The Ongoing Mystery of the Franklin Expedition

Posted: October 7, 2015 - 20:41 , by ROM
Archaeology, Exhibitions and Galleries, Canada | Comments () | Comment
A photo of massive ice bergs on the ocean in front of a stormy sky. Photo by Jeff Dickie

Guest Blog written by 2015 Environmental Visual Communication student Jeff Dickie

With an excavation recently completed this summer, the mystery of the Franklin Expedition continues... sitting quiet and still in her watery grave, what secrets will HMS Erebus finally give up about her ill-fated mission?

On July 28th, 1845 the British ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were spotted by a group of whalers in Baffin Bay, while they waited for the weather to clear before starting on their journey into the Northwest Passage. This was the last time the crew would ever be seen alive by Europeans; from there they were swallowed up by the unforgiving Arctic.

In the 170 years that have passed, the mystery has endured. Over the decades since the expedition's disappearance (1848 to 1878), an estimated 20 search parties have set out to try and find any traces of the missing expedition and its ships. Not all the searches were successful in bringing back any information but the ones that did brought back chilling tales. Some of the most shocking evidence brought back was from Arctic explorer John Rae. In 1854, he met with the local Inuit and traded with them for Franklin items that they had found on King William Island (mostly utensils and buttons), and was told of stories of cannibalism among the desperate crew members. The Franklin Expedition was the best-equipped mission ever launched into the Arctic. How could things have gone so wrong?  

What we have been able to piece together, is that in the later months of 1845, the crews made it to Beechey Island in Lancaster Sound where they wintered. There three crew members died and were buried on the island.

In the summer of 1846, they headed South toward King William Island, where they became stranded in the ice. Searchers Francis Leopold McClintock and William Hobson in 1859 found a note in a cairn. This note was a standard naval record, but it also contained a hastily-scrawled amendment written 9 months after the note's original deposition in the cairn. The amendment told of the expedition's abandonment of the ships on April 22, 1848, and speaks very briefly of the death of Sir John Franklin (as well as 23 other fatalities among the officers and crew).This short note is often referred to as the “final record”, unfortunately contained no information about what went so horribly wrong. All that we know for sure is that the remaining crew deserted the ships in an attempt to head back South to seek fresh provisions and safety at a Hudson's Bay Company outpost. We also know that they never made it. Instead, their remains were found scattered along the shores of King William Island by local Inuit and search parties years later.

Recently-collected bones were analyzed and found to have small cuts that are tell-tale signs of cannibalism, a grizzly hint towards what may have happened.

Since the early 1990s when searches for the wrecks first began, historians and archaeologists have wondered what new evidence could be brought to light if one of the ships from the Franklin Expedition's ships could be found. In September of 2014, that dream finally became a reality with the discovery of the HMS Erebus and the recovery of its bell.

So what do we expect to learn from the exploration of the HMS Erebus that was conducted this summer?

First of all, it has long been speculated that the Erebus may be the final resting place of Sir John Franklin. The note left in a cairn on King William Island stated he died on June 11th,1847. Since it did not state whether his body was buried, is it possible that his remains may have been left aboard his ship? In interviews conducted by searcher Charles Francis Hall in 1869, Inuit hunters told him that they entered one of the abandoned ships in search of metal for tools and saw one large dead man left on the ship. Could this have been the body of Sir John Franklin?  

What led to the ship's sinking? When HMS Erebus was finally discovered, searchers were surprised to find that the ship was found upright and relatively intact on the sea bottom. It is thought that the ship’s hull may have been damaged or even crushed by the ice, and that was one of the reasons for the ships being deserted. We know that the back portion of the Erebus sustained significant damage from the ice, but it is still unclear if that damage was done before or after the men left the ships. It is believed that the ship’s hull may have been compromised and when the thaw came, the boat slowly filled with water and sank. Hopefully, analysis of the finds from this summer's expedition will deliver further insight on just how the ship sank.

Cheek soup from a cache left on Dealy Island. This can was similar to the food canisters that the crews of the Terror and Erebus carried and also subject to lead poisoning.

Death by Canned food? Tests on the recovered bones revealed that they contained elevated levels of lead (up to ten times the normal amount found in humans), which has contributed to the hotly-contested theory that lead poisoning played a factor in the expedition's demise. The ability to preserve food in a can was new technology in 1845, and the cans were sealed with lead solder that likely contaminated the food in the sealing process. This may account for the unusually high number of fatalities during the expedition as is mentioned in the note. Lead poisoning builds up slowly, and the symptoms of repeated exposure are known to cause kidney dysfunctions, aggressive behaviour, memory loss, muscle weakness, along with severe mental and physical impairment. All of these conditions could have had detrimental effects on the crew of an icebound expedition. Will definitive proof be discovered that finally determines that lead poisoning was a contributing factor to their deaths?

Lastly the records! The note found in the cairn is the only written record of the Franklin expedition that has ever been found. There is great hope that the wreck will contain charts, maps, magnetic observations, botanical samples, captain’s log books, or even personal diaries of crew members preserved below deck. It may even be possible that the final resting place of Sir John Franklin will be written about in a document on board. While the Inuit entered the ships after they were abandoned, they would probably not have any use for books at the time, so they were likely left untouched.

The Parks Canada staff conducting the explorations have stated they will be selective in choosing the artifacts they recover. The ship’s bell was recovered in September 2014 to be used for the ship’s identification; a cannon and dishes have also been brought to the surface.

A cast of the bell from HMS Erebus found on the first dive to the ship. It is currently on display at the Royal Ontario Museum. Photo by Jeff Dickie

There is so much that we will never know about the doomed Franklin Expedition and it's doubtful that what is found on the ship will ever completely solve what truly happened to the men on the expedition. If anything, I believe it will create more questions than it will ever provide answers. Its the unanswered questions that keep this story compelling and alive.  As much as I am excited to see what will be found on the ship, it will likely bear grim reminders of the desperate men clinging to life in one of the harshest environments in the world.

It is a poignant reminder that although this ship is an archaeological treasure trove, it is also the final resting place of crew members and should be respected as such. The reason this story still resonates with us today is because of it’s classic elements: exploration, mystery and a tragic ending.