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No. 11, Speculation: What Happened?

It was eventually determined that John Franklin died aboard his ship, the Erebus, on June 11th, 1847. His valiant crew, however, were to live on; but not beyond the end of the next year, 1848. It is speculated that Lieutenant Graham Gore and his squad returned with news of their explorations.56 There is much speculation as to what happened. We have only the updated note found in a cairn on Victory Point, to which we refereed earlier. But Gore, when he first set out in May 24th, 1847, it is thought, was to be a reconnoitering trip to determine which way was best if an escape by foot were to be made. "The examination of the remaining ninety miles [from where they came ashore on the northwestern side of King William Island (See Map)] is believed to have been Gore's principal purpose on this journey, but neither the full extent of his journey nor the date of his return to the Erebus is known."57

As the seasons progressed in 1847, the imprisoned men held out hope that the ships, which were moving southerly together with the ice, albeit slowly, would be sprung lose and a line of water would appear bringing them back to an open sea. By August, it was to be plain to all, that the ships were not going anywhere and another winter, the third in the arctic, was going to be spent held hard and fast by the polar ice. Their only hope that was left to them was to abandon the ships. The men would step off onto the ice and proceed in Gore's footsteps to King William Island and then to head south, overland, with the view to making it to a distant Hudson Bay outpost: a next to impossible trek with little in the way of supplies or food to be made by sailors with little or no experience in traveling in the arctic, Inuit style: but it was their only hope remaining to them. This plan could only be started once the winter had blown itself out. So it was to be, that "on April 22nd, 1848, the crews of the Erebus and Terror, having prepared and packed their sledges, bade adieu to the gallant and ill-fated vessels which had for three years sheltered them, and set out upon their journey towards the American coast."58

Years later evidence was found that the crews had made it to Victory Point on King William Island. (See Map) It was at this spot that there was found "clothing in great quantities, stores of various descriptions, blocks, shovels, pickaxes, red, white, and blue ensigns, and ..." etc.59 Why so much stuff was hauled by sick men over 15 miles of uneven ice to King William Island, is a matter on which we can only speculate - likely to get it to land so it could be got at in the future, if needed; and if they met northern natives they would have some trading items to which they could resort? Who knows? It was here, too, that they relocated the note previously left by Lieutenant Gore a year earlier. It was updated. The additional writing on the note left the briefest of sketches of what happen up to this date, April 26th, 1848. It contained a line on the bottom that their intended destination was to be "Backs Fish River."60

Beyond the information contained in the note, speculation is pretty much all we have as to the final days of the officers and crew of the Terror and the Erebus. Traill did so in his sketch of the final days of the exhausted men.61 They arrived on the North-west part of King William Island, it being but 15 miles or so to the east of the two ships. King William Island, though of irregular shape, is a large island of over 5,000 square miles. (See Map) The leaders of these men seem to know that there was a possible chance of food and eventual rescue if they could make there way around the western and southern shores of the island to come to a crossing place known (eventually) as Simpson Strait, then to pass over to the northern shore of the North American continent (Adelaide Peninsula). Once across they then would have to travel east, then south to find Back River (Great Fish), a further distance of 720 miles of waste land consisting of ice, snow and rocks. (These are bird flying distances, the men would travel greater distances as they followed the shore lines, for they knew not the general geography of the island.) It is speculated that none of the men made it to their destination of Back River; indeed, but only a few managed to cross the Simpson Strait to the mainland, the others dropped in their tracks on the western and southern shores of King William Island. (See Map)

Franklin emphasised with his friends and family that they should not get anxious if the expedition is not heard from, beyond the autumn of the year of the second winter. The ships left fully loaded with three years supply, though Franklin, after a short exploration in the third summer, would likely have turned his bows for home by July, August, at the latest; thus, it was expected that no word would be received from them much before the mid-months of 1847. Nothing having been heard from them up to that point, officialdom began to worry. That summer notices went out to the Hudson Bay Company to supply their northern outposts with additional supplies, and that the officers in charge should alert as many of the northern tribes to keep an outlook and give assistance: rewards were offered not only to those located in the northern parts of the continent but also to the whaling ships that sailed along the edges of Baffin Bay (Lady Franklin threw in 2,000 lbs in addition).62

The year 1847 arrived. Still no word as to what happened to Franklin and his men. The first of many expeditions was then launched, indeed there were three launched that year by the British government. The first, consisted of two vessels (Enterprise and Investigator) under the command of James Clark Ross and Captain E. J. Bird; they, it is assumed, were to follow the intended western track of Franklin. The second, was under John Richardson, who, with John Rae, an officer of the Hudson's Bay Company, were to travel overland through the territory of Hudson's Bay Company to the Mackenzie River, and, from there, to comb the shore line, east, to the mouth of the Coppermine River, and beyond, if possible. The third, under the command of Henry Kellett came around from the Pacific, through the Bering Strait and then to proceed as far east as is possible.

As to the first expedition led by James Clark Ross: It left England consisting of two ships, on July 12th, 1848, each accompanied by a steam launch.63 They arrived at Lancaster Sound and pushed west through the ice to the northeastern tip of Somerset Island (Port Leopold) where they wintered. (See Map.) In the spring of 1849 the Prince Regent Inlet was thoroughly searched. Nothing was found. In addition, Ross sledged along the eastern coast of Peel Strait, going a considerable distance south. He apparently returned to England later in 1849.

As for the above mentioned second expedition, that being the overland trek of John Richardson and John Rae: Setting out in 1848, the two explorers travelled over the coast that separates the mouths of the Mackenzie and Coppermine Rivers and then turned inland to winter over at Fort Confidence, on Great Bear Lake. (See Map.) In the spring the pair separated. Richardson went back to England and Rae went back to the mouth of the Coppermine River to continue his explorations east.64

As for the third expedition: it was undertaken from the Pacific to see if a way could be found from advancing west. This was undertaken, as we mentioned, by Captain Henry Kellett. It would not appear he proceeded from England with instructions. He was already in the Pacific in command of the frigate, HMS Herald which was carrying out survey work. "In the summers of 1848, 1849, and 1850 he and his ship were detached from this service to cooperate with Commander T. E. L. Moore of the Plover, then based in Kotzebue Sound, Alaska ..."65 Beyond making some interesting discoveries on the Russian side of Bering Strait, I do not think that much came of Kellett's search for Franklin. However, the Plover did proceed through Bering Strait and then east to proceed along the open water of the northern ocean hoping to meet up with Richardson and Rae who were then coming down the Mackenzie. As it was the ship itself did not meet any westward-proceeding group. However, before she left off to return west, a launch was pushed away from her. The launch was under the command of Lieutenant (later Vice-Admiral) John Samuel Pullen (1813-87). Pullen travelled along the north American coast to the estuary of the Mackenzie.66 Then he went up the Mackenzie to eventually join Rae and to winter with him at Fort Simpson. (See Map)

"In the year 1850 no fewer than six separate expeditions were dispatched in quest of the lost explorers -- two of them of a fully official character, and manned by officers of the British Navy; a third subsidised by the Government; and the other three privately organised."
One of these expeditions of 1850 was sent out under Captains Austin and Ommanney in the ships, Resolute and Assistance, discovered the site in which Franklin and his men spent the first winter: Beechey Island on the south shore of Deven Island.

NEXT -- No. 12, "Eskimo Stories"


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Peter Landry
2015 (2018)