Timeline of HMS Investigator, Her Officers and Crew (1850-54)
by Glenn M. Stein, FRGS
The route taken by the officers and crew of HMS Investigator in their journey across the Arctic Archipelago, 1850-1854. Numbers on the map refer to places described in the text of the timeline. (Chart showing the North West Passage discovered by Capt. R. Le M. McClure … [map]. London: Walker Litho; Hydrographic Office Admiralty, Oct. 14th 1853; and Frozen Ships, The Arctic Diary of Johann Miertsching, 1850-1854, L.H. Neatby editor. Toronto: MacMillan of Canada, 1967)
Enterprise and Investigator returned from the Arctic (Illustrated London News, November 1849) © Parks Canada
November 1849: Sir James Clark Ross returns to England with HMS Enterprise and HMS Investigator, after 18 months away in the Arctic searching for Sir John Franklin's expedition without success. Within a few weeks, plans are put into motion to refit the ships and send them from the west, through the Pacific and the Bering Strait, on another search mission.
January 1850: The expedition, under the command of Captain Richard Collinson sails from Devonport. HMS Investigator has 64 officers and men onboard, under the command of Captain Robert McClure. The ship is without her boatswain, who deserted two days before, and was not replaced before leaving port. HMS Enterprise is faster than her consort, and four days out of harbour, in an effort to keep up, several of Investigator's upper masts are torn away in strong winds. After the crew's hard work repairing the damage, McClure writes in his journal, "I directed an extra issue of spirits, which as all were drenched with sea and rain was duly appreciated."
March 1850: Interpreter Johann Miertsching, a Moravian missionary, records his observations of harsh Royal Navy discipline: "Since we left England, scarcely a day has passed with no one under arrest; today three men are in confinement."
April 1850: Investigator enters the Strait of Magellan, and afterward meets up with HMS Gorgon. McClure transfers three sick men to Gorgon, taking in return Boatswain's Mate Kennedy, and making him acting boatswain. After McClure and his men enter the Pacific Ocean, they see the dwindling outline of Enterprise in the distance.
May 1850: Investigator is once again damaged when parts of the ship's masts, rigging and sails are ripped away by passing squalls and showers. McClure is infuriated with the conduct of Lieutenant Haswell during the crisis, and places his second-in-command under arrest, but later reinstates him.
July 1850: After a voyage of some 15,000 miles, McClure and his men arrive at Honolulu Harbour, Sandwich Island (present-day Hawaii), on 1 July, and are bitterly disappointed to discover Enterprise left for the Bering Strait the previous day. Investigator is reprovisioned and repaired. Three sick men leave Investigator, and one deserts, while five join from other ships.
July 1850: Taking a more direct route to the Bering Strait than Enterprise, McClure arrives first, and encounters HMS Herald (Captain Kellett), which is on a summer search for Franklin and supplies Investigator with three more men. Kellett advises McClure to wait for Enterprise and his commander, but McClure claims that Enterprise is ahead of him, and that he must catch up to her before the navigable season ends and the ice closes up for winter. A few days later Collinson entered the Bering Strait after McClure, and deciding that the ice conditions were against him, sails south to spend the winter in Hong Kong. From this point on, Investigator is on its own.
August 1850: Anchoring Investigator near Cape Bathurst , McClure leads a landing party that meets a large group of Inuit. Although the encounter begins as a potentially hostile one with nervousness on both sides, Miertsching, the interpreter, successfully explains that they come in friendship and are searching for lost companions. The Inuit reply that they had not seen any trace of Franklin or his ships.
Cresswell's sketch of Melville Island as seen from Banks Island. (Robert McClure, The Discovery of the North-West Passage. London, 1856)
September 1850: After leaving Cape Bathurst Investigator is caught in the ice pack , McClure sights a ribbon of water leading northeast that he strongly feels is the last link of the Northwest Passage. On the other side are Melville Island and Winter Harbour, which were discovered 30 years previous by Parry's British expedition sailing from the eastern Arctic. After progressing through the newly named Prince of Wales Strait, Investigator is lashed by a vicious gale and pummelled by huge icebergs, the pressure causing caulk to ooze from twisted deck seams, and the terrified crew nearly abandons ship.
October 1850: Danger is ever present while the crew makes ready to winter in the ice pack , just within reach of the eastern end of the Prince of Wales Strait - and the Northwest Passage. McClure is ambitious and determined to complete the route, McClure leads two sledging parties. One takes formal possession of the Princess Royal Islands that lie in the Prince of Wales Strait and the land on the eastern shore, naming it Prince Albert Land, now known to be part of Victoria Island. The other party goes northward, where the Passage must lie, and sees Melville Island across the strait. McClure dates the discovery of the Northwest Passage as 26 October 1850.
April-June 1851: After a winter where temperatures sometimes fall to minus 50°C (minus 60°F), the arrival of spring brings the dispatch of sledging parties to explore the surrounding regions in search of Franklin. Lieutenant Haswell is sent southeast, Lieutenant Cresswell northwest, and Mate Wynniatt to the east. During this time, McClure makes contact with a band of Inuit who together draw an almost perfect chart of the area - though nothing is discovered of Franklin.
July 1851: Ice in the Prince of Wales Strait breaks up and McClure heads Investigator northward through the strait. He is obsessed with completing the passage, but he is forced to turn back south, and plans to circle around Banks Land (which he hopes is an island), and approach the passage from the west. He speeds through the strait, turns west, and then points his ship northward into the pack ice on the western coast .
August 1851: In one of her many narrow escapes, Investigator is fixed in the ice off the northwest of Banks Land, when the pressure of the floes suddenly increases, nearly causing her to be abandoned. As suddenly as it began, the ice loosens and danger evaporates. With an opportunity to go ashore, officers and men marvel at the discovery of a virtual forest of petrified trees - startling evidence of previous milder climes. Musk-ox and deer are seen, but nearly all of the birds have by now gone south.Investigator enters a main channel , and feels her way eastward along the coast toward another entrance to the passage.
September 1851: The ship enters a large bay , which is named the Bay of God's Mercy (or Mercy Bay), and Banks Land is confirmed to be Banks Island; McClure decides to winter here. Attempts to supplement food supplies with the hunting of deer, hares and birds are met with some success. But as winter sets in, hungry wolves prowl nearby making it unsafe for individual crewmen to leave the vicinity of the ship .
October 1851: To conserve provisions, everyone is placed on 2/3 rations.Hunting parties still try to supplement the provisions with fresh meat, but treacherous conditions mean that getting lost invites near-certain death.
January 1852: Sergeant Woon saves the life of Able Seaman Anderson, when the latter gets lost while out hunting alone, and is paralyzed with fear by the fog, fatigue and bitter cold. Woon heroically drags Anderson towards the ship for ten hours before a rescue party arrives on the scene. For most of January it is too dark to hunt safely.
April- May 1852: McClure sledges to Winter Harbour, Melville Island , where he hopes to find part of the 1850 expedition of Captain Horatio Austin or at least a depot of provisions, but it's all in vain - neither ships, nor supplies. A note is left describing the Investigator's position and the party glumly returns to their ship.
July 1852: The crew's health suffers from reduced rations and scurvy is rapidly spreading.
August 1852: The brief Arctic summer does not break up the ice which still holds the ship fast, so preparations are made for another gloomy winter. McClure depressingly realizes that the ice in a sheltered place like Mercy Bay may not break up every summer.
September 1852: As the ship does not have enough provisions for another year, McClure makes known his intentions for the spring of 1853: the crew will be detached in two sledging parties. One party will travel east and seek a whaling ship in Baffin's Bay, or some relief on that coast, while the other party will proceed south to the North American coast and seek relief from a Hudson's Bay Company post.
January 1853: The temperature falls lower than ever experienced by any previous expedition: minus 54°C (65°F below zero)
March 1853: McClure tells Dr. Armstrong of a new plan. His intention is to dispatch the weaker half of the crew on sledges, while retaining the most efficient men in an attempt to break out of their frozen prison and sail through the passage. On April 15, or thereabouts, the sledge parties will depart the ship.
April 1853: As the sledges were being packed, Able Seaman/extra Sick Bay Attendant Boyle dies. The following day, three strangers approach the ship in a dog sledge, and one says, "I am Lieutenant Pim, late of the Herald, now of the Resolute. Captain Kellett is with her at Dealy Island." In April 1852, Sir Edward Belcher's five-ship Franklin search expedition had left England, headed for the eastern Arctic. Two of the vessels, HMS Resolute (Captain Kellett, previously of the HMS Herald, in the Bering Strait) and HMS Intrepid (Commander McClintock), were detached to search in the region of Melville Island. They were also to look out for HMS Enterprise and HMS Investigator, neither of which had been heard from since they passed through the Bering Strait. McClure's note at Winter Harbour  was found in the process, and Pim was sent to find Investigator. Two more men die aboard Investigator - Able Seaman/Sick Bay Attendant Ames and Gunner's Mate Kerr and are buried on Banks Island.
April-May 1853: Lieutenant Cresswell is sent by sledge with a party to Resolute and Intrepid. Afterward, Captain Kellett sends Cresswell with dispatches carrying news of the Northwest Passage discovery to HMS North Star at Beechey Island. From there, he lands in England that October from the resupply ship HMS Phoenix. Meanwhile, most of the officers volunteer to stay aboard HMS Investigator for a fourth winter, but McClure can only secure four volunteers from the crew. His hopes for breaking out of the ice the following summer are crushed, and McClure is forced to begin abandoning Investigator on orders from Captain Kellett.
June 1853: The last sledge party leaves Investigator, and reaches Resolute and Intrepid two weeks later at Dealy Island .
August 1853: Resolute and Intrepid break out of the ice, but are able sail east for barely more than 160 kilometres (100 miles) before they are once again caught and frozen in for another winter .
November 1853: Mate Sainsbury (Investigator) dies from tuberculosis and scurvy onboard Resolute.
April 1854: A sledge party commanded by Master Krabbé (Intrepid) returns to HMS Investigator for the last time , finding that some water had intruded into the hull and frozen. Though she was heeling over 10° to starboard, Investigator had not suffered from pressure of the ice. Krabbé gathers up a quantity of the remaining provisions and supplies and placing them beside the cache already ashore, to be used by any future explorers. The remaining crew of Investigator journey by sledge east once again, reaching HMS North Star, itself anchored beside Beechey Island  for the winter.
Crews departing from Resolute and Intrepid, headed for Beechey Island. (George Frederick McDougall. The eventful voyage of H.M. discovery ship “Resolute” to the Arctic regions. London, 1857) © Parks Canada
May 1854: Able Seaman Morgan (Investigator) dies from scurvy onboard HMS North Star. Belcher orders Kellet to abandon Resolute and Intrepid in the ice. Belcher's plan is to desert four of his five expedition ships, all in perfectly good condition. No amount of reasoning or bitter arguing can sway Belcher - he simply does not want to spend another winter in the Arctic. Belcher's crews march to Beechey Island .
August 1854: The ice frees North Star and it sets sail for Britain bearing the crews of Investigator, Resolute, Intrepid and two other ships which Belcher also abandoned.
October 1854: The survivors of McClure's and Belcher's expeditions land in England. Naval courts martial take place, standard practice when one of the Her Majesty's ships is lost, and McClure and his men are cleared. Belcher is also acquitted, but his sword is returned to him in silence, indicating a rebuke nonetheless. McClure, his officers and crew are awarded a £10,000 prize for discovering a route through the Northwest Passage.