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ARCTIC ARCHIPELAGO - The Searchers For Franklin

Frederick Schwatka (1849-92)

A Portrait of Frederick Schwatka in Inuit Garb

We are here dealing with a man who led a life of amazing accomplishments, which started early. Not sure of his childhood, but he had quite an education. He went to West Point and graduated in 1871. In 1875, Schwatka received two degrees, while presumably carrying out his duties as an army officer, at the same time: law and medicine. After which, Schwatka was sent west, where, in the Dakota Territory, the army was chasing down the remaining Sioux who gave so much trouble for Custer in Montana earlier that year.

In 1878, and extending through to 1880, being sponsored by the American Geographical Society, Schwatka went off to the Arctic, mainly to see if any of the written records, that were bound to have been kept by Franklin and his officers, might still exists, either adrift in the snows or in the hands of the Inuit. Their principal place of search was King William Island. (See Map.) Schwatka had with him a couple of chosen men -- not many. They sailed up and around and into Hudson's Bay. From the west coast of Hudson's Bay (likely Repulse Bay) they set out overland together with a contingent of Inuit, one whom, at least, was with Charles Francis Hall in his searches of 1860 and 1869. Let me set out a passage from Wikipedia:

"[The group set out] with three sledges drawn by over forty dogs, relatively few provisions, but a large quantity of arms and ammunition. They interviewed Inuit, visited known or likely sites of Franklin Expedition remains, and found a skeleton of one of the lost Franklin crewmen. Though the expedition failed to find the hoped-for papers, in a speech at a dinner given in Schwatka's honor by the American Geographical Society in 1880, he noted that his expedition had made the longest sledge journey ever made both in regard to time and distance of eleven months and four days and 2,709 miles (4,360 km) and that it was the first Arctic expedition on which the whites relied entirely on the same diet as the Inuit."
While Schwatka and his party did not achieved their principal objective of finding any papers, they did find, in summing up: "four despoiled graves, and some portions of two unburied skeletons, which were discovered or seen by Schwatka's party; also some portions of four other skeletons near the wreak of the boat, which boat proves to be the one seen by me [McClintock] and in which I found two skeletons."1 So too, in 1879, Schwatka located and named Starvation Cove. (See Map.) He also gathered "accounts from several Inuit people of their discoveries at Starvation Cove, where thirty or forty members of the expedition perished, and of the presence of skeletons at Terror Bay."2

Though it has little bearing on our main work, Schwatka carried out further explorations in 1876. Alaska having been bought from Russia in 1867, the United States wanted to know more about its recently acquired territory. So, Schwatka was sent in 1883 to explore the Yukon River valley. Schwatka and his party, after going over the Chilkoot Pass from the Pacific, went down the Yukon River to its mouth in the Bering Sea, travelling 1,300 miles. Schwatka's expedition alarmed the Canadian government to such an extent that it sent out an expedition of its own (under George Mercer Dawson).

Schwatka died young, at age 43. We read that "Schwatka was afflicted by a painful stomach disorder, possibly brought on by an excess of conviviality, and consequently he used laudanum regularly as an analgesic. He died of an overdose of the drug on 2 Nov. 1892."3


1 McClintock, The Voyage of the 'Fox' ..., p. 58.

2 McGoogan, Fatal Passage: The Story of John Rae ..., p. 252.

3 Laudanum: "Alcoholic tincture of opium." Analgesic: "A medicine that removes pain.

[A LISTING OF The Searchers For Franklin]

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Peter Landry