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Rescuing the Rescuers

For the week of Monday, April 4, 2016

On April 6, 1853, the crew of HMS Investigator was rescued from Mercy Bay on the northeast coast of Banks Island, Northwest Territories. Their deliverance was the result of a message left in a cairn, which led to one of the more unusual meetings in the history of Arctic exploration.

A portrait of Robert McClure by Stephen Pearce
© Library and Archives Canada

Investigator was one of several ships sent by the British Admiralty to search for Sir John Franklin and his two vessels. The Franklin expedition had left England in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage, but never returned. On January 20, 1850, Investigator, under the command of Robert McClure, set sail with a crew of 66 men. The ship travelled around the tip of South America, re-supplied at Hawaii, and entered the Arctic from the west.

In early August, Investigator rounded Point Barrow in northern Alaska, where the crew began to meet groups of Inuit. Through interpreter Johann Miertsching, McClure asked Inuit along the Alaskan and Canadian coast if they had seen the Franklin expedition, but without success.

Investigator spent the winter of 1850-51 in Prince of Wales Strait. In September 1851, the expedition once again took refuge for another winter in a bay that McClure named Mercy Bay - a place that turned out to be far from merciful! Ice gripped the ship for a year, and a third winter was spent in the Arctic. During this time, the men went on exploratory journeys by sledge, and on hunting expeditions, while Miertsching organized school lessons for the crew.

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A sonar image of Investigator
© Parks Canada

In April 1853, a stranger was spotted walking towards camp. This turned out to be Lieutenant Bedford Pim of Sir Edward Belcher’s expedition. He had found a letter of help left in a cairn built by McClure. Belcher was also searching for the Franklin ships. Belcher’s two Royal Navy ships, HMS Resolute and HMS Intrepid, were 60 km away and had to be reached on foot. Rescue was followed by a fourth winter spent on ice-bound ships, but in October 1854, 60 survivors of Investigator and their rescuers finally made it home. The Investigator had to be abandoned. She was discovered by Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team in 2010.

Sir Robert John McClure is designated a person of national historic significance for his role in early Arctic exploration. McClure and his crew were credited with traversing the whole Northwest Passage.

To read about other searches for Franklin’s expedition, see John Ross Explores the Arctic and In Pursuit of the Erebus and Terror: An Arctic Mystery. To learn more about McClure, see From Sea to Sea: Robert McClure Connects the Northwest Passage in the This Week in History archives.

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