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No. 05, - Franklin's First Arctic Expedition (The Coppermine, 1819-22)

A Work by George Back, Fort Enterprise

In 1819, additional plans to explore the north were shaped up. On May 23rd of that year, Franklin sailed from Gravesend in the Hudson's Bay ship, the company ship, the Prince of Wales. On August 30th they anchored off York Factory13 on the western shores of Hudson Bay. (See Map) Setting out from there on September 19th, the group, under Franklin, marched seven to eight hundred miles to arrive overland at Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan River on the 23rd of October.14 On January 18th, 1820, Franklin and two of his companions (George Back and John Hepburn) set out on dog sledges for Fort Chipewyan.15 On route they arrived at Carlton House on February 1st. (See Map) After "remaining there a week to recruit, resumed and completed their daring journey to Fort Chipewyan on March 26th."16 This small group under Franklin stayed at Fort Chipewyan until July 18th when a larger group (John Richardson and Robert Hood having caught up with them) set out, north, for Fort Providence. They were denied17 provisions at these places, and, therefore, were obliged to hunt and fish as they went along which slowed their progress. Reaching Great Slave Lake the group arrived at Fort Providence on the 29th of July. On the August 20th they came to Winter Lake where they stopped and built winter quarters on the southwest side of it, named Fort Enterprise. (The picture to the left was drawn by George Back.) By this time there was a group of Indians in company. On June 14th, 1821, the group left Fort Enterprise and continued north to find the Arctic Sea. It was, at this point, a mixed group: "The party consisted of Franklin and his four officers, a couple of Eskimo interpreters ... and about a dozen Indians and half breed Canadian voyageurs." They travelled with the assistance of "two large canoes and several sledges." On July 1st, they arrived at the Coppermine River and by the 21st they were at the mouth of the river and the shores of the frozen Arctic Ocean. In their small craft they then proceeded east exploring the coast line. With supplies running low they determined to start their return trip. They had reached a point (Lat 68" 19' N & Long 110" 5' W) named, appropriately enough, Point Turn. They had hoped that they would find Captain Parry in his vessels which were suppose to be proceeding west, but no sight of them was made.18

Franklin determined to take a different route back to Winter Lake, the place where they had spent the previous winter, Fort Enterprise. On August 23rd, 1821, the group started up the Hood River (named after the officer who accompanied Franklin). Checking on a map, it certainly appears that this was to be a much shorter route back to Fort Enterprise rather than retracing their route up the Coppermine. Their supplies were very low; only enough pemmican19 but to supply "a few mouthfuls to each person." For ten days they proceeded up the Hood River, the mouth of which is located on the western shores of Bathurst Inlet. They then left the river headed overland in a south-westerly direction. The weather, the terrain and shortage of food took a toll on the men.

"The tents and bedclothes were frozen, and even our garments were stiffened by frost and exposure to the keen wind ... We had no means of making a fire, the moss, at all times difficult to kindle, being covered by the ice and snow. ... We commenced our cheerless march ... The ground was covered with snow a foot in depth, and we had to pass across swamps and marshy places, sometimes stepping up to the knee in water ... The men who carried the canoes had a most laborious task."20
On occasion they were able to catch game, in between times their diet was very lean; most times they were on the brink of starvation. On the 26th of September they reached the banks of the Coppermine River, and then to Point Lake. The men beyond this point started to drop off. The stronger men (Franklin among them) determined to carry on. The idea was that once they got to Fort Enterprise supplies would be had and they could then trek back to save their exhausted friends. On October 11th Franklin's group finally made it to Fort Enterprise -- but the place was empty, and no food had been laid in! They had left the place on June 14th, but four months previously. Certain of their Indian friends, who would not go any further, agreed to do some hunting and lay in food for the men when they returned. The Indians simply left the place to return to their home territory and did not deliver on their promises.

Map Of Franklin's First Arctic Expedition

The men that could go no further and who had dropped off were Richardson, Hood and Hepburn. George Back, who had been sent ahead to be met up with at Fort Enterprise, was not at Fort Enterprise when Franklin got there; nothing but a note that Back had arrived but set out once again to see what became of the Indians that were to supply the fort. Franklin took a few days to compose himself at Fort Enterprise. He had determined to go back for his companions even if he could not bring them much in the way of food. Then, suddenly there arrived, in a sad state: Richardson and Hepburn. The tale was then told on how Robert Hood had been murdered (so they thought) by an Iroquois that had been with the party, and that Hepburn on conferring with Richardson, fearing they would be next, took the Indian by surprise and shot him through the head.

So, here we have, at Fort Enterprise, in the Autumn of 1821: Franklin, Richardson and Hepburn, together with two French voyageurs. The balance of October passed, the deary month of November started in. In the meantime, the two French voyageurs died. The three British officers knew they would soon be gone, as well. Then, on November 7th this entry was made in Franklin's Journal.

"Praise be unto the Lord! We were this day rejoiced by the appearance of Indians with supplies."21
Their rescue was due to George Back. I quote Traill, Franklin's biographer:
"His sufferings since he separated from the party on October 4 had been no less severe than theirs. For days together he and the three men with him had supported life 'on an old pair of leather trousers, a gun cover, and a pair of old shoes, with a little tripe de roche that they succeeded scraping off the rocks."22
George Back, quite miraculously, discovered the very Indian tribe thereabouts which had assisted Franklin's group when they first came in. Those who remained of the Franklin party were revived in a matter of days (the native Indians were very attentive to them); such that, on November 16th they were on the move again. Let me turn to Traill:
"... on the 11th of [December] ... they reached Fort Providence. Hence, after resting a few days, they went on to Moose Deer Island, where they passed the remainder of the winter. On May 26, 1822, they started homeward, and, reaching York Factory about the middle of July, took ship for England, where they arrived in October, after an absence of three years and a half and journeying by land and water of more than 5,500."23
Well, as one might image, the public made Franklin out as a hero; for the Admiralty, he was a marked man. Traill:
"Very shortly after their arrival, Franklin, who had in his absence been promoted to the rank of commander, was advanced to that of post-captain, and was about the same time unanimously elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, in recognition of his services to the cause of geographical science. ...
... he had became a conspicuous figure in London society, a welcome guest at many dinner-tables, an object of interest and admiration in many drawing-rooms. As for Franklin he was in little danger of all of this going to his head not only by his modesty, but also by his ambition ... [as he had] an ardent desire to add greater exploits to their number."

NEXT -- No. 06, Franklin's Second Arctic Expedition (The Mackenzie, 1825-27)


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Peter Landry
2015 (2018)