Franklin Sir John

As an officer in one and leader of three Arctic expeditions between 1818 and 1845, Sir John Franklin was directly responsible for mapping a considerable amount of the northern coastline of North America. Although he died prior to the completion of his final expedition (1845-1848?), the search for his whereabouts, which consumed the years 1849-1859, removed from the map nearly all the remaining blanks in the long-sought North West Passage. The mysteries attending the disappearance of his last expedition have proven to be of enduring interest, inspiring writers from Charles Dickens to Margaret Atwood.

Franklin entered the Navy at the age of 14, and saw service in the Napoleonic wars. He also accompanied his uncle Matthew Flinders on the latter's circumnavigation of Australia. Franklin's first Arctic expedition took place in 1818, when he was appointed second-in-command under Captain David Buchan in the Admiralty expedition sent to probe the polar ice. The expedition's vessels, Dorothea and Trent, battered by heavy pack ice north of Svalbard, were forced to retreat after emergency repairs. Franklin earned credit for keeping order on the Trent despite severe collisions with the ice.

In 1819, he was appointed to lead a land expedition to explore the coast of what was then referred to as the "Polar Sea" near the outlet of the Coppermine River at Coronation Gulf in present-day Nunavut. In the first year, Franklin established a base at Fort Enterprise north of the Great Slave Lake; in the second year he began his journey to the coast. Using canoes paddled by crews of hired voyageurs, he managed to chart a remarkable amount of coastline before making a disastrous retreat, during which most of the voyageurs perished of starvation. One of Franklin's native guides was accused of cannibalizing their corpses, and shot midshipman Hood before being shot by John Richardson, the surgeon on board. Franklin also nearly starved to death before his rescue by George Back and a party of Dene hunters. Despite the loss of life, Franklin was hailed on his return to England as "the man who ate his boots," and his published account of the expedition was widely admired.

Franklin returned to the Arctic in 1824, establishing a second survey west of the coastline he had previously

Historical portrait of Sir John Franklin, published by

McFarlane and Erskine, Edinburgh.

Copyright Bryan and Cherry Alexander Photography

Historical portrait of Sir John Franklin, published by

McFarlane and Erskine, Edinburgh.

Copyright Bryan and Cherry Alexander Photography explored, and making his way as far as Prudhoe Bay. The success of this second land expedition earned him a knighthood as well as an honorary degree from Oxford. As the Admiralty was not contemplating any further Arctic voyages, Franklin accepted an appointment as governor of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), where he arrived in January of 1837. Although he earned the admiration of many in this position, he managed to provoke the ire of a key political faction loyal to his colonial secretary, who eventually engineered his ouster in 1843.

Franklin's departure from office coincided with Sir John Barrow's decision to pursue one final attempt at the North West Passage, and Franklin actively sought the assignment, which he received despite some reservations about his age. Captain Francis Crozier was appointed second-in-command. The expedition left Greenhithe, England, en route to Lancaster Sound aboard HMS Erebus and Terror on May 19, 1845, and by July 4 had reached the Danish village of Godhavn, on Disko Island off the Greenland coast. That first summer, Franklin navigated Barrow's Straits as far as Wellington Channel, through which he circumnavigated Cornwallis Island. In 1845-1846, he wintered at the tiny Beechey Island off southwest Devon Island; three crew members died there of natural causes and were buried (their bodies were exhumed in the 1980s by physical anthropologist Owen Beattie, and were found to have high levels of lead). In 1846, Franklin was able to penetrate as far as the straits north-northwest of King William Island, where his ships were beset by ice on September 12. Erebus and Terror remained stranded in the pack ice until their abandonment on April 22, 1848. In the interim, 12 more crew members and nine officers perished, including Franklin himself, who died on June 11,1847. The ultimate fate of the remaining 105 persons has never been definitively established, although it is clear that many of them met their deaths while on a sledge journey along the southern coast of King William Island.

The Admiralty dispatched a mission in 1849 under the command of James Clark Ross, but he was unable to locate any traces of Franklin. The following season, several further expeditions, both government and private, arrived in the Arctic Archipelago. Captain William Penney, sent by Lady Jane Franklin, located traces of the Franklin party camp on Beechey Island, including the three graves. Successive missions, including a flotilla of ships under the command of Admiral Belcher, disclosed nothing new about Franklin's fate, although they made immense contributions to the geographical knowledge of the area. In 1854, Hudson's Bay Company doctor John Rae encountered several Inuit who had heard of two ships that had been crushed in the ice far to the west. They showed him many artifacts, including cap-bands, utensils, and Franklin's own Guelphic badge (an insignia of the Royal Guelphic Order). The Inuit also told Rae that they had seen evidence of cannibalism among the survivors.

No definitive written record was recovered until 1859 when, sledging from the yacht Fox (dispatched by Lady Franklin), Francis Leopold McClintock discovered a note left by James Fitzjames and Francis Crozier near Victory Point on King William Island. The note contained particulars of the expedition up through April of 1848, and contained the enigmatic postscript "and start to-morrow for Back's Fish River." If that was indeed their destination, the bulk of the survivors never made it. Inuit hunters who met with one group described them as being in very poor health. One party may have crossed Simspon's Straits before expiring at "Starvation Cove"; a second party, possibly a detachment from this group, died near the Todd Islets, where remains were found in 2000.

Even after McClintock's return, numerous parties searched for further traces of Franklin, among them Charles Francis Hall, Sir Allen Young, and Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka. However, aside from a few graves and skeletons, no written records were recovered. Contemporary scholar David C. Woodman has used the Inuit testimony collected by Hall as the basis for two books and several modern searching expedi tions (1991). Owen Beattie (1988) and others have conducted forensic examinations of the remains of Franklin crew members, and found evidence of lead poisoning (probably due to poorly soldered food tins) as well as cannibalism.

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