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Long-missing ships of Franklin's Arctic expedition have been found, but mysteries remain

  • Author: David A. James
  • Updated: May 28, 2017
  • Published May 28, 2017

An illustration of the HMS Terror at sunrise on July 14, 1837. (Owen Stanley, Library and Archives Canada)

Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a 165-Year Search

By Russell A. Potter; McGill-Queens University Press; 2016; 280 pages; $35.96

Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition

By Paul Watson; Norton; 2017; 384 pages; $27.95

"I've come to think of it as almost a kind of virus," explains author Russell A. Potter in his new book "Finding Franklin." "Franklin fever," he calls it elsewhere — an obsession that has gripped explorers, archaeologists, historians, armchair adventurers and even entire nations. It's a mystery that hundreds have investigated firsthand, providing evidence for fellow sufferers at home who cannot learn enough and who await any new discovery.

At its root is the desire to know exactly what befell the Franklin expedition and led to the deaths of all its 129 men in the high Arctic sometime around 1849. It's a contagion for which, Potter writes, "once infected, it seems there is no cure."

The details are simple. In 1845, two vessels under the command of Sir John Franklin, and equipped with the best the British government could provide, left England amid great fanfare to discover the fabled Northwest Passage, a shipping route that would traverse the waters north of modern-day Canada and provide English merchants with a new, faster way of reaching Asian markets. After a stop in Greenland and pair of brief encounters with whaling vessels the ships plunged boldly into Canada's Arctic Archipelago and vanished, never to be seen again by Europeans.

Given that they would have to return the long way and considering the limited communication technologies of the era, it wasn't until 1848 that the first searchers were sent out for the lost men. Over the next decade details slowly emerged from stories gathered from Inuit witnesses, from relics, from bones that were found and from the sole note left behind by crew members and discovered in a cairn in 1859. The ships had become entrapped in the ice. Franklin had died in 1848. The following year, the entire crew abandoned their ships with plans of heading south to a Hudson's Bay Co. outmost a thousand miles distant. They did not get far. Everyone died, but not before some of the last to wither in the arctic cold would turn to cannibalism, eating their dead crew mates in a futile effort at survival.

Without a trace

The ships, meanwhile, sank without a trace. Despite the best efforts of dozens of British, American and Canadian search parties over the many decades since, they remained hidden beneath the Arctic waters. The lengths to which Franklin's widow, Lady Jane Franklin, went to convince others to find what had happened became the stuff of legend. The lost ships became the Holy Grail of the north. It seemed likely they would never be found.

And then they were. The first to be located was the Erebus, Franklin's command vessel, found almost by accident, submerged and only partially damaged, in Queen Maud Gulf by a Canadian search crew late in the summer of 2014. The news electrified the world. Then last summer, the second ship, the Terror, was discovered in pristine condition just off King William Island, in Terror Bay ironically enough. The ships, as it turned out, were found precisely where Inuit oral history said they were.

Until the discovery of the two ships there had been maddeningly little physical evidence to explain why the Franklin expedition failed and why the men marched off to their doom. In coming years much will be learned from the wrecks, although it's equally possible what's discovered will only deepen the mystery. Meanwhile, one chapter in the most dramatic story in Arctic history has come to a close, making this a good time to revisit the long and often agonizing efforts at finding the ships and maybe answer some of the questions.

Two recent books do precisely this. In "Finding Franklin," Potter, an English and media studies professor at Rhode Island College stricken with a consuming case of Franklin fever, details several of the most significant search efforts and puzzles at length over the evidence they produced. Meanwhile in "Ice Ghosts," Paul Watson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Canadian journalist, summarizes the early rescue attempts and then fast forwards to the successful discoveries of the two ships. Taken together, the two volumes show how the fever Potter identifies has driven professionals, hobbyists and everyone in between to spend more than a century and a half trying to unravel the most vexing mystery of the north.

Inuit had the answers

In the end, they also show that the Inuit who tried to tell searchers in the 1850s where the wrecks were located, and who passed this knowledge to their descendants, should have been listened to in the first place.

The first and most famous victim of Franklin fever was Franklin's wife. Two years after her husband and his men departed she began to fear for their safety and urged the British Admiralty to go looking for them. After opening his book with an account of what is known of the expedition's fate, Watson devotes the second section to Lady Franklin's relentless attempts at persuading both the British government and private individuals to take up the cause.

Watson offers a narrative of the decade that followed. While the first boats went out in 1848, it wasn't until 1850 that England fully committed itself to the search. The only thing found that summer, however, was the graves of three sailors who perished on Beechey Island during the expedition's first winter. No written records accompanied the site.

Over the next few years, a number of ships were dispatched, approaching North America's Arctic coast from the east and the west. Vessels were iced in, some of them sank, and more men died. The route of the Northwest Passage was located, although no boats made it through.

An overland expedition made the first big breakthrough. John Rae, a legendary Arctic explorer from Scotland, pushed his way to the Arctic coast in 1854. Unusual for British subjects of his time, he both listened to and respected the Inuit, a trait that allowed him to both survive by observing and emulating them, as well as to gather their accounts. It was he who brought back the grisly story of sailors who had abandoned their ships and embarked on an overland journey dragging sledges overladen with goods. They fell to the ground and died as they walked, he was told. The last survivors ate their fallen compatriots.

A huge scandal erupted in Britain when he returned with this tale. Charles Dickens, a close friend of Lady Franklin's, attacked Rae and insisted if the men were indeed cannibalized, it had been by the Inuit. The British government meanwhile, convinced that all were dead, quietly abandoned the search.

Why written backward?

This left Lady Franklin to finance the one party to find any written records. Under the command of Francis McClintock, this crew found a cairn on King William Island with a note from the lost seamen. It contained two handwritten messages. The first, dated 1848, proclaimed all well. The second, written a year later, gave the date of Franklin's death and, in somewhat panicked language, told where the men were heading.

Potter goes over this note at length, as well as an even more curious finding. The only other written document ever found was a packet of letters McClintock discovered under the skeleton of one of Franklin's men found lying on the beach. Mostly the letters discuss life in the tropics, but a few cryptic passages may or may not pertain to the expedition's collapse. Most curious of all, the letters and even the addresses on them are all written backward. No one knows why.

McClintock found bones that had clearly been sawn upon, confirming claims of cannibalism, but knowing the scandal Rae's account had raised, he only discussed this privately. Lady Franklin, now knowing of her husband's death, nonetheless maintained her obsessive drive to uncover the full story until her own passing. She never learned more.

Watson leaves the tale at this point, jumping a full century ahead to the beginning of Canada's efforts at recovering the wrecks, but Potter goes on to tell of several freelancers who contracted the fever and continued the search, often at their own expense. The most significant was Charles Francis Hall, an American journalist who hitched rides north with whalers and interviewed Inuit witnesses to the calamity. From them he learned that Natives had themselves boarded one or both of the abandoned vessels, that one or more corpses had been found on one of them, and that they were located far to the south of where the note found by McClintock's party said they had been abandoned. He also learned that while the Inuit had scrapped the ships of what they could use, they saw no value in the papers left behind and scattered them to the winds. Crucial evidence was lost.

Frederick Schwatka, another American, headed north in the 1880s and found plenty of graves and bones, but no evidence that contradicted the official account. His was the last major search until the 21st century, although many others followed him north, several of whom Potter writes about.

It was a major push by Canada in the new century that finally located ships. Backed by government and corporate money, searchers spent several summers mapping the sea bottom to the west and northwest of King William Island, where the note said the ships were abandoned. They were still mistakenly depending on the official story. It was only by accident that the Erebus was found.

Sea ice during the summer of 2014 kept the team south of its planned search region. While placing a GPS station on an island in the south of Queen Maud Gulf, a helicopter pilot contracted to the expedition found an old ship's relic on the beach. This sent searchers into nearby waters where Franklin's command vessel was finally located in September of that year.

Were ships remanned?

Two years later, following up on a report by a local Inuit man who said he had seen a mast protruding from the sea ice a few winters earlier, the Terror was found in Terror Bay off the southwest coast of King William Island. Again, local knowledge trumped 16 decades of expert opinion.

The location of the wrecks, both of which are in exceptionally good shape, raises questions that both Potter and Watson explore. The most significant is that they indicate the abandoned ships might have later been remanned by survivors and sailed to their present locations. The positioning of the Terror, which was found after Potter had finished his book, is particularly persuasive. Neither sea ice drift nor currents could have gotten it there. This would also undercut a long-running but increasingly discredited theory that lead poisoning from poorly soldered canned goods had driven the men mad and destroyed their judgment. It appears increasingly likely the men scattered into groups that went different directions in their desperate efforts at escape.

The story that emerges from these books is that the experts were often wrong. The information Rae and Hall collected from the Inuit was better than the written note left by Franklin's crew. And in modern times, the discovery hinged on the work of two men, David Woodman, a Canadian Navy vet and seaman, and Louie Kamookak, an Inuit from Gjoa Haven, both amateur researchers who became infected with the virus and have devoted their lives to finding answers.

For fellow sufferers of the fever these are the most exciting times since the virus first emerged in the 1840s. As the wrecks are explored, answers will surface and new questions will be raised. None of us will live to see the final verdict of history, however, which is part of why the Franklin expedition maintains its icy hold.

"Like Shakespeare," Watson writes, "the Franklin tale never grows old because people of each generation can read into it what they want, or need, to see."

It's a thought Potter echoes, proclaiming, "it's ourselves, not Franklin, that we're really searching for, and those latitudes know no pole."

It's a fever that doesn't want to be cured.

David A. James is a freelance writer and critic based in Fairbanks.

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