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ARCTIC ARCHIPELAGO - The Searchers For Franklin

John Rae (1813-93)

To the Inuit he met and from whom he learned, he was known as "Inuktitut Aglooka" -- "Long Strider." He was John Rae who first set out to become a medical doctor; and became an explorer of Northern Canada. Rae was the first to report, due to him listening to the Inuit, the fate of Franklin and his men.

A Portrait of John Rae by Stephen Pearce, 1862

John Rae was from the Orkneys1 and went to Edinburgh University. He studied medicine and took a job with The Hudson's Bay Company, which led him to be the surgeon on one of the company's ships. He was with the company for a number of years, when it was determined to send him with "two small boats to the arctic seas" in order to survey parts of the North American northern coast. It was part of the company's efforts to discover what might have become of Franklin. Rae set out from York Factory in 1846 with a party of ten men, modest equipment and four months of provisions. After wintering over in very tough circumstances, at Repulse Bay (See Map) he set out again in April of 1847, on foot. On this further lag, Rae surveyed "to the extent of over 1,300 miles" his journey led to the discovery of "700 miles of new coast line." Rae came back safely, and returned to England. The British government determined to send out, in 1848, three separate search parties; two of which by sea. The third was to be overland and led by John Richardson, a good friend of Franklin's. Richardson had heard of Rae's exploits and recruited him. The two carried out their search in 1848. In 1851, Rae headed up another expedition in the search for Franklin "with no other instructions than to take the route he best thought."2

Rae was known for his "length, speed and variety of his journeys." He never had many men with him on these journeys and he purposely travelled light, Eskimo fashion; he carried very few supplies and was an expert of living off the land, even those of the frozen north. His approach is to be compared with the costliness and the lavishness of the naval expeditions. The authorities, however, became unhappy with John Rae. As we have seen from the main work, Lady Jane Franklin did not like what he had to say after his return to England in 1854, to tell of "His Eskimo Stories" of cannibalism. There was another quarter which did not much take to John Rae, either: the Admiralty.

In 1856, John Rae resigned from the Hudson's Bay Company after 23 years of service. Between the years 1857 and 1859, Rae made his home in Hamilton, Ontario where his two brother ran a meatpacking business.3.

Rae married in 1860 to Catherine Jane Alicia. She was 21, he 46. There were no children of this union. After the marriage the couple went back to Britain to live. Mrs Rae lived on after her husband's death in 1893; she died in 1919 at Kent, England.

While it would appear he did not involve himself in any more Franklin searches after 1854, Rae carried on with his exploring activities. One was his exploration of the potential routes for telegraph and rail. In this regard, John Rae travelled in 1864 from Winnipeg across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific. During the course of which he "travelled along several hundred miles of the Fraser River in small dug-out canoes without guides."4

Though it seems every leader of any of the expeditions sent to see what happened to Franklin, received a knighthood: John Rae did not. He did have the support of his superior George Simpson, who wrote at least one letter5 to the government leadership, maybe more. "The honour of Franklin's fate" should be reserved for Dr. Rae. "His long & arduous labors in the Arctic regions & this important service with which they have been closed, seem to me to entitled him to some mark of distinction at the hands of his Sovereign and I should think the public would consider a knighthood well earned and worthily bestowed."

During John Rae's absence in the northern parts of America, the people of England had grown increasingly obsessed with the question -- What happened to Franklin? This public enthusiasm was generated due much to activities of Jane Franklin. McGoogan, in his work, described her, as:

"The clever, connected, and conniving Lady Franklin had exploited the sympathy of the British public, presenting herself as a bereaved widow who stoically refused to accept her husband's death. She had raised public subscriptions and had browbeaten the British Admiralty into sending out one fruitless search expedition after another."6
This piece of information in to be considered when reflecting on Rae's character. He often showed disdain for anyone who could not see it his way; he had a "habit of expressing his views to anyone who would listen."7 The result is that "Rae made bitter enemies."

One of the principal criticisms of John Rae, is that he was selfish in returning to England directly after determining where Franklin and his men likely came to grief. This he did, his critics complained, rather than of setting out immediately to the place, south of King William Island, where valuable evidence might have yet existed, instead of returning to England. His critics continued, that he returned to England to collect a reward which had been made by the government. Such an offer had indeed been made, though Rae explained he had no knowledge of it, busy as he was in the north. The reward was for 20,000lbs, which he eventually did receive; and, Yes, over the objections of Lady Jane Franklin.

John Rae died at London in 1893, at the age of 79. His body was brought back to his beloved Orkneys where he was buried in the churchyard of St. Magnus Cathedral at Kirkwall.

From John Rae's obituary, we read:

"It is easy to understand that Dr. Rae's views as to the equipment of expeditions in Arctic travel would differ in many respects, rightly or wrongly, from those who advocated the costly naval expeditions then in vogue. He could point to instances of his own superior success and to the disasters that befell the survivors of the Franklin expedition, as they toiled home-wards with a miscellaneous collection of heavy articles. Putting forward his views, as he did with point and insistence, his remarks were, as a rule, somewhat unwelcome to the naval authorities."8

1 His boyhood was spent in the rural setting of the Orkneys. His young life was spent with his brothers (there were a number of them) hunting with a long gun, tracking on foot, and other useful activities for a budding explorer; not insignificantly, he became an expert in the handling of small sail boats. I should note that two of his brothers came to Canada and set up business at Hamilton; Rae, on a couple of occasions made the trip to visit them.

2 See Traill, pp. 380-1.

3 See McGoogan, Fatal Passage: The Story of John Rae, The Arctic Hero Time Forgot, page 273.

4 Rae's Arctic Correspondence, 1844-55 (London: The Hudson's Bay Record Society, 1953) p. ciii.

5 See the one dated October 23rd, 1854, sent from Montreal. Rae's Arctic Correspondence, 1844-55 (London: The Hudson's Bay Record Society, 1953) p. 345.

6 McGoogan, p. 150.

7 Rae's Arctic Correspondence ..., pp. 294-6.

8 Ibid., p. ci.

[A LISTING OF The Searchers For Franklin]

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Peter Landry