Monday, August 10, 2009

Glimpse into a Disaster

The Franklin Expedition, 1845-1848, was without a doubt the greatest Arctic exploration disaster in which every last member of the expedition perished.1 A great deal has been written and will continue to be written about the expedition and why it ended in disaster. There has also been not surprisingly been a great deal of, what can only be described, has fantasy.2

Franklin’s Voyage

The key document, and in fact the only document found, concerning the fate of the expedition, (aside from graves on Beechey island with headboards3), was a document found buried in a cairn at Victory Point on the north west side of Kings William island.

Victory Point Document

The above document has the following two notes written about a year apart. Here are two versions. The first excludes the marginalia and goes has follows. It should be noted that the first note by Lieutenant Gore exist in a duplicate copy that was found not far from Victory point at Back bay, it does not have Captain Crozier's additions about the fate of the expedition.4

The first note bears the date of May 28, 1847 and says:

28 of May, 1847 (H. M. ships Erebus and Terror wintered in the ice in lat. 70 05’ N. long. 98 23’ W.) Having wintered in 1846-7 at Beechey Island, in lat. 74 43’ 28” N., long. 91 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. Party consisting of 2 officers and 6 men left the ships on Monday 24th May, 1847.

Gm. Gore, Lieut.

Chas. F. Des Voeux, Mate.5

The second note is dated the 25th of April 1848.

April 25, 1848. H. M. ships Terror and Erebus were deserted on the 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 herein lat. 69 37’ 42” N., long. 98 41’ W. Sir John Franklin died on the 11th June, 1847 and the total loss by deaths in the expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men.

F. R. M. Crozier cccccccccccJames Fitzjames
Captain & Senior Officer. cccCaptain H. M. S. Erebus

and start (on) to-morrow, 26th, for Back s Fish River.6

The second version is as follows for the May 28, 1847 note:
Lieutenant Graham Gore and Mr. Charles F. des Voeux, mate, left the ships on Monday, the 24th of May, 1847, with six men. H.M. ships Erebus and Terror wintered in the ice in latitude 70 5' N, longitude 98 23' W. Having wintered in 1846-47 at Beechey island in latitude 74 43' 28" N., longitude 91 31' 15" W. After having ascended Wellington channel to latitude 77, returned by the west side of Cornwallis island, (Sir) John Franklin commanding the expedition. All well.7
For the April 25, 1848 note the version is as follows:

(1)848. H.M. ships Terror and Erebus were deserted on the 22nd April, 5 leagues .N. W. of this (hav)-ing been beset since 12th Sept., 1846. The officers & crews consisting of 105 souls under the command ---tain F R M. Crozier landed here in lat. 69 37' 42", long. 98 41' paper was found by Lt. Irving under the cairn supposed to have been built by Sir James Ross in 1831, 4 miles to the northward, where it had been deposited by the late Commander Gore in June, 1847. Sir James Ross' pillar has not, however, been found, add the paper has been transferred to this position which is that in which Sir J. Ross' pillar was erected. Sir John Franklin died on the 11th June, 1847, and the total loss by deaths in the expedition has been to this date 9 officers & 15 men.

F. R. M. CroziercccccccccccJames Fitzjames
Captain & Senior Officer cccCaptain H. M. S. Erebus

and start on to-morrow 26th, for Back's Fish river8.

What can we say from this single and singularly laconic document? Well we can say a few things concerning the fate of the expedition.

1, The expedition circled Cornwallis island in 1845 (see map) and then wintered at Beechey island. Where from the graves we know three men died, that winter of 1845-1846.

2. In 1846 the expedition sailed south probably through Peel sound and was beset by the ice on 12th September 1846.

3. On the 24th of May 1847 a 8 man expedition led by Lieutenant Gore left the ships and buried an Admiralty paper and on which, dated the 28th of May 1847 was written certain details about the expedition.

4. Shortly after on June 11, 1847 John Franklin died.

6. On April 22, 1848 the ships were abandoned.

7. On April 25, 1848 the New Commander Crozier left a note indicating when Franklin had died and that there were 105 men left. Nine officers, including Lieutenant Gore, and 15 enlisted men had died so far. From the note we learn that the remnants of the expedition will try to go up the Back river apparently to reach the Hudson Bay posts around Great Slave Lake.

8. If we exclude the 3 men who died at Beechey island it appears that 21 men had died in the two winters beset off the coast of King William island.

Scene of the Tragedy; King William Island

Aside from the above everything else is sheer conjecture. I will however point out to those who argue that the phrasing in the message does not necessarily mean that the ships were completely abandoned and everything was bet on an all or nothing race up the Back river that the text clearly says the ships were deserted and that all 105 of the survivors had landed. The text seems to be pretty clear that everyone was out of the ships and a make it or break it effort was going to be made for safety. Of course you could by semantic parsing and double talk say the text does not mean what it most likely means but without really good evidence I do not see any reason to doubt that the ships were completely abandoned and the last 105 men made a break for it.

The death total is significant in indicating how desperate things were. The note of May 28th 1847 does not indicate the death total so we can probably conclude that the number of deaths over the winter of 1846 / 47 were no worst than the number at Beechey island or perhaps no deaths at all. It seems likely the note would have mentioned anything unusual in that regard if it had happened. However it seems that the winter of 1847-48 had seen more than 10% of the crews dying. Perhaps as many as 21 men out of 126. This is a very high percent and would indicate that the health of the crew was bluntly quite poor. This would reinforce the idea that leaving the ships was an attempt to escape and that the crew was in truly desperate straits. All of this would seem to preclude the crews surviving very long unless they could get good food etc., very quickly. The time of year they left would not be conducive to finding food, as both Caribou and birds would not arrive until much later. Again a sign of desperation.9

A truly unlikely idea is that mistakes has to two dates in the document, (i.e., the statement about having wintered 1846-47 at Beechey island in the first note and the crossing out of May and replacing it with June, apparently done in April 1848, as the date in the note was first left in the carin in 1847) are errors that indicates lead poisoning can be dismissed as unlikely. I merely note that the first seems to be a “typo” of some kind, the second could be the same thing or may refer to another event regarding the note, it is of interest that the May added by Crozier in another part of the document which refers to Gore's time off the ship in 1847 is correct so the crossing out is mysterious but as indicated all the other dates including the dates given in the 1848 note, when they would have been even more lead poisoned, seem to be entirely correct. It is likely that stressed desperate men would make mistakes of this kind without lead poisoning or they could simp-ly be the result of "typos" drawing far ranging inferences from these errors seems dubious.10

I further note that given the dates given in the second note for abandoning the ships and the date the note was written it appears that it took three days for the crews to drag themselves to King William island, which would certainly not indicate a thoroughly fit crew. Given the deaths recorded already it is likely the crew was in overall bad shape and the exertions of dragging heavy sleds and boats, to say nothing of an assortment of useless crap, being ill equipped for the weather and poorly nourished make it very likely that all of Franklin’s men perished in a few months. It’s possible that a few survived longer but that only remains a possibility.11

M’Clintock discovers the remains of members of Franklin’s Crews

Much as been written about what happened to the Franklin expedition and why. It seems to be the case that if some of Franklin’s men had been able to live and forage in the polar environment they would have had a better chance of survival. Although it must be emphasized that the sheer size of the Franklin expedition, 129 men, would have made it very difficult for them to survive in such a resource poor part of the Arctic as King William island.12

In the end this very short laconic document provides a revealing glimpse into over 100 men sliding into a hell on earth and then death. Perhaps we should learn from it to cherish life and each other more.

Copy of the Victory Point document that appeared in Harper's in 1859.

1. M’Clintock, Francis, In the Arctic Seas, Porter and Coates, Philadelphia, 1859, p. 317. A copy can be found at Internet Archive , Here.

2. for responsible books that describe the Franklin expedition in detail see Berton, Pierre, The Arctic Grail, Anchor, Books, Toronto, 2001 and Beattie, Owen, Geiger, John, Frozen in Time, 3rd Edition, Greystone Books, Toronto, 2004. For irresponsible books see Latta, Jeffery Blair, The Franklin Conspiracy, Hounslow Press, Toronto, 2001, Woodman, David C., Unravelling The Franklin Mystery, McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal, 1991.*

3. See Beattie. The inscriptions on the headboards read as follows:

Sacred to the memory of John Torrington, who departed this life January 1st, A.D.1846, on board of HM ship Terror, aged 20 years

Sacred to the memory of John Hartnell, AB, of HMS Erebus, died January 4th, 1846, aged twenty-five years. “Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, consider your ways.” Haggai, I, 7

Sacred to the memory of William Braine, RM of HMS Erebus, died April 3rd, 1846, aged thirty-two years. “Choose ye this day whom you will serve”, Joshua xxiv, 15

The source for the inscriptions is Battersby, William Hidden Tracks, at Here.

4. Cyriax, Richard J., Sir John Franklin's Last Arctic Expedition, Methuen & Co. LTD., London, 1939, pp. 128-131.

5. M’Clintock, p. 256.

6. IBID. p. 258.

7. Low, A. P., Dominion Government Expedition to Hudson Bay and the Arctic Islands, Government Printing Bureau, Ottawa, 1906, p. 97. A copy can be found at the Internet Archive Here.

8. Low, pp. 97-98.

9. See Berton, pp. 334-341.

10. See Beattie for more. I note here that I do not dispute that Franklin’s crews suffered from Lead poisoning or that this contributed to the disaster; if only by lowering the crew’s resistance to other diseases and deficiencies. What I dispute is the idea that this lead poisoning led to a massive amount of disordered thinking by the crew that contributed to the disaster. In other words their minds were befuddled by lead and they could not think clearly. Well these two notes, if anything, indicate clear thinking and a lack of befuddlement. That of course does not mean they made the right decisions just that it appears that their thinking processes were not seriously impaired by lead.

11. Berton, pp. 331-332, M’Clintock, pp. 262-271. For a analysis of the tragedy that heavily emphasizes how unprepared Franklin's crews were to survive in the Arctic if something went wrong see Stefansson, Vilhjalmer, Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic, Macmillian Company, New York, 1939, pp. 36-129.

12. Berton, pp. 335-341, Stefansson.

* The reason why I include David C. Woodman’s book and by implication his other books about the Franklin expedition is his cavalier attitude towards Inuit testimony. He insists on interpreting all sorts of Inuit testimony about European explorers in the region of King Williams island as memories of the Franklin expedition despite the fact that before and after the expedition there was all sorts of European explorers who visited the area, for example in the years 1854-59. When a lot of this testimony was collected beginning in the late 1860’s and continuing to past 1900 there were lots of European explorers who had visited the area after Franklin to say nothing of before Franklin. It was not the Inuit who described those expeditions as Franklin’s but the Europeans. The Inuit were actually very honest, but like most oral peoples their memory for exact dates of events more than a generation before being recorded is a not exact. Further all the stories that Woodman uses to indicate a late abandonment of the ships possible survival etc., is almost entirely of late derivation and likely attributing such testimony to describing the Franklin expedition rather than earlier or later ones shows wishful thinking on the part of the European collectors of such testimony, not any error on the part of the Inuit. The testimony most germane to the destruction of the Franklin expedition was collected by Rae, M’Clintock and others in the period 1853-1860 and it would appear to indicate that the entire expedition perished soon after abandoning the ships in the spring of 1848.

Pierre Cloutier


  1. I'm delighted to see this account of the Franklin disaster; it's well-recounted and well-illustrated!

    I would disagree though about Woodman taking a "cavalier attitude" toward Inuit testimony. He is aware of, and writes extensively about, the confusion with earlier explorers. There weren't, in point of fact, all that many of them; the only explorer to get near Franklin's final position was Sir John Ross, who with his nephew James spent three winters on the eastern shores of the Boothia peninsula, where they had extensive dealings with the Netsilingmiut. This same band of Inuit had some contact with Franklin's men, and their stories are carefully examined by Woodman to filter out Ross sightings from Franklin ones. Yet the band closest to the final resting places of Franklin's men was in fact the Utjulingmiut, who had had very little direct contact with Europeans previously.

    And the testimony was not all a generation old -- Hall managed to speak to at least several eyewitnesses, as well as other friends and relations of Inuit who saw Franklin's men and ships. Later searchers, such as Schwatka, heard remarkably similar stories, though of course a bit "worn down" over time; the core story remained the same when Knud Rasmussen spoke with the grandson of one of the men who met with survivors -- this in 1922!

    That said, it's complex evidence, and has the inevitable redundancies, ambiguities, and inconsistences ...

  2. Thanks for the compliment.

    We will just have to disagree on Woodman. I simply had far too many "I feel like throwing the book against the wall" reading Woodman's accounts. Further I thought his whole narrative of men leaving and going back to the boat and going this way or that was postively absurd. My phrase "cavalier attitude" was deliberate. I got so annoyed with Woodman for continually assuming the Inuit were talking about Franklin, a habit he shares with many previous explorers. I simply did not see the "care" instead I saw half baked.

    If Woodman had confined himself to arguing that some men survived for a few years I wouldn't have had a much of problem, but the senario he outlined just struck me as a castle built on air.

  3. I guess I'd want to separate out Woodman's "multi-year" conjecture from his larger portrait of what happened to at least some of the short-term survivors, and the two ships. I'm skeptical than anyone more than a handful of men survived the winter of 1848-49. Nevertheless, I think some parts of Woodman's account, such as the ship at Ootjoolik is fairly consistent, among all witnesses and in testimony given over a period of years.

    But lively debate is always a good thing when it comes to such historical enigmas -- I'd invite you to visit my Franklin blog over at
    if you'd care to join in!