A Brief History
On May 19, 1845, Sir John Franklin set off from Greenhithe, England in command of 2 British Royal Navy ships, the HMS Erebus and the fatefully named HMS Terror, on a voyage of discovery searching for the final leg of what he hoped would be a Northwest Passage around Canada to the Pacific. The tragic expedition is chronicled on the outstanding AMC television series, The Terror, which first aired in March of 2018. In the series, Irish actor Ciarán Hinds portrays Captain Sir John Franklin as seen in the comparative image above.
Since Franklin and all members of his expedition died, the cable television series is based on the true story but is necessarily fictionalized to make up the parts of the story unavailable to historians. Other notable authors such as Jules Verne and Mark Twain have written tales based on Franklin’s 4th and final Arctic expedition. (Note: The AMC series is highly entertaining, although gut wrenching.)
At the age of 59, Sir John Franklin embarked on what was intended to be his last Arctic expedition and unfortunately, it was. The Terror and Erebus were sailing vessels equipped with auxiliary steam engines and bows reinforced with heavy beams and iron plate to deal with the ice. Provisions included 8000 tins of canned food for the 134 men aboard. The canned food was ordered in haste, and the rush resulted in shoddy workmanship on the cans, with lead solder dripped into the inside of the cans, possibly later causing lead poisoning of the men. Franklin had been the 4th or 5th choice of the Admiralty to lead the expedition, and his ships reached Greenland in July of 1845, where Franklin dispatched letters home and sent 5 of his men back. On July 28, 1845, a whaling ship in Baffin Bay made the last confirmed sighting of the Erebus and the Terror. The rest of the information known about the doomed expedition comes from reports from Inuit (Eskimos to the sailors) and a cache of messages expedition members left behind in a stone cairn in the hope that Europeans would someday find them.
We know 3 men died of tuberculosis while the ships wintered at Beechey Island over the winter of 1845-1846, and that the ships resumed their voyage in the Spring of 1846. By September of 1846, the ships were once again icebound, and forced to winter at king William Island over the winter of 1846-1847. The situation took a terrible turn in the Spring and Summer of 1847, when to the horror of the explorers, the ice never thawed, and the ships remained icebound. In April of 1848, with no sign the ice would break up or melt, the survivors abandoned their ships with their rapidly depleting food stocks and began the long march to salvation, Southward in the hope of finding Europeans or some sort of haven. A miserable trek of over a thousand miles on harsh terrain and cold weather with little to offer as food or shelter spelled doom for the men.
Franklin himself died on June 11, 1847, and a note dated April 25, said another 24 men had died. Bodies exhumed years later found tuberculosis, pneumonia, and complications from lead poisoning to be among the causes of death. Evidence of cannibalism by the crew on their dead mates was found in cut marks on the bones of the bodies exhumed. The men started their last march on April 26, 1848.
Inuit hunters later reported seeing what may have been the survivors trekking South in 1850 (40 men) and again in 1851 (only 4 White men), with a final possible sighting by Inuit sometime between 1852 and 1858, this time only 2 men. Inuit hunters told later European search parties that the men of the Franklin expedition had starved to death, after resorting to cannibalism.
The stone cairn and messages left were found in 1859, along with a ship’s boat the men had been dragging with them in the hope of using it if they reached the Black River. The wreck of the Erebus was found in 2014, and 2 years later the wreck of the Terror was also found.
Although the Franklin expedition ended in tragedy, the following search efforts through the years resulted in highly beneficial mapping of the Northern Canadian Archipelago, and a route for ships from Europe via the Atlantic through the Northern Canadian Shield to the Pacific was actually accomplished by famed Explorer Roald Amundsen in a 1903-1906 voyage, though the route was not feasible for regular shipping. Perhaps due to Global Warming, interest in a commercially viable Northwest Passage resumed in the late 20th and early 21st Century, with the first commercial cargo vessel traversing the Northwest Passage in 1969, and in 2013 a 73,500 tonne ship made the passage successfully, a ship too large for the Panama Canal. Territorial claims and sovereignty have delayed regular passage along this route. In 2016, a passenger liner carrying 1500 passengers made the trip from Vancouver, British Columbia to New York City via the Northwest Passage.
Later scientific examinations of remains and artifacts cast doubt on the role of lead poisoning as a cause of death or illness. Some inconclusive DNA analysis indicated a few of the crew may have actually been women. Numerous books, plays, stories, and films have been made about or referring to the doomed expedition, including the above referenced television series, which prominently features a diabolical Polar Bear as part of the problem confronting the expedition. The infighting, arguing, illness and desperation is graphically portrayed on the AMC series, and we recommend anyone interested in this particular expedition or in Arctic exploration watch the show.
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For more information, please see…
Hutchinson, G. Sir John Franklin’s Erebus and Terror Expedition: Lost and Found. Adlard Coles, 2017.
Simmons, Dan. The Terror. Back Bay Books, 2018.
The featured image in this article, William Hobson and his men finding the cairn with the “Victory Point” note, Back Bay, King William Island, May 1859, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer. This work is in the public domain in the United States, because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1925.