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In Pursuit of the Erebus and Terror: An Arctic Mystery

For the week of Monday August 22, 2011

From August 18 to August 23, 2010, Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Service conducted a search for the 19th century British vessels, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, lost in the Canadian Arctic. Operating from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier, two survey boats used sonar to comb the sea floor for remains of the ships. The 370-ton Erebus and 340-ton Terror were part of an expedition led by Royal Navy officer Sir John Franklin. He set out to discover the Northwest Passage, a shortcut for travelling from Europe to Asia.

The search for the lost ships around O’ Reilly Island (middle left) from 24,000 feet
© Parks Canada / Jonathan Moore
The expedition, which left Great Britain in 1845, only carried supplies for three years. Unfortunately, in September 1846, the ships became icebound and the following summer, Franklin died. The ships remained trapped in the ice and by the spring of 1848, three years into the voyage, the desperate crews abandoned the ships.

After Franklin had not returned in 1848, Royal Navy and private search parties were dispatched. In 1850, Franklin’s first winter stopover was discovered at Beechey Island, in what is now Nunavut’s Wellington Channel. Also uncovered were the graves of three crew members who died less than a year into the expedition. In 1854, explorer John Rae learned from the Inuit that all of Franklin’s men had perished after abandoning the ships. He obtained small items that belonged to the missing crew and brought them back to England. But where were the Erebus and Terror?

Sketch of the HMS Terror in 1837
© Library and Archives Canada / Mary Montagu Album / C-006125

Afer 14 years with no further sign of the ships, an 1859 search expedition, led by Leopold McClintock, found a remarkable document from Franklin’s expedition. It was unearthed by one of McClintock’s men, William Hobson, in a cairn on Victory Point (King William Island). It was first written in 1847, then updated the following year. According to the account, on April 22, 1848, the remaining crew left the ships under the command of officer Francis Crozier in a desperate attempt to reach the North American mainland more than a thousand kilometres away. In the words of one Inuit, the crew “fell down and died as they walked.” Later searchers, Charles Francis Hall and Frederick Schwatka, gathered additional clues as to the whereabouts of the ships by speaking with the local Inuit population. While the 19th century explorers and later researchers have pieced together the story of Franklin’s crew, the mystery of where the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror eventually sank remains unsolved 160 years later.

The Government of Canada recognizes the importance of historically significant persons, places and events. For their explorations of the Canadian Arctic and Northwest Passage, Sir John Franklin, Sir James Clark Ross, Sir Francis Leopold McClintock and John Rae have all been designated as National Historic Persons. The shipwrecks and the Beechey Island Sites were recognized as National Historic Sites in 1992 and 1993, respectively.

For more information about Arctic exploration, please visit: Lost in the ArcticGenerosity in Early Canada: a Key to Franklin's SuccessJohn Ross Explores the Arctic, and John Rae: Intrepid Northern Surgeon and Surveyor in the This Week in History archives. To learn about Parks Canada’s ongoing searches for the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, please visit: Arctic Expeditions.

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