of the bodies were in a tent or tents; others were under a boat which had been turned over to form a shelter, and some lay scattered about in different directions . . . from the mutilated state of many of the bodies, it is evident that our wretched Countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative, as a means of sustaining life.
  • 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 artefacts, 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 Wiliam 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 N N W 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 Inuit. 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 Husdon'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.

    Hall, disillusioned at finding no survivors, and even blaming the Inuit for not doing more to help (not realizing, as his own notes would tell others later, that the year in which the hunters met the 40 survivors was a year of famine among the Inuit, when there was not even enough food for a small band, let alone to feed 40 hungry strangers), left the Canadian Arctic to take up the captaincy of a North Pole expedition -- one which, alas, he was poisoned by his nervous crew and died without ever being able to organize his Franklin notes. 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 minutae 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. Other aspects of the oral tradition -- the second ship (which the Inuit said had deck-sweepings about it, as well as a lowered gang-plank and tracks of white men in boots), the four survivors, or even the possibility of conflict with the Inuit, were generally left where they were as outside the pale of what could be known.

    All this changed, however, in 1989 when David C. Woodman released his book _Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony_. Woodman took advantage of the fact that the Inuit testimony collected by Hall and others was available for study, and was the first to collate these tales with the records and artifacts of the expedition itself. He found that the Inuit witnesses, with a few exceptions, were all blood relations who told and re-told Franklin stories, both among themselves and to white searchers. Some were interviewed many times, though others whose testimony would have been invaluable were never interviewed. Most importantly, he threaded the elements of these stories together, finding both surprising points of agreement and points of unresolveable contradiction. As had other scholars who have taken the time to check them, he found the Inuit stories, contrary to the opinion of some Franklin apologists, were almost always accurate, and at every point checked out with what was known by other means. Nevertheless, there was the inevitable elaboration of some events, and the conflation of others by persons a step or two removed from the original eyewitnesses.

    Woodman found that the Franklin party had encountered the Inuit early on in their expedition, hosting some witnesses on board their ships. AT some points, the Inuit were amazed by the Kabloona's habits: an offering of salt pork was refused because they thought it might be the rib of a Kabloona, and a Guy Fawkes' pantomime alarmed a young hunter. The Inuit knew several members of the crew by name, though names turned out to be part of the difficulty. The senior member of any party was often known as "Toolooah," and a second officer as "Aglooka" -- many different encounters with different "Aglookas" caused significant confusion, especially since James Ross (who had come near the region in the 1830's) had also been known as "Aglooka." The Inuit, after seeing the men on the ships, had seen one ship sink, with great loss of provisions and lives, which they thought was the reason the crews had come ashore. Some time later, another band came across a ship which had been piloted to an island in Queen Maud Gulf, which looked to have only recently been abandoned. The tracks of four Kabloonans (recognized by their long strides and deep boot-heels) and a dog were seen, but the ship seemed to be empty. The Inuit ventured on board, and found 'dead men in their bunks'; in a locked cabin they found the body of a "giant Kabloona, with very long teeth," whose body was so heavy it took five men to lift it. They left the bodies where they were, and set about getting what useful things they could from the ship: knives, utensils, wood, and gun-barrels (unrecognized at the time, and so broken off for the metal). They even found unopened tins of meat on board -- another enigmatic clue.

    Woodman also took the Inuit accounting of dates at face value -- something earlier scholars were always reluctant to do -- which produced still more surprising conclusions. Woodman argued that the ships were abandoned (and re-manned) more than once, and that the Franklin party had remained in some numbers on King William Island until 1850 (rather than 1848, as previously thought). Thus In-nook-poo-zhe-jook's dating of the encounter with the 40 survivors to 1850 was conceivable, as was the possibility of crew-members leaving from the surviving ship as late as 1851. Woodman also benefitted from new searches on King William Island, two of which he undertook himself, which found and mapped some previously known sites as well as cairns & a few small artefacts. He was able, finally, to trace nearly every move of the expedition as it slowly wound its way towards death and disaster, and demonstrated convincingly that "Starvation Cove" -- an inlet on the mainland not far from King William Island, was *not* reached by the party of 40, as previously thought, but only by a small detachment of 6 or 7 men. Finally, he had definitive evidence that a number of survivors left the ship and lived as guests of the Netsilik for over a year before heading back towards Oot-koo-see-ka-lik (another ambiguous name, as it signified both the estuary of the Fish River as well as Wager Bay, an inlet of Hudson's Bay.

    In a second book, _Strangers Among Us_ (1995), Woodman traces further the history of these and other possible last survivors. The four mentioned above, he hypothesizes, might have been stragglers from a larger party (the Inuit said that there were seventeen men at first), and others may have made it as far as the Melville Peninsula, where they were seen by other Inuit, and where they may have left a stone cairn.

    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. Later investigators have always hoped that some sort of cache -- a box of documents securely hidden under or near a stone cairn -- would be found. Yet despite nearly a hundred and fifty years of looking, nothing has been found beyond the two Admiralty records -- or *almost* nothing. The pocket notebook of a crew member, found by M'Clintock, was examined with immense interest, but was found, frustratingly, to consist mostly of sea-shanties and doggerel verse, though one barely legible passage makes interesting reference to a dog, to "new boots" (the sledge-haulers left behind boots fitted with improvised lugs of wood or metal), and to "the 21st night a gread" -- a possible reference to the first abandonment. To make matters worse, the papers were damaged by water and frost, and their author had a penchant for writing *backwards*!

    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. Of all the dreamed-for documents in all the unsolved mysteries of modern times, none matches the drawing power of these elusive Franklin papers. Yet search after search -- including one made by David Woodman based on Inuit testimony and using the latest technology (GPS satellite data and ground-penetrating radar) has turned up so much as a scrap. Yet, as Woodman himself notes, they may yet be found someday:

  • "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 Franklin":


    In Baffin's Bay where the whale-fish blow

    The fate of Franklin no man can know

    The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell

    Lord Franklin with his seamen does dwell.