Sir John Franklin was a British polar explorer who led an expedition into the Arctic in the 1840's that generated immense British and American interest and ended in disaster.

Early Explorations

Franklin spent much of his life searching for the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In 1819, Captain William Edward Parry (another Brit) had actually sailed farther west than anyone else in the 19th century would. The problem with Arctic exploration at the time was that ships' engineering had not progressed to a point where hulls could withstand plowing through ice. As a result, there were only two or three months out of the year when ships were able to traverse the lands north of the Arctic Circle, making extensive navigation nearly impossible.

At the same time, Franklin was traveling overland through the Arctic with an expedition to map rivers. This expedition, his first, ended with most of the explorers starving to death. Franklin and a few others only survived because they ate lichen and moss from rocks, rotting deer and elk carcasses, and even their own shoes through the Arctic winter.

Following that expedition, Franklin was given several medals and awards, and also knighted. He was then given the position of governer of Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania), at the time a massive British penal colony.

The Disastrous Expedition

By 1840, most of the Arctic had been mapped, but the elusive Northwest Passage had not been found. Franklin, almost sixty, was chosen to lead another expedition. He left England in May of 1845, with his two ships, the "Erebus" and "Terror," packed to the gunwales with pickled potatoes, pemmican, and a relatively new invention -- canned meat. He reached Lancaster Sound in August and was never seen again by Europeans.


Dr. John Rae, working at the Hudson Bay's northernmost point, began to hear strange rumors from the Inuit living near him. A few years before, another expedition had set out to look for Franklin, but had been unable to find anything but the site of his first wintering. This had been marked by three graves and hundreds of empty canned meat tins.

Rae liked to asked the natives if they had seen the great ships of the British Empire. One day he found an Inuit man wearing the gold band off a navyman's cap. Asking where it was found, he learned about a place, far to the west, where several wrecked ships, broken by the ice lay; more, there were at least thirty bodies clearly mutilated by cannibalism near the ships. Rae offered a reward for artifacts from the site and was given the officers' silver plate, broken chronometers and astronomical instruments, and even one of Sir John Franklin's medals - the Guelphic Order of Hanover.

Reaction at Home

Franklin's widow was incensed that Rae had not searched farther, and also that he received the reward for finding the ill-fated expedition. Others didn't believe the claims of cannibalism (including Charles Dickens) because no Englishman would resort to such things. Rae defended his claims, and Franklin's widow recruited Captain Leopold M'Clintock to search for the remains of her husband's expedition. In 1858, he and his small crew found the final camp on King William Island: decapitated bodies lying facedown in the snow, ship wreckage, and two written records. Both of these records contained accounts of the expedition and portrayed it as going well; they were written on offical paper. One, however, had the following message scrawled around its edges:

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 raised some questions-- why were so many officers dead? Why had it taken so long to travel? And why were they headed to Back's Fish River? Many theories have been suggested, including that they were suffering from scurvy or that they were experiencing lead poisoning due to the poorly made tin cans of meat. Nevertheless, M'Clintock returned home a hero for having solved the mysteries of the expedition.

Further Investigation

Obviously, the mysteries were not solved. One particularly obsessed and tenacious man, Charles Francis Hall (who also happened to be an eccentric journalist), went to the region and began to interview several of the Inuit. Through their stories, he was able to find the site where Martin Frobisher, nearly 300 years before, had dug for gold; Hall reasoned that if the Inuit remembered that, they had to remember Franklin's expedition. After raising money in the US on a lecture tour, he was able to spend six more years interviewing the Inuit. He even found one couple that had eaten with Franklin on board the "Erebus". One of the ships had made for the south but had probably sunk. A few of the survivors had trickled into the Inuit towns on their way to whaling stations. The same year that the starving Englishmen had passed through, the Inuit were experiencing a terrible famine, and were unable to help. Hall lost hope of ever finding survivors, and moved on, leaving behind massive amounts of data.

1989 and Beyond

For the century, interest dropped off. Scholars focused on minute details, and everyone else turned their eyes to the expeditions of Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and later the Mt. Everest explorers, George Mallory and Edmund Hillary. No one disputed the hypothesis that insanity had gripped the crew.

In 1989, David C. Woodman released his book Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony. Here he used Hall's records of interviews to piece together a view that at least 10 survivors had lived well beyond 1848, when the expedition was believed to have ended. However, the one thing that researchers would really like to find is a set of records; two sets were ordered to be made, but nothing but the two slips of paper mentioned above have ever been found. One crewman's notebook was found, and while examined with immense interest, it was found to consist mostly of sea-shanties and doggerel verse. 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" (sic) -- a possible reference to the first sinking of one of the ships. To make matters worse, the papers were damaged by water and frost, and their author had a penchant for writing backwards.

An Interesting Note

In 1985, another expedition found the first wintering site and the graves there were dug up. They contained three perfectly preserved bodies (perfect due to permafrost). One of them had his eyes-- blue-- open, and they were almost life-like, despite 139 years in a wooden coffin only three feet below the ground. Samples taken from the hair revealed significant lead poisoning.

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