Common menu bar links

Parks Canada 2010 Arctic Surveys

The 1850 Search for Franklin Vessels

Sledge party leaving the Investigator
Sledge party leaving HMS Investigator in Mercy Bay, 15 April 1853.
Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1970-188-1945 W.H. Coverdale Collection of Canadiana

By 1847, fears that Sir John Franklin and his 1845 expedition to the North-West Passage had met with tragedy prompted a flurry of rescue efforts from Britain and the United States. One of these was a Royal Navy effort deployed in January 1850 that teamed Royal Navy Captain Robert John LeMesurier McClure, of the 66-man strong HMS Investigator, with Captain Richard Collinson of HMS Enterprise.

McClure's first discovery was ‘Baring's Land,' but as he sailed its south and east coast through Prince of Wales Strait, McClure soon suspected that these shores were in fact part of the ‘Banks Land' noted during the Parry expedition of 1819-1820. When McClure eventually saw the outline of Melville Island on the northern horizon, he realized he was witnessing the final link of the North-West Passage. Yet before he could be the first to momentously sail the passage, the HMS Investigator encountered impenetrable pack ice and was forced to winter among the drifting floes in Prince of Wales Strait. Once freed, McClure all but gave up the search for Franklin and attempted the passage again. The HMS Investigator again faced heavy ice, so hoping to find a safe anchorage as winter approached, McClure navigated his ship into a large bay on the north coast of Banks Island. Optimistically, McClure called the HMS Investigator's surroundings the Bay of Mercy.

Captain Sir Robert J Le Messier McClure
Captain Sir Robert J Le Messier McClure
Library and Archives Canada / R9266-1040 Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana

Survival in Mercy Bay was relatively comfortable, but when pack ice failed to clear from the Bay during the summer of 1852, the crew's situation became critical. Scurvy affected most crew members and killed the three crewmen whose graves were found on the island. Food rations became critically scarce. Before finally abandoning ship, McClure had his men land some of the ship's provisions, and then began evacuating his crew across the ice to HMS Resolute. Sometime after McClure and his men returned to England, the HMS Investigator and its provisions were discovered by Copper Inuit groups travelling to Banks Island to hunt and fish. In the years that followed, Inuit from Victoria Island made annual visits to Mercy Bay to salvage metal and wood from the depot, and may have even been able to use material from the HMS Investigator itself.

Despite the HMS Investigator's importance to both European polar exploration and Inuit cultural history, little is known about the expedition's land sites, or the vessel's final position. Archaeologists have visited the land sites since the 1980s, but Mercy Bay's remoteness has prevented thorough investigations or mapping of the sites' features. In the 1990s, Parks Canada established a monitoring program for what remains of the depot, but this too was based on a cursory visit and only addressed the most visible features. As for the wreck itself, there has not been a confirmed sighting since Krabbé's account in May 1854.