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No. 12, "Eskimo Stories"

In one of the more famous arctic voyages, Robert McClure took the Investigator into the polar seas from the west. He left England on January 20th, 1850, and cleared the Straits of Magellan and carried on into the Pacific. While there were two ships travelling together, they lost one another in the Pacific. After touching the Hawaiian Islands (then known as the Sandwich Island) McClure took his Investigator into the Bering Strait. He went through it and found open water, such, that he sailed along the north coast of America. He found Banks Island, the most western of the large islands comprising the northern archipelago. (See Map) He circumnavigated the island. (All of the arctic explorers, to this point in time, had little knowledge of the area. The islands were large and when they came up against one, they were never certain it was continental territory, or not.) McClure winter'd over on the northern shore of Banks Island (the Bay of God's Mercy). As expected, the Investigator became frozen-in. McClure and his crew were hopeful that they would be freed from the immobilising ice in the following spring/summer. It did not happen, as the ship continued to be frozen in; and thus, McClure and his men spent a second winter in the same spot as they spent their first. The scenario was much like that of Franklin's; except, McClure got lucky. Robert McClintock, in his voyage of discovery, coming in from the east in the Resolute, found, in 1852, on the south shore of Melville Island (Winter Harbour), one of McClure's cairns. It was a clue, a pointer, which was followed up in the summer of 1853. The Investigator was found still frozen up; the men were rescued and by 1854 were back in England, to arrive like men from the dead. Incidentally, while the Investigator did not make it through, her men did.67 The rescue ship returned the way she came; so, the first full transit of the North-East passage was first made by McClure.

In 1851, John Rae headed up another expedition in the search for Franklin "with no other instructions than to take the route he best thought."68 From the mouth of the Coppermine River he traveled the whole of the coast to that point where western Victoria Island is located. Having with him but two other men, Rae investigated, in large part, most of the coast of Victoria Island. Just to the east of Victoria Island, as the Map will show, lies King William Island which is separated from Victoria Island by the Victoria Strait: the very strait in which Franklin's two ships became stuck. It therefore appears that Rae was only 130 miles from where the ships had been frozen-in. According to Traill, "Rae returned by way of the Lakes [beginning with Great Bear] and Fort Winnipeg, having covered either by boat, sledge, or snowshoes, a distance of 5,380 miles during his eight months of continuous travel."69

Rae set out for a further expedition in 1853. He wintered at Repulse Bay. In the spring of 1854, Rae set out once again, overland, west. At Pelly Bay (Map) he met his first Eskimos. Rae described this meeting in his own words:

"When travelling westward on my spring journey, I met an Eskimo [In-nook-poo-zhee-jook, who was also identified by Hall], to whom we put the usual question, 'Have you seen white men before? He said, No, but he had heard of a number having died far to the west, pointing in that direction. Noticing a gold cap band round his head, I asked him where he obtained it, and he said it had been got where the dead white men were, but that he himself had never been there, that he did not know the place [this place was eventually located and named, Starvation Cove] ... I [Rae] bought the cap-band from him, and told him that if he or his companions had any other things, to bring them to our winter quarters at Repulse Bay, where they would receive good prices for them."70
On October 22nd, 1854, Rae returned to England and told of a story he had heard when earlier in the year, in the course of his explorations of the area, he had run into a number of natives of the region. The natives explained that while off the north shore of King William Island (four years back) they ran into a party of white men, about 40, who were hauling a boat over the snow and ice. They looked thin. A seal was sold to them. A contemporary account of Rae's story, as set out by Traill, ran as follows:
"At a later date the same season, but previously to the breaking up of the ice, the bodies of some thirty persons were discovered on the continent and five on an island near it, about a day's journey to the NW. of a large stream which can be no other than Back's Great Fish River ... Some of the bodies had been buried (probably those of the first victims of famine); some were in a tent or tents; others under the boat, which had been turned over to form a shelter, and several lay scattered about in different directions. Of those found on the island, one was supposed to have been an officer, as he had a telescope strapped over his shoulders and his double-barrelled gun lay underneath him."71
Francis Hall headed up a small American expedition to see what might have happened to Franklin and his men. He travelled wide and far, and in the spring of 1869 reached the south-eastern shore of King William Island. Robert McClintock, in his work72, summed up what Hall was able to determine, almost entirely by interviewing the local Enuit; Hall, of all of the searchers through the years, was very able to communicate with the natives in their own language. The natives told also of at least one of Franklin's ships. In time, one of them "suddenly sunk in deep water." The other was spotted (by the Inuit) off of "O'Reilly Island, in lat. 68.5 N."73 Certain of them went to the ship. They did not know how to get into the ship, so they cut a hole in the side of her.

"When found [again, according to the information given by the Inuit to Hall], the ship was in complete order; four boats hung to her side, and one boat was on deck. They got a great many things out of her; but after a considerable time she became much broken up by the ice, and sank, leaving only her masts visible. Many things floated to shore."74
So this is what the Eskimos had to tell. They had proof. A number of items were carried away by them, including: pieces of watches, compasses, telescopes and guns. The natives also showed Rae "some silver spoons and forks, one of which was engraved, "Sir John Franklin." These articles were silent testimony as to the fate of the men of the Franklin Expedition, who had left England nine years earlier. Rae prepared a report, and gave a copy of it to the Times and the Times published it on Saturday, October 21st, 1854.

As for John Rae, his problems with a number of persons in England, especially with Franklin's wife, Jane, began with his return to England in 1854, and in the telling of "His Eskimo Stories."

"Rae's return at this time has always been a matter of regret, for a great chance had been lost. No less than five years were to elapse before M'Clintock reached King William Island, and had Rae gone at once to the places indicated by the Eskimos he would almost certainly have obtained more information than M'Clintock and possibly even have found written records."75
What bothered the public, much influenced by the pleas of Lady Franklin, was Rae's statement that the Eskimos had told him that John Franklin's people would resort to cannibalism. Rae's response, right along, is that he wanted to get back to London so that the naval ships, yet to be sent out, would be directed to the right area, for it would appear, to date, none had been looking in the right place. I should say, to complete this note, while Rae had been asked to direct a further expedition: he declined. (Who could blame him, that after all his efforts in the polar regions in the cause; he received no thanks.)

NEXT -- No. 13, Further Evidence Is Found


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Peter Landry