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The Underwater Archaeology Search for Franklin's Lost Vessels: HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site

The Franklin Expedition

On May 19, 1845, the Royal Navy ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror departed Greenhithe, England on a much-heralded Arctic expedition in search of a Northwest Passage. Under the command of Sir John Franklin, with Captain Francis Rawdon Crozier second in command, the expedition’s two ships set out with a total complement of 134 officers and men. HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were converted bomb vessels of 378 and 331 tons respectively and both had already seen prior service in polar exploration. They were stoutly-built and soundly reinforced for operation in the ice, equipped with novel auxiliary-steam screw propulsion systems, fitted expressly for the expedition, and lavishly provisioned for a voyage of up to three years expected duration. Sir John Franklin’s orders were to traverse the passage and return to England without delay via the Pacific. The expedition was also expected to conduct a variety of zoological, botanical, magnetic and geological surveys.

HMS Terror HMS Terror was already a veteran of polar exploration by the time it sailed from Britain as part of Sir John Franklin’s last expedition. This 1836 watercolour by George Back, who was then in command of the vessel on a voyage to Hudson’s Bay, shows Terror beside an enormous iceberg. The painting was recently found in the private collection of one of Back’s descendants. Image courtesy Bonhams Fine Art Auctioneers and Valuers, London, UK.

The last Europeans to have contact with HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were the crews of two whaling vessels, the Enterprise and Prince of Wales. Conversation during this chance meeting in August 1845, between the expedition leaders and the Captains of the whaling ships, indicated that Franklin was waiting for an opportunity to cross Baffin Bay to Lancaster Sound. However, after entering the eastern Arctic Archipelago later that season and enjoying initial success, the promising expedition soon began to fatally unravel. Indeed, except for occasional encounters with the Inuit, the crews of the vessels would never be seen alive again.

The disappearance of the Franklin expedition set off a massive search effort in the Arctic and the broad circumstances of the expedition's fate were not revealed until 1859 when Lt. William Hobson of the steam yacht Fox, a vessel privately chartered by the indomitable Lady Jane Franklin, found a sombre message left in a cairn on Victory Point, King William Island.

The message revealed that both ships had become trapped in ice in late 1846 and had remained so for approximately one and half years. It indicated Franklin had died on June 11, 1847, while an additional 23 crew members had similarly perished under unknown circumstances. On April 22 1848, the 105 remaining survivors deserted the ships and recorded their intention to proceed on foot in the direction of Back’s Fish River. None would survive; the entire complement of both ships perished and HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were lost to the ice. While the message revealed the general vicinity of the two vessels at the time of their abandonment, neither wreck location is presently known.

In 1992, the Government of Canada declared the missing wrecks to be a national historic site. This designation came about as a result of their association with Franklin’s last expedition, and their role in the history of exploration of Canada’s north and the development of Canada as a nation.