Sir John Franklin, the dividers and ship in the background indicate he was involved in the navy and his hand is covering the Northwest Passage and the Arctic, two areas he explored. Artist unknown, The Mariners’ Museum.
Sir John Franklin
1786 CE - 1847 CE
- Primary Goal:
Discover the Northwest Passage through North America
Mapping the northern regions of Canada
When John Franklin joined the British navy as a midshipman in 1801, he began a long and somewhat illustrious career. As a young man he saw action with Admiral Horatio Nelson in the Battle of Copenhagen and Trafalgar. At seventeen, he joined the navy’s “Discovery Service” and headed to Australia where he helped chart the coastline and waters. While in Australia, he saw for the first time the ravages of scurvy among the crew, and his ship, the HMS Porpoise was shipwrecked on the Great Barrier Reef. Franklin survived and returned home to the war with France. Unfortunately, he did not stand out as officer material; he was a lieutenant for 17 long years.
“Admiral Sir John Franklin,” The Life of Sir John Franklin, R.N., 1896, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, G660.T7.
“Arctic America: Illustrating the Progress of Discovery,” Life of Sir John Franklin and the Northwest Passage, 1891, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, G660.M3.
“Mrs. Franklin,” Life of Sir John Franklin and the Northwest Passage, 1891, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, G660.M3.
Barrow then picked the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror because they had already been on Antarctic voyages and, with a little modification, they became even more impervious to ice. The ships are sail/steam vessels and Barrow hoped that the steam engines would help the ships break through the heavy ice flows. In addition to the power of the steam engines, the outsides of the ships were reinforced with iron and the insides with oak. Barrow also took special care in feeding the crews while in the arctic. Scurvy was one of the most dangerous diseases the sailors faced, so along with lemon juice provided in casks, there were canned vegetables, pickle, and sauerkraut. The other problem was that rats would eat the food packed in wooden cases and barrels. So, some 20,000 cans of tinned meat, soups, and vegetables were ordered. Canned food was a relatively new invention at the time and a novelty to many. In addition to food, Barrow felt the crews needed entertainment during the long polar days, so books, games of checkers, and musical instruments were loaded aboard.
“Captain Sir Leopold McClintock,” Life of Sir John Franklin and the Northwest Passage, 1891, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, G660.M3.
The first evidence of Franklin’s expedition was found on Beechy Island in 1850 where three graves were discovered. These men had apparently died in 1846 of tuberculosis and pneumonia in 1846. John Rae, who was exploring the Boothia Peninsula for the Hudson Bay Company in 1854, talked with the local Inuit and discovered they had encountered 40 white men who had died near the Back River. They had traded with the men for seal meat and had knives and other objects with them.
In 1857, Lady Jane Franklin hired Francis Leopold McClintock to look for the expedition. McClintock, once under sail, opened a letter of instruction written to him from Lady Jane Franklin:
Aberdeen, June 29, 1857 My Dear Captain McClintock,
You have kindly invited me to give you “instructions,” but I cannot bring myself to feel that it would be right for me in any way to influence your judgment in the conduct of your noble undertaking; and indeed I have no temptation to do so, since it appears to me that your views are almost identical with those which I had independently formed before I had the advantage of being thoroughly possessed of yours. But, had this been otherwise, I trust you would have found me ready to prove the implicit confidence I place in you by yielding my own views to your more enlightened judgment; knowing too as I do that your whole heart also is in the cause, even as my own is. As to the objects of the expedition and their relative importance, I am sure you know that the rescue of any possible survivor of the ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror’ would be to me, as it would be to you, the noblest result of our efforts.
To this object I wish every other to be subordinate: and next to it in importance is the recovery of the unspeakably precious documents of the expedition, public and private, and the personal relics of my dear husband and his companions.
And lastly, I trust it may be in your power to confirm, directly or inferentially, the claims of my husband’s expedition to the earliest discovery of the passage, which, if Dr. Rae’s report be true (and the Government of our country has accepted and rewarded it as such), these martyrs in a noble cause achieved at their last extremity, after five long years of labour and suffering, if not at an earlier period.
I am sure you will do all these objects: my only fear is that you may spend yourselves too much in the effort; and you must therefore let me tell you how much dearer to me even than any of them is the preservation of the valuable lives of the little band of heroes who are your companions and followers.
May God in his great mercy preserve you all from harm amidst the labours and perils which await you, and restore you to us in health and safety as well as honour! As to the honour I can have no misgiving. It will be yours as much if you fail (since you may fail in spite of every effort) as if you succeed; and be assured that, under any and all circumstances whatever, such is my unbounded confidence in you, you will possess and be entitled to the enduring gratitude of your sincere and attached friend, Jane Franklin
Members of his expedition went in several directions looking for Franklin. In April 1859, McClintock was trading with the Inuit and they told him what they knew about the two ships:
“They both told us it was in the fall of the — that is, August or September—when the ships were destroyed; that all the white people went away to the ‘large river,’ taking a boat or boats with them, and that in the following winter their bones were found there.” On, May 5, 1859, Lt. William Hobson, searching for anything relating to the expedition, came upon a six-foot-tall stone cairn on King William Island. The cairn itself had been built by Ross years before. Around the cairn were four feet of supplies, including clothes, blankets, boat stoves, pots and pans, wood working tools, sails and even lightning rods. This was debris from Franklin. Inside the stone cairn was a sealed tin with a letter. The letter had an introduction written in six languages that was pre-printed on Navy paper which said, “Whoever finds this paper is requested to forward it to the Secretary of the Admiralty, London, with a note of the time and place it was found: or, if more convenient to deliver it for that purpose to the British Consul at the nearest Port.”
The second part of the letter had written:
“28 of May 1847. HM Ships Erebus and Terror wintered in the ice in Lat. 70-05’ N. Long. 98-23’ W. Having wintered in 1846-47 at Beechey Island in Lat. 74-43’-28” N. Long. 90-39’-15” W., after having ascended Wellington Channel to Lat. 77, and returned by the west side of Cornwallis Island. Sir John Franklin commanding the expedition. All well. Parry consisting of 2 officers and 6 men left the ships on Monday 24th May 1847. —Gm. Gore, Lieut., Chas. D. DesVoeux, Mate.”
The third part was a later addition to the letter and it was written all the way around the margins:
“April 25th, 1848—HM’s Ships Terror and Erebus were deserted on 22nd April, 5 leagues N.N.W. of this, having been beset since 12th September 1846. The Officers and crews, consisting of 105 souls, under the command of Captain F.R.M. Crozier, landed here in Lat. 69-37’-42” N., long. 98-41’ W…Sir John Franklin died on 11th June 1847; the total loss by deaths in the Expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men.—James Fitzjames, Captain HMS Erebus, —F.R.M. Crozier, Captain and Senior Officer, And Start tomorrow, 26th, for Back Fish River.” McClintock note in his book, A Narrative of the Discovery of the fate of Sir John Franklin and His Companions, that, “Lieutenant Hobson’s note told that he found quantities of clothing and articles of all kinds lying about the cairn, as if these men, aware that they were retreating for their lives, had there abandoned everything which they considered superfluous.”
Hobson headed toward the Back Fish River for another 45 miles when he came upon a small boat sitting on a sled. Inside the boat were supplies, one corpse sitting with a shotgun loaded and ready for use and one corpse in the bow, cut into pieces. It was clear that the starving men had resorted to cannibalism. But, McClintock wrote, the body in the bow of the boat was, “…in too much disturbed a state to enable Hobson to judge whether the sufferer had died there; large and powerful animals, probably wolves, had destroyed much of this skeleton, which may had been that of an officer.” The thought in Victorian England of cannibalism amongst the crew was unheard of. Some of the items found in the boat included:
- A pair of silk slippers
- Eight pairs of Boots
- Five watches
- Two double-barreled guns
- Five small books, including a Bible
- Silk handkerchiefs
- Sail makers’ palms
- (Gun) powder
- (Gun) Cartridges
- Wads (for loading a gun)
- Leather Cartridge-Case
- Needle and Thread Cases
- Bayonet-scabbards that had been cut down to hold knives
- Two rolls of sheet-lead
- 40 lbs of chocolate
- Silver spoons, forks, and teaspoons (Some with Franklin’s crest on them)
The boat alone weighed upward of 800 pounds and with these added supplies, it would have been extremely hard to pull the boat, even on a sled, over the rough ice. The men would have been exhausted.
Facsimile of the letter left by the Franklin expedition that notes were they abandoned the ships and the death of Franklin, The Voyage of the ‘Fox’ in the Arctic Seas: A Narrative of the Discovery of the Fate of Sir John Franklin and His Companions, 1859, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, G6651857.M16.
On a more positive note, if Captain Crozier made it to the Big Fish River, then he and his men actually discovered the passage west through the arctic. Unfortunately, they did not have time to enjoy their accomplishment.