Born in 1786 to a middle-class merchant family in Lincolnshire, England, John Franklin joined the Royal Navy at the tender age of 14. Before he was 20, Franklin had participated in a three-year scientific voyage to Australia and served in the battles of Copenhagen and Trafalgar.
As part of an early search for a Northwest Passage organized by John Barrow, Franklin captained the whaling vessel Trent in 1818 on an Arctic expedition commanded by David Buchan which attempted to find a navigable sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans directly over the North Pole.
Franklin led his first expedition to Canada’s North, during which he mapped the northern coast of North America from the mouth of the Coppermine River to the continent’s eastern extremity. Upon his return in 1822 from the more than 8,800-kilometre journey, Franklin published Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea in the years 1819-20, and his tales of adventure in a harsh and unforgiving land struck a chord with those more accustomed to the pleasant — if damp — English climate. Franklin’s legend began to grow.
Franklin’s second journey into Canada’s North set out overland from the mouth of the mighty Mackenzie River. His party headed west, towards what is now Alaska. Both parties mapped their findings, and over the course of two years, nearly 2,000 kilometres of North America’s coastline were charted. As a result of his success, Franklin was officially knighted in 1829 and became the governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) from 1837-1843.
On May 19, just days before Queen Victoria’s birthday, Franklin led his final expedition to Canada’s North in search of the Northwest Passage. An unexplored strip less than 500 kilometres long was all that separated Barrow Strait from the surveyed northern shores of the North American mainland. The 129-man expedition set out on Erebus and Terror, sturdy bomb vessels that were fitted specifically for the journey with the latest technology at that time, including steam engines and desalinators to distill drinking water from sea water. The last Europeans to see the expedition were aboard a British whaling ship in Baffin Bay in August 1845.
The first winter the expedition spent in the Arctic went more or less according to plan. The ships were stayed in the ice near Beechey Island. Their supplies — three years’ worth of food and 180 tonnes of coal — were sufficient. Once the ice melted, they continued en route, first circling Cornwallis Island and then heading south.
Had Franklin sailed the narrower, southeastern passage around King William Island, the expedition’s outcome might have been different. But Erebus and Terror sailed west, into a wider passage now known as Victoria Strait where the sea ice proved too much for the ships to handle. After the long, cold winter of 1847, the sea ice to the northwest of the island apparently didn’t break up, and with the ships locked in on the western side of the island, eight kilometres offshore for 587 days, the expedition’s fate was sealed.
With no word from the expedition in three years, Britain began searching for signs of Franklin and his crew. Famed polar explorer James Clark Ross, who had a big hand in convincing the Admiralty to let Franklin lead the expedition, retraced Franklin’s presumed path into Lancaster Sound. Henry Kellett, an officer in the Royal Navy and an oceanographer, approached from the Pacific, while skilled Arctic explorer John Rae searched overland from the mouth of the Mackenzie River. All of the search parties returned empty-handed, and the mystery surrounding the party’s fate deepened.
Franklin’s widow, Lady Jane Franklin, whom he married in 1825 following the death of his first wife, sponsored the first of several expeditions to find her husband. Dozens of search parties sought out the lost expedition.
Nearly a decade after Erebus and Terror had sailed, signs of the lost expedition began to emerge. John Rae — a member of the initial search parties — continued to seek clues to the fate of Franklin and his crew as he mapped the mainland coast for the HBC. Inuit recounted observations of men, whose ships had been caught up in the ice, and whose food had run out. The men were driven to desperation by their circumstances, and ultimately resorted to cannibalism before perishing. The sordid tale scandalized high Victorian England. The Admiralty gave Rae the award of 10,000 pounds for determining Franklin’s fate, signalling the end of its search missions.
A key clue was found on an expedition privately chartered by Lady Jane Franklin. A single handwritten note, dated April 25, 1848, preserved in a cairn of stones on King William Island told much of what we know about the Franklin expedition to date. In it, Captain Fitzjames wrote of the expedition’s tribulations, of its winters on King William Island, and of the ultimate demise of its leader on June 11, 1847.
In April 1869, American explorer Charles Francis Hall and two Inuit interpreters met with members of the Pelly Bay Inuit to learn more about the lost expedition. Hall heard stories of bodies of five white men that were found with missing limbs and saw-cuts on their bones — tales similar to those John Rae had gathered on his 1853 expedition.
The American Geographical Society funded a search expedition commanded by Frederick Schwatka, an American army lieutenant. Schwatka uncovered more relics and a skeleton as well as more Inuit testimony of the deaths of the last of Franklin’s crew. In total, Schwatka sledged more than 5,000 kilometres during his year-long voyage and charted the Sherman Inlet and the Sherman Basin in the Adelaide Peninsula.
The Canadian government sent Maj. Lt. Lachlan T. Burwash to King William Island in the first-ever aerial exploration to the area. Burwash’s archaeological digs at suspected gravesites did not reveal human remains, but they did uncover numerous relics from the Franklin expedition, such as a blue jacket, tent coverings and a pair of bearskin trousers. Upon his return, Burwash emphasized the strategic importance of the western Arctic in an address to the Canadian Club in Montreal.
Using his posting on King William Island with the Hudson’s Bay Company as a platform to research the Franklin expedition, post manager William Gibson uncovered numerous artifacts, as well as the skeletons of several crew members.
Credit: Hudson's Bay Company
The Franklin Expedition Forensic Anthropology Project, led by University of Alberta forensic anthropologist Owen Beattie, headed to the western coast of King William Island to look for artifacts and skeletal remains of the lost expedition. The team returned to Edmonton with bone fragments and relics for analysis. From their findings, Beattie theorized that lead poisoning may have weakened the expeditioners. His theory was confirmed in 1984 when the team returned to the Arctic, this time Beechey Island, to exhume the well-preserved bodies of crew members buried there and take more samples for analysis.
Though the Franklin expedition ships had yet to be discovered, the minister for Parks Canada designated the Erebus and Terror wrecks a National Historic Site of Canada. The protected site is a 200-metre-radius circle centering on the midpoints of the hulls of the two ships. Earlier, Franklin himself had been designated a National Historic Person to commemorate his exploration of the Canadian Arctic.
Forensic data on the expedition continued to mount. Between 1992 and 1994, the skeletal remains of 11 more crew members were discovered, some with cut marks likely confirming reports of cannibalism. However, researcher and author David C. Woodman’s land search for buried vaults, as rumoured by an Inuit hunter, turned up empty.
Britain, the legal owner of Franklin’s lost ships, assigned custody and control of the wrecks to Canada, with the expectation that it would ensure their responsible and scientific exploration and study. Meanwhile, the Franklin 150 expedition was launched by Canadian film company Eco-Nova with the support of Parks Canada archeologists Robert Grenier and Margaret Bertulli, Franklin author David C. Woodman and the Canadian Goast Guard icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
The short window of open water in Canada’s Far North has challenged searchers ever since the first parties set out in search of Franklin’s ships. Parks Canada brought the search for Erebus and Terror into the 21st century by launching a three-year project dedicated to the search of the ships in collaboration with the Canadian Hydrographic Service and with support from the Canadian Coast Guard and the Government of Nunavut. Amost every summer since, except 2009, Parks Canada’s elite Underwater Archaeology Team plied northern waters seeking to solve one of Canada’s greatest mysteries.
With good conditions, no ice in the search area and six full days of surveying in the southeast area of O’Reilly Island, Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team scanned more than 150 square kilometres of sea floor and a 65-kilometre long approach corridor through previously uncharted waters with the help of echo sounders and side-scan sonar systems.
With good conditions, no ice in the search area and six full days of surveying in the southeast area of O’Reilly Island, Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team and their Canadian Hydrographic Services colleagues scanned more than 150 square kilometres of sea floor and a 65-kilometre long approach corridor through previously uncharted waters with the help of echo sounders and side-scan sonar systems. The same year, Parks Canada located HMS Investigator, a ship that was abandoned in 1853 after being icebound for more than two years while searching in vain for the Franklin expedition. It was found in Mercy Bay, offshore from Aulavik National Park off Banks Island upright in 11 metres of water, giving insight into Great Britain’s High Arctic voyages. Its well-preserved condition also provided hope for Franklin’s missing ships.
The Canadian Hydrographic Service, with the support of the Department of National Defence, enlisted remotely controlled LiDAR technology (light detection and ranging) in support of the project -- to provide reconnaissance level bathymetry to allow survey vessels to navigate more safely in uncharted waters. CHS also deployed new multi-beam sonar systems on their launches, providing high resolution 3D mapping of the seafloor to chart vital navigation corridors though Arctic waters, while assisting Parks Canada in the search for the Franklin wrecks. University of Victoria’s Ocean Technology Laboratory and Environment Canada’s Canadian Ice Service also jumped on board. The team surveyed 140 square kilometres of previously uncharted waters in Canada’s Arctic, alongside 25 kilometres of shorelines.
New partners, the Arctic Research Foundation and Canadian Space Agency, joined the growing roster of organizations supporting the search for Franklin’s lost ships. The Arctic Research Foundation and Parks Canada prepared the Martin Bergmann research vessel to help their team. The 20-metre former fishing vessel was specially modified and fitted for the expedition. University of Victoria’s autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) was also introduced in the search.
The Royal Canadian Navy joined Parks Canada’s efforts alongside Defence Research and Development Canada, which provided an additional military-grade side-scan sonar system, but still nothing was found. The search covered the southern area near O’Reilly Island, west of the Adelaide Peninsula as well as an area further north to Victoria Strait and Alexander Strait.
HMS Erebus, one of the Franklin shipwrecks, was discovered in the southern search area after excessive ice cover in Victoria Strait compelled the CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the Martin Bergmann to shift operations once more to the Queen Maud Gulf. The find was visually confirmed using a remotely operated underwater vehicle on September 7, a few days after it was first detected by a side-scan sonar towed from the Parks Canada research vessel Investigator. The ship appeared to be in relatively good shape, with features of the deck still primarily intact. The discovery was made during the Victoria Strait Expedition, which included Parks Canada, The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, The W. Garfield Weston Foundation, One Ocean Expeditions, Shell Canada, the Arctic Research Foundation, The Royal Canadian Navy, Operation QIMMIQ, Canadian Coast Guard, Defence Research and Development Canada, Canadan Hydrographic Service, Canadian Space Agency, Canadian Ice Service and the Government of Nunavut.
On Oct. 1, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that the ship had been identified as HMS Erebus, which was captained by Franklin himself.