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ARCTIC ARCHIPELAGO - The Searchers For Franklin

John Ross (1777-1856)

A Portrait of John Ross

Born just outside of Stranraer, in southwest Scotland, John Ross was the fifth son of a minister. Stranraer, we should mention, is a place on the seaside, long known as a ferry port connecting Scotland with Ireland (Belfast). Though but nine years of age, John Ross was put aboard a ship, the Pearl, and on her, he spent the next three years in the Mediterranean.

"In 1790, he sailed on the Impregnable, whose captain, Sir Thomas Byard, advised him to join the merchant marine. He did so and became an apprentice to Byard for four years, sailing to the West Indies and the Baltic. After that he sailed on a number of ships as midshipman or mate and in 1805 became a lieutenant [in whose service, I have yet to determine]. In 1809 he was made a Swedish knight for a brief period of service to the Swedish admiral."1
And so we come to the year, 1818. It was in this year that ships were sent to explore the islands off the north coast of North America. These ships (I am not sure under what flag) were the Isabella under the command of John Ross and the smaller of the two, the Alexander, under Lieutenant William Edward Parry.2 After crossing Baffin Bay the pair entered Lancaster Sound. (See Map.) In 1818, not much was known about Lancaster Sound, other than it was a channel that went to the west, and west was the direction they wanted to go. John Ross, sailed some distance west but got discouraged and thought he saw mountains at the end of the strait. "Despite the protests of several of his officers, including Parry" who thought that a closer look was in order.3 Ross turned around and sailed back to England. It appears he continued to live under a cloud of criticism.

The criticism of John Ross, from certain quarters, continued on for a number of years. He, however, managed to live-down his disappointments of the 1818 expedition, such that in 1829, Ross was entrusted with another mission. He was put in command of the Victory, and sent out for another try at finding the North-West Passage.4 He had, as his second-in-command his 30 year old nephew, James Clark Ross. The Victory proceeded from Lancaster Sound, south, down Prince Regent Inlet. (See Map.) The explorers spent three successive winters on the east coast of the Boothian Peninsula, as, unfortunately, the Victory got stuck in the ice. During their time there, however, they carried out land searches which included explorations on King William Island5; on this island Ross built a cairn or monument on Point Victory, a cairn which figures very much into our larger story. Ultimately, the Victory was abandoned in Victoria Harbour on the east coast of Boothia in 1832. "The party then proceeded in May and June 1832 to cover a distance of over two hundred miles to Fury Beach, where stores had been deposited by Parry in 1825. The party wintered at Fury Beach and next season John Ross and his men ... [fell-in] with the Isabella a whaling ship near the entrance to Lancaster Sound and arrived back in England in the autumn of 1833.6

The attachment that John Ross had to Sweden, is not something that your compiler has studied, but it was an attachment that included naval service when he was young. We see, too, from a site, that in 1839, he arranged to be appointed the British consul at Stockholm, where he remained until 1846. Then, in 1850,

"... a private search expedition, sponsored by the Hudson’s Bay Company and various individuals, and at 72 years of age he made his third voyage into Arctic waters, aboard the 91-ton schooner Felix. Poorly equipped, the Felix was unable to be of much help and in fact was dependent upon supplies from other vessels involved in the search, under Captain Horatio Thomas Austin and William Penny, during the winter of 1850–51. Ross returned to England in September 1851 and was promoted rear-admiral on the retired list a short time afterwards. In poor health and possibly suffering from gradual senility, he divided his remaining years between Stranraer and London. In 1855 he published a short pamphlet on the Franklin search, bitterly criticizing almost everyone associated with it. He died during one of his visits to London and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery."7


2 See Barrow, A Chronological History of Voyages into the Arctic Regions, p 366. It was usually a big disappointment to sail into a body of water that you think might bring you somewhere (called a sound, a strait, or channel - take your choice) rather than sailing in a closed-in bay (gulf), maybe a large one but which will leave you dead-ended.

3 Wikipedia

4 In 1829, the Victory had "a side-wheel steamer with paddles that could be lifted away from the ice and an experimental high-pressure boiler. ... (The engine caused trouble and during the first winter it was dumped on the shore.)" (Wikipedia)

5 John Ross, and those with him, at the time, were not aware King William Island was an island, it likely was just another peninsula not unlike the Boothian Peninsula immediately to the east of King William Island. It seems that is what Franklin thought when he got stuck in 1846. (See Map.)

6 London Correspondence Inward from Eden Colville, 1849-52 (London: The Hudson's Bay Record Society, 1956) p. xxiii. It would appear that this Isabella was this same ship as the Isabella that John Ross commanded fifteen years earlier, in 1818.


[A LISTING OF The Searchers For Franklin]

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Peter Landry