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ARCTIC ARCHIPELAGO - The Searchers For Franklin

George Back (1796-1878)

George Back was born in Stockport, just south of Manchester. At the age of but 12 years old, he joined the British navy. He soon saw action in the Napoleonic wars (1796-1815). At some point he was captured by the French and was imprisoned for the duration of the war. During his time in a French prison, Back (to quote "practised his skills as an artist, which he later put to use in recording his travels through the Arctic." (Below, is a sample of his work.)

George Back, as it turned out got to know John Franklin quite well, having been with him on the two overland expeditions which Franklin had carried out overland to the arctic: the one of 1819-22 and the other of 1825-27. Back was "responsible for all the surveying and chart making."1

The British government, in 1833, sent Captain Back to discover what became of John Ross who had been missing in the American arctic for three years. This was, we understand, an "overland relief expedition, the purpose of which was to travel down the Great Fish River ..."2 Back reached his most northerly point on King William Island. Then again, in 1836, Captain Back left for further exploration in the Terror. The Terror got stuck in ice even before it cleared the Hudson's Strait. By September, the damaged Terror was back in England.

As a valuable as George Back was to any group travelling in the far north, as is clearly demonstrated in his work with Franklin, particularly in The Expedition To The Coppermine, 1819-22 where he proved to be the hero who saved the group. He was, however, disliked by a number of people in the field. We quote from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography (DCB):

"These two courageous life-saving journeys, together with his numerous fine paintings of northern scenes, leave a strong impression of Back’s contribution to this ill-fated expedition, but indications are that he did not always live up to a hero’s reputation. A number of fur-traders spoke critically of him, but charges made years later by John Hepburn are probably the most reliable and are supported by similar accusations levelled at Back by others through much of his life. Hepburn recalled a quarrel between Back and Hood over an Indian woman, which nearly ended in a duel – behaviour in line with Back’s later reputation as a dandy and a womanizer. He also held that 'Back is not very brave . . . he is charming to those from whom he hopes to gain something.' There are echoes of this remark in the description of Back that Sophia Cracroft, Franklin’s niece, gave to Henry Grinnell in 1856: 'He is never the man to originate a handsome act, but if he finds it popular, and that it will be successful, he steps in to take as much of the credit as he can secure. You must not think it harshness or severity when I describe him as intensely selfish, sly, and sycophantic.'"3
No matter what some thought of George Back, he was considered by the Admiralty authorities as a very valuable member of the British navy; he received steady promotions throughout his career which was capped off with his appointment as a full admiral in 1876, but two years before his death at age 82.


1 Wikipedia

2 London Correspondence Inward from Eden Colville, 1849-52 (London: The Hudson's Bay Record Society, 1956) p. xxiii.


[A LISTING OF The Searchers For Franklin]

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Peter Landry