The Mystery of The Franklin Expedition to the Northwest Passage
Created | Updated Sep 11, 2014
In the spring of 1845, Sir John Franklin sailed from England to search for the Northwest Passage.
He never returned.
Sailing to resolve one mystery, Franklin became another mystery himself: he and his two ships and his entire crew disappeared, apparently without trace in the ice of northern Canada. There followed an unprecedented worldwide preoccupation with finding out what had happened to Franklin and a massive Admiralty project: the Franklin Sea Search.
What was the background to this story and what actually happened to Sir John Franklin, the ships Erebus and Terror and 129 men?
A Brief Biography
Born in Lincolnshire in 1786, John Franklin joined the Royal Navy at the age of 16. He fought naval battles in the Napoleonic Wars, then commanded three expeditions to explore and map the northern coast of Canada and north-eastern Alaska, which culminated in his knighthood. The Admiralty reduced support for Arctic exploration briefly in the 1830s. In that decade, Franklin was appointed lieutenant governor of Van Diemen's Land1 where he stayed until 1843, when he returned to England to resume his explorations of the Arctic; specifically the Northwest Passage.
What Is The Northwest Passage?
The Northwest Passage was the goal of Arctic explorers from the 16th to the 19th Centuries. There were rumours that the Vikings had sailed around the north coast of America. Europeans were convinced that there was a navigable sea route connecting the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.
Efforts to discover a trade route through or around North America began in the 1490s with the voyages of John Cabot. In the centuries that followed, expedition after expedition set off to discover it. In the 19th Century the British had become obsessed with its discovery. It was seen as the greatest achievement to find an alternative - and potentially lucrative - trade route to the Orient and the Spice Islands, that would save ships the perilous passage round Cape Horn2 or the lengthy and hazardous voyage around Africa's Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean.
Franklin's Final Expedition
In 1843, Franklin sought command of a two-ship expedition to solve the puzzle of the Northwest Passage once and for all. Despite being 60 years old, he was appointed commander of the expedition consisting of 129 officers and men. They sailed out of Portsmouth in May 1845 with rations for three years, in the ships Erebus and Terror, which although being 19 and 32 years old respectively, were fitted with new engines as well as being the first Arctic-bound ships fitted with retractable screw propellers.
Captain Dannert, master of the Hull whaler Prince of Wales last saw the two ships in Disko Bay on 26 July, 1845. Neither Sir John, nor any of his crew, were seen by their countrymen again.
According to the scant records and remains found years later in the ice, Franklin and his men spent their first winter on Beechey Island, but their encampment was abandoned in haste. They left behind the graves of three seamen and a cairn, made entirely of more than 700 gravel-filled cans that had contained the expedition's meat, which led to speculation that some of their food had spoiled.
In 1846 the Erebus and Terror navigated Peel Sound and Franklin Strait in a southerly direction, but were stopped by ice between Victoria Island and King William Island. The two ships, icebound from September 1846, were deserted on 22 April, 1848. At that time the total casualties were 9 officers and 15 men, including Franklin. The surviving members of the party left the ships on 26 April, 1848, but apparently perished some time later. No further written records have ever been found. How the remainder of the expedition died is speculation, although there are tantalising hints in the oral history of the Inuit, who speak of white men with madness in their souls dying on the ice.
The Search for Franklin
Until 1845, the Admiralty was obsessed with Passage or Pole. After 1845 they threw every ship they could spare into the hunt for Franklin. A dozen ships were sent out in 1850 alone, the peak year of the search. Americans too, became involved and the President was persuaded to sanction the use of naval vessels to assist the hunt. They concentrated on the area around Lancaster Sound and this part of Canada's great arctic wilderness was mapped as a result, but nothing was found of Franklin or his ships and men. In 1857 the Admiralty stood down the search.
A popular song of the time, Lord Franklin, kept the search in the public consciousness3 and where the Royal Navy had failed, private enterprise was to succeed. Dr John Rae had discovered some of the expedition's more portable possessions in the hands of Inuit, at Repulse and Pelly Bays in 1854. The Inuit said the missing expedition had died of starvation having reached the shores of King William Island, which was to the south of the Admiralty's area of search.
In July 1857, Lady Jane Franklin, Franklin's second wife, paid for and outfitted the steam yacht the Fox. She instructed the ship to explore the area around Rae's discoveries. In 1858 a cairn was found at Point Victory which contained two messages relating details of Franklin's expedition up to 25 April, 1848. This included the information that Franklin himself had died on 11 June, 1847 near or on King William Island, about half-way through the Northwest Passage, while his two ships were ice-locked about 25 kilometres (15 miles) north-west of the island. The cause of death is unknown.
The Fox's captain, Francis Leopold McClintock, confirmed the Inuit story, finding discarded possessions4, bodies left lying in the snow, decapitated skeletons inside a boat lashed to a sledge and abandoned heaps of clothing on King William Island. Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka, US army, retraced the steps of McClintock's party during the summer of 1879 and found new traces of Franklin's men on the mainland, where the last survivors had perished. Schwatka named the site 'Starvation Cove'. Still, no hard evidence about the progress of their decline was found.
The Inuit in the area told the various search parties of meetings with white men, about a ship sinking with many deaths, another ship with dead bodies in the bunks and suggestions that a small number of the survivors lived with the local Inuit for over a year. Some of the crew may have survived until 1850, but all perished before search vessels reached the right area.
So What Killed the Franklin Expedition?
A final answer to the Franklin mystery seems unlikely. Inevitably some of the crew would have perished from illness, lack of nourishment, cold and accidents, but for over 150 years it has remained a mystery that so many men could die in a place that had been survived by previous expeditions, and where Inuit populations would trade goods for supplies. It was evident from the scattered remains, that the Franklin expedition was carrying plenty of goods. Why did they not exchange them for food and shelter from the Inuit?
In 1981, Owen Beattie, a Canadian forensic anthropologist, examined bones of some of Franklin's crew found on the south shore of King William Island and observed that they contained high levels of lead. He surmised the lead came from poor soldering on the expedition's food cans, and suggested that the lead had poisoned the crew, causing symptoms such as irritability, poor appetite and lethargy, therefore reducing their chances of survival.
Recently, American author Scott Cookman said many of the deaths were due to poisoning from botulism5 in the ill-prepared canned food. Cookman based his arguments on research in England that showed Goldner, the company that prepared the food, was less than fastidious when it came to cleanliness in its food preparation.
Another author, Noel Wright, said it was likely many of the men died in a war with the Inuit.
Along with scurvy, another argument is that Franklin's men simply starved to death, being ill-equipped to catch the little game that passes through that area.
Overall, the jury is still out on all these hypotheses. About 80 bodies have been accounted for.
Perhaps the greatest mystery is that no written records have been found, except for the two discovered at Victory Point. This is despite the fact that two sets of duplicate records would have been kept of the whole expedition - one for each ship. Despite over 150 years of hopeful searching for a cache of papers under a cairn, nothing has turned up.
The wrecks of the Terror and Erebus haven't been located yet, but the search continues.
Was the Northwest Passage Discovered?
Franklin's expedition came inadvertently close to solving the mystery of the Northwest Passage. It was during attempts to find them that its existence was finally proved and its practicality as a major trade route disproved. From 1903 to 1906, Roald Amundsen made the first transit of the passage. In 1969, a US ice-breaking oil tanker, the Manhattan, became the first large vessel to negotiate the passage.
The Northwest Passage has never been the great trade route envisaged by western European nations in the 18th and 19th Centuries. It is impassable because of ice for much of the year. The creation of the Panama Canal in the Americas and the Suez Canal in the east Mediterranean, reduced journey times around the world considerably and mean that ships no longer have to cope with the most hazardous ocean passages around the Capes.
The Canadian government, which began searching for Franklin's ships in 2008, announced in September 2014 that the wreckage of one of the British explorer ships had been discovered by sonar in the Victoria Strait, just off King William Island.