Mystery of the Doomed Franklin Expedition

Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash

May, 1845. Two ships numbering over 100 sailors departed west from the United Kingdom, aboard the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror. Their destination, the frozen waters of the Arctic Ocean in northern Canada. Their mission was to cross the Northwest Passage through the Arctic corridor, finding a clear pathway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

The leader of this dangerous expedition was Sir John Franklin. At 60 years old, this was Franklin’s fourth Arctic expedition. On one of his previous expeditions, Franklin had come close to starving to death. Yet, Franklin was considered an expert and experienced navigator of these waters. How the Discovery of Two Lost Ships Solved an Arctic Mystery (nationalgeographic.com)

In July the two vessels were spotted in Baffin Bay by another ship, at the entrance to the Northwest Passage. They were never heard from again. Lady Jane Franklin, John Franklin’s wife, was instrumental in pushing rescue teams out to find the two ships a few years later.

The rescue expeditions founds some graves at one site. An abandoned sled and two skeletons were spotted at another location.

At another site a written note was found in a cannister in the ice. One section of the note was dated May 1847 and records that Franklin is in command and all is well. However, a second part of the note was added and dated April 1848. The second part alarmingly stated that the ships had to be abandoned after being trapped in ice, as well as that 24 crew members were dead, including Franklin. A very special piece of paper | Canadian Museum of History (historymuseum.ca)

As an aside, another decomposed piece of paper with writing on it was found at a site nearby. It strangely had the words written backwards. Due to the oddness of the writing and that only fragments of the letter were found, it has never been fully deciphered.

There were also Netsilik Inuit eyewitness accounts of what they had seen. These testimonies have passed through generations of families. They included stories of seeing men on one of the ships stuck in the ice before it sank. Another account suggested madness and cannibalism among the British survivors. Buried in Ice — The Franklin Expedition Cemetery — Secrets of the Ice

Mostly disregarded by Europeans at the time, the Inuit accounts helped understand and track what might have happened to the ships and crew. In fact, Inuit testimony directly led to the discovery of the Erebus ship in 2014 and Terror in 2016. Oddly, the two ships were found roughly 100 kilometers distant from each other.

Some of the crew members bodies have been found. Graves were dug in the frozen tundra for some of the men after they died, especially those that died earlier in the doomed expedition. They were remarkably well preserved, their bodies frozen in time by the ice.

So, what happened to the Franklin expedition? Like any mysterious event, there are a number of theories.

One claim is that the the weather was colder than average from 1846–1848 and the ships mostly remained stuck in ice even during the summer months. Another theory suggested that the crew died from lead poisoning eating their food out of tin containers. With the large distance between the two vessels at the time of sinking, perhaps some of the men tried to make one more run for it on one of the ships before giving up.

Whatever the cause, the crew likely died off slowly from sickness and starvation, as they hiked in the snow and ice, increasingly desperate to find safety. Scientists remain hopeful that further excavations of the fairly well preserved ships may lead to more evidence and a better idea of what actually occurred. Yet, likely it will never be known exactly how or why the expedition failed.

Mark Shiffer is a freelance writer. With a degree in History, Mark enjoys writing about many topics in history and putting them into context.

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