Sir John Franklin was a famous explorer of the 19th century. He made several successful voyages into the northern arctic before he made his last and tragic expedition there in the 1840’s. He and 129 men were sent there to map out the unknown regions of the Northwest Passage. Within two years of their leaving it became clear that something had gone terribly wrong. No one had heard from or seen the men since a few months after they had set out on their journey. None of them were seen alive by their countrymen again and many were never seen by their countrymen again, alive or dead.
On May 19, 1845, Sir John Franklin and 134 men left England and headed for the Northwest Passage (north of Canada). They sailed on two ships called the “Erebus” and the “Terror.” They stopped for a short time in Scotland and then again in Greenland. In Greenland, the men picked up enough provisions to bring their total food stores up to a three-year supply. At this point, the Franklin Expedition lost five men. They were sent home for being “unfit” for the expedition.
From Greenland, the Franklin Expedition followed a route through the Baffin Bay, toward the Northwest Passage. It was here that the ships and the crew were seen by Englishmen for the last time. Two whaling ships, the “Prince of Wales” and the “Enterprise” spotted them during the latter half of July 1845. From that point on, the fate of the Franklin Expedition becomes a matter of speculation, controversy and deduction.
In 1848, the Admiralty and Mrs. John Franklin sent out search parties in an attempt to find and hopefully save the 130 men that were apparently lost or in danger, particularly Sir John Franklin, who had become something of a hero in his homeland. The first few search parties were only able to find the graves of three crewmen on Beechey Island. However, in 1854 a man arrived in England with a report containing some information about the Franklin Expedition that he had gathered from the Inuits.
The man who had delivered the report was Dr. John Rae. Rae had learned that the Inuits had seen a group of about 40 white men dragging sledges and a boat through the snow. They had traded with the white men and then they had gone their separate ways. The Inuits went on to tell Rae that, in 1950, they had found about 30 bodies and a few graves near the mouth of the Great Fish River (or the Back River). Their bodies had reportedly shown evidence of cannibalism.
When this report was made public in England, many people were outraged. Charles Dickens even took an interest in the story and wrote that there was no evidence that the men had resorted to cannibalism. However, the credibility of the report was increased by the fact that Rae had returned with some silverware that had belonged to the men of the Franklin Expedition. Rae claimed that he had purchased it off of the Inuits and it was later confirmed that the silverware had indeed belonged to some of the missing men.
In 1959, another search party found a document underneath a cairn on King William Island that said that the two ships had been trapped in the ice off of King William Island for nearly two years and that the men had been forced to abandon them. The document went on to state that “Sir John Franklin had died on 11th June, 1847,” among other men. The remaining men had gone toward the Great Fish River. This discovery lent credence to Rae’s report from five years earlier.
To this day, the ships and the bodies of the remaining men have not been found. Studies have shown that the bodies that have been uncovered do indeed show signs of cannibalism. There have also been reports of highly elevated levels of lead in the corpses, particularly that of John Torrington, who was buried on Beechey Island. There are two theories regarding the elevated levels of lead. The first is that the cans used to tin the food stores on the ships were poorly soldered. The second is that the lead came from the pipes on the ships. Either way, many researchers feel that this may have contributed to the deaths of the men that were found.
Oddly enough, the numerous search parties that were sent to discover the fate of the Franklin Expedition succeeded in mapping out many unknown regions of the Northwest Passage. One of these search parties led to the discovery of Bellot Strait by Captain William Kennedy in 1852. In essence, they completed the task that had been given to Sir John Franklin.
Cassidy Kathryn, The Franklin Expedition: 1845-1859, retrieved 8/27/09, victorianweb.org/history/franklin/franklin.html
Sir John Franklin: Lost and Found, retrieved 8/27/09, libweb5.princeton.edu/visual_materials/maps/websites/northwest_passage/franklin-lostfound.htm