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Parks Canada 2010 Arctic Surveys

The Franklin Expedition

The Franklin expedition holds great interest and mystery. For more than 160 years, numerous expeditions have set out to find the lost vessels and hopeful answers regarding the fate of their crew. The remains of the ship have yet to be found.

Sir John Franklin
Sir John Franklin
Library and Archives Canada/R9266-3037 Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana

British ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror set sail on the 19th of May 1845. In overall command of the expedition, Sir John Franklin sailed in HMS Erebus, while HMS Terror was under the command of Francis Crozier. The expedition was ordered to conduct zoological, botanical, magnetic and geological surveys in the Canadian Arctic and to complete a crossing of the North-West Passage and discovery of a reliable route from Europe to the Orient. Although entrances to the passage had already been charted in both the east and west, the middle section was unknown to Europeans.

Outfitted with 20-hp steam engines, they were built of wood with iron sheathing at the bow. The expedition was to last three years and the vessels were provisioned as such.

The last Europeans to have contact with HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were the crews of two whaling ships, 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. Except for encounters with Inuit people, the crews of the vessels were never 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 was not revealed until Lt. William Hobson of HMS Fox found a message in a cairn on Victory Point, King William Island, in 1859.

The message revealed that both ships had been icebound for approximately one and half years. It confirmed that Franklin died on board Erebus on June 11th 1847 and an additional 23 crew members had perished aboard the ships. On April 22nd 1848, the 105 remaining survivors abandoned the ships and indicated their attempt to march to Back's Fish River–none of them made it alive. The entire crews of both ships died and HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were lost to the ice. The message revealed the location of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror at the time of abandonment, although no trace of either ship has ever been found.

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

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed in August 1997, between Great Britain, as owners of the vessels, and Canada, as the nation whose water they were lost. If and when the shipwrecks are found, the MOU assigns control over site investigation, excavation or recovery of either wrecks or their contents to Canada. Mandated to protect and present subjects of national significance, Parks Canada has been identified as the federal agency responsible for the search and subsequent preservation of the vessels.