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

Stories of the Northwest Passage

The 1850 Search for the Franklin Vessels

By 1847, fears that Sir John Franklin and his 1845 expedition to the Northwest Passage had met with tragedy prompted a succession of rescue efforts from Britain and the United States. One of these was a Royal Navy effort deployed in January 1850 under overall command of Captain Richard Collinson of HMS Enterprise, and accompanied by Commander Robert John LeMesurier McClure of the 66-man strong HMS Investigator. Their mission was to search for Franklin from the west, which meant their first task was to sail around South America before they could reach the Alaskan coast. The two ships sailed across the Atlantic and through the Straits of Magellan where they became separated.

After re-supplying in Hawaii, McClure approached the western Arctic through the Bering Strait and sailing north encountered what he called ‘Baring’s Land’. As he explored its south and east coast through Prince of Wales Strait, McClure soon suspected that ‘Baring’s Land’ was in fact the ‘Banks Land’ found during Sir Edward Parry’s first expedition which had reached Melville Island in 1819. When McClure eventually saw the outline of Melville Island on the northern horizon, he realized he was witnessing the final link to the Northwest Passage.

Yet before he could be the first to triumphantly sail the Passage, HMS Investigator encountered impenetrable pack ice and was forced to overwinter among the drifting floes in Prince of Wales Strait. Once freed, McClure attempted the Passage again, this time by sailing around Banks Island to attempt the route from the northwest. HMS Investigator again encountered heavy ice, and while navigating an open lead close to shore, under broken fog and looming darkness, the ship inadvertently sailed into the confines of a large bay on the north coast of Banks Island. Unwilling to overwinter again in the open sea, McClure gave the order to anchor in the shelter of the bay for the oncoming winter, rather than press ahead. McClure christened the Investigator’s surroundings the ‘Bay of Mercy’, thinking that it was a deliverance from the crushing pack ice.

The first winter spent in Mercy Bay was spent in relative comfort. A sledging expedition crossed Banks Strait (now McClure Strait) to Melville Island over 260 kilometres away, and in the spring of 1852 left a message at Parry’s Rock in Winter Harbour. When pack ice failed to clear from the Bay during the summer of 1852, the crew’s optimistic situation became increasingly bleak. Just as they were facing starvation and the crew suffered their first casualty to scurvy, the message at Winter Harbour was found by the crew of another Royal Navy vessel, HMS Resolute, and a sledge team came to their rescue in April 1853. Two more men would die before McClure gave the order to abandon ship. McClure had his men land some of the ship’s provisions on the nearby shore before evacuating the remainder of the crew across the ice to Melville Island.

It was only in 1854 that McClure and his crew finally returned to England, following a fourth winter trapped in ice with the crew of HMS Resolute. Eventually the men were sent by sledge to Beechey Island where they boarded another ship to complete their return home, arriving in September 1854. McClure and his men were the first to circumnavigate North America, and claimed the ₤10,000 Admiralty’s award for finding the Northwest Passage (the equivalent of about $1 million today) – even though this feat was accomplished by a combination of ship and sledge travel. In the spring of 1854, before McClure and his crew returned to England, Lieutenant Frederick Krabbé, also wintering at Melville Island, sailed to Mercy Bay to assess HMS Investigator’s condition. He found the ship slowly sinking and removed as many provisions as could be salvaged.

Sometime shortly after their return to England in 1854, the vestiges of ‘McClure’s Cache’ left behind in Mercy Bay were discovered by Copper Inuit groups travelling on Banks Island. In the years that followed, Inuit made annual visits to Mercy Bay to salvage metal and wood from the cache on shore, and may have even been able to use material from the Investigator itself.

Despite the Investigator’s importance to both European polar exploration and Inuit cultural history, little was known about the expedition’s land sites or the vessel’s location. Archaeologists had visited the land sites since the 1950s but Mercy Bay’s remoteness prevented a thorough investigation or mapping of the sites’ features. In the late 1990s, Parks Canada established a monitoring program for what remained of the cache but this too was based on cursory visits and only addressed its most visible features. Until it was discovered last summer, the last European sighting of the vessel was in 1854.