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Generosity in Early Canada: a Key to Franklin’s Success

For the week of Monday August 16, 2010

On August 22, 1821, after surveying more than 300 km of Arctic coastline, Sir John Franklin and 28 crewmembers from his first Arctic expedition began what would be a long and difficult trek south to Fort Providence in the Northwest Territories. Led by Franklin, the greatest explorer of Canada’s Arctic, this expedition began at Fort Chipewyan in Alberta on July 18, 1820. However, the voyage was haunted by shortages of ships, men and supplies. When the expedition ended after food and supplies ran out, the crew was forced to eat Arctic plants and boiled leather from their boots, and traveled back to Fort Providence on foot because of the poor condition of their canoes. Franklin and his crew did not reach the fort until November 11. Ten members of the crew died of starvation and exposure during the trek.

Sir John Franklin
© Library and Archives Canada / C-0015150

After his first expedition ended in disaster, he relied greatly on the Dene in planning and beginning a second expedition in 1825. Having learned much about the lifestyle and generosity of the Dene people, Franklin relied on the use of their fishery to support his crew at the beginning of their journey. The Déline fishery was the only fishery in the western end of Great Bear Lake, in the Northwest Territories, that could support more than 50 people through winter. Most of Franklin’s crew arrived at the fishery in 1825 and constructed Fort Franklin. The Dene accommodated Franklin and his crew by moving to another part of the fishery, believing that limited resources should be shared and refusing to allow Franklin and his crew to starve. As a result of the Dene people’s generosity, Franklin and his crew survived the winter and were able to begin their journey in the spring. Franklin mapped as far as the Coppermine River before returning to Fort Franklin four months later – the second expedition was a success!

“Views from Upper Canada along the Mackenzie River to Great Bear Lake” by George Back
© Library and Archives Canada / C-003256

On his third Arctic expedition in 1845, Franklin and his entire crew perished after getting stuck in the ice, prompting a massive search for his ships, Erebus and Terror. It was later discovered that his crew had completed the discovery of the Northwest Passage before their demise.

For mapping much of the Arctic coast in two of his overland expeditions, Sir John Franklin was designated as a National Historic Person in 1945. The Déline Fishery / Franklin’s Fort was designated as a National Historic Site in 1973. Fort Chipewyan was designated as a National Historic Site in 1930 and the Erebus and Terror were designated in 1992.

Parks Canada underwater archaeologists continue to search to locate the remains of Franklin’s ships. To find out more about the Erebus and Terror, please see HMS Erebus and HMS Terror Expedition.
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