Sir John Franklin

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.

Franklin’s first experience in the arctic was with the “Discovery Service” under Captain David Buchan. The British naval North Polar expedition left London on April 25, 1818 with the goal of reaching the North Pole. In northern Spitzenbergen, the ships became trapped by ice and the crews spent a few days at Fair Haven. On June 7th, they headed out to sea. Between the thick ice and a storm that damaged the ships, they were forced to head for home on August 30th without obtaining their goal. This became the last British naval attempt to reach the North Pole.


“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.

In 1819, Sir John Barrow, the second Lord of the Admiralty, picked Franklin to lead a small expedition to Canada’s Northwest Territory on the British Naval Exploring Expedition. Franklin left London May 23rd, 1819, heading up the mouth of the Coppermine River to Hudson Bay to help discover the North West Passage. This land expedition was timed with William Parry’s seaborne expedition to find the Passage. The land expedition consisted only of Lt. Franklin, two midshipmen, a surgeon, and a sailor who was to be Franklin’s servant. In Canada, Franklin hired 17 French voyageurs to paddle the canoes and carry the gear. Along with them came three wives and three children. He also hired 10 Chippewa from Fort Providence to guide and hunt for the expedition. The expedition left in August 1820, from Fort Providence toward the Coppermine River. Franklin took with him provisions for about ten days. After the supplies were exhausted, he expected the Chippewa to hunt and feed the expedition. That didn’t work out and hunger plagued the expedition; they were reduced to eating lichen off the trees. Were they successful? While mapping of the region was completed, they lost 11 out of 20 men, most succumbing to hunger, exhaustion, and exposure on the return march back to Fort Providence in December 1821. The expedition made Franklin famous, but it had the greatest percentage of crew life lost of any previous expedition.


“Mrs. Franklin,” Life of Sir John Franklin and the Northwest Passage, 1891, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, G660.M3.

In 1825, Franklin made another survey of the Coppermine River and the Kent Peninsula. On this trip, he was able to map even more of the northern most regions of Canada. He returned a hero and was knighted in 1823. Unfortunately, after this expedition, Franklin’s career floundered and he was put ashore on half pay. His second wife, (the first died of tuberculosis in 1825), Lady Jane Franklin, was an avid promoter of her husband’s talents. Because of her efforts, he was eventually offered the governor’s position on what is now the island of Tasmania in 1836. At that time, the island was a British penal colony and he did not excel at the head of the corrupt colony. He was removed from office in 1843. After his removal, Franklin was again put on half pay. Then Sir John Barrow began organizing another expedition to discover the Northwest Passage and asked Franklin to lead it. Franklin, chosen because of his reputation from previous attempts, was actually Barrow’s fourth choice in leading the expedition; his first three choices, all seasoned veterans of the arctic—Sir William Parry, Sir James Clark Ross, and Commander James Fitzjames— either refused the position or, in the case of Fitzjames, were considered too young by the admiralty. Franklin accepted and, after being questioned about his age (he was 59 at the time), he finally started organizing the expedition. He picked the officers, the crew, the ships, and supplies.

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 expedition set sail on May 19, 1845 for the Northwest Passage. In July 1845, two whalers saw Franklin’s expedition sail into Lancaster Sound, but they never saw them again. After the expedition did not return, Lady Jane Franklin pressured the admiralty to send out search parties. About 40 rescue expeditions were sent out over time. Many were sent with the canned food from the same supplier that outfitted Franklin’s expedition. The death toll was high on these expeditions, and more men died looking for Franklin’s expedition than were in the original crew. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

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
  • Towels
  • Soap
  • Sponge
  • Toothbrush
  • Hair-combs
  • Twine
  • Nails
  • Saws
  • Files
  • Bristles
  • Wax-ends
  • Sail makers’ palms
  • (Gun) powder
  • Bullets
  • Shot
  • (Gun) Cartridges
  • Wads (for loading a gun)
  • Leather Cartridge-Case
  • Knives
  • Needle and Thread Cases
  • Slow-match
  • Bayonet-scabbards that had been cut down to hold knives
  • Two rolls of sheet-lead
  • Tea
  • 40 lbs of chocolate
  • Tobacco
  • 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.

Expeditions continued on the same course as Crozier and found their campsites. It was obvious Crozier had made it to the Back Fish River, but it did not look as if anyone survived the river trip. Of course there were rumors of Crozier surviving and living with the Inuit, but that is the stuff of legends. Modern scientists have evaluated the remains of the buried individuals as well as those bones found in different locations. Many of the crew died of scurvy and food poisoning, mostly botulism from the poorly canned food. Later expeditions also had difficulties with canned food and eventually the fraudulent provider was investigated. Scientists also feel the crews, as a last choice, resorted to cannibalism, a pattern seen in other cases of starvation.

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.