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

Stories of the Northwest Passage

Cache Sites: An Arctic Insurance Policy

During the summer of 2010, a team of Parks Canada archaeologists were given a glimpse of mid-19th century life on an Arctic ship while exploring a cache site at Mercy Bay on Banks Island, in the High Arctic. The cache site contained supplies left by Commander (later promoted to Captain and knighted) Robert John McClure in 1853, when he and his starving men abandoned their icebound ship, HMS Investigator. Lieutenant Frederick Krabbé later added to it when he off-loaded more of Investigator’s supplies during a brief visit, in 1854.

Cache sites are not unique to the Arctic. For thousands of years travellers around the world have left supplies for a return journey, or for others passing the same way. Many of the expeditions involved in the 19th century search for Franklin and his crew left cache sites of food, fuel, clothing, and even small boats.

In the Canadian Arctic, expeditions often constructed a marker cairn beside a cache that had a mast or a small tower, made from wood barrels, and placed at a location easily spotted by a passing ship. Some depots included a structure, such as a stone house or a simple wood shack. Many items were stored at these sites, most importantly preserved foods and coal for heating or powering steam engines. Other common materials were gunpowder and musket balls, clothing, rivets and nails, and bottles of wine or liquor. Caches played a major role in keeping expeditions safe and well supplied when trouble occurred. One example is the Fury Beach cache which ultimately was the salvation of the John Ross expedition in 1832. Following the grounding of Ross’ vessel, Victory, he and the crew wintered for three years on the east shore of Somerset Island. Finally, Ross and his crew were forced to abandon Victory and travel north to Fury Beach to the provisions and small boats left by Parry expedition. The supplies left there supported the crew through a fourth winter in the Arctic, until they were rescued the following spring.

Commander McClure left two cache sites during his search for Franklin. In 1851, while trapped in the ice in Prince of Wales Strait south of Banks Island, he left a cache on one of the Princess Royal Islands. This cache contained “three months victualling for the entire crew” – insurance for survival in case the ship was crushed by ice. McClure also intended that it might help any surviving member of Franklin’s expedition should they come across it. A note in the cache contained a plea that the supplies only be used in a situation of the most urgent necessity.

The second cache site was left at Mercy Bay on the east coast of the island after HMS Investigator had become trapped in the ice. Following their rescue by men of HMS Resolute, who were wintering just to the east on Melville Island, Investigator’s crew abandoned the ship but not before landing a large number of provisions. This depot was marked by a rock cairn on Providence Point just to its north, which could be seen from Banks (now M’Clure) Strait, and within was left was a message that ship’s surgeon Alexander Armstrong describes ‘contained a record of our sojourn in the Bay, and of our abandonment of the ship.’ When Lieutenant Krabbé of HMS Intrepid returned to Investigator in 1854 to assess her condition, he found the ship filling with water and decided to put some of the supplies ashore. Krabbé took careful inventory of the shore depot, which by now contained a considerable amount of material.

McClure's Cache in Aulavik NPMcClure's Cache in Aulavik NP. Barrel staves are scattered in the foreground, and the pile of coal left by McClure is on the right hand side. In the background are the team's helicopter and the tent camp on the shores of Mercy Bay
© Parks Canada

In 2010, the archaeologists used McClure and Krabbé’s inventories and found that many items were no longer on the site. As is common at many cache sites in the Arctic, the Inuit had taken items for their own use. Some of the most valued articles were the iron and copper nails from the Investigator’s small boat, and iron hoops from the wood supply barrels. The iron hoops were used to fashion knives and other tools, while the nails were probably used to fashion fish hooks, used as drills, and to notch wood and bone. Glass bottles were also taken but other materials such as leather boot soles and musket shot were left behind. Material from HMS Investigator became so valuable that for at least a generation, Copper Inuit bands would travel great distances to salvage from the site, and articles from Mercy Bay have been found hundreds of kilometres away.

The items that remain at Mercy Bay were recorded by the Parks Canada team in 2010 and this information will help researchers understand more about Inuit and European Arctic travel. The 2011 archaeological expedition hopes to learn more about the cache, HMS Investigator and its crew.