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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

Key Characters of the Past

Who was Sir John Franklin?

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

John Franklin was born in 1786 in Spilsby, England to a middle-class merchant family. As a schoolboy, Franklin dreamt of a career at sea. Despite the opposition of his father, who had hoped Franklin would become a clergyman, he joined the Royal Navy at age 14. In April 1801, he secured an appointment under Captain Matthew Flinders sent to explore the largely uncharted coast of Australia.

Franklin returned to Britain in 1804 to fight against Napoleonic France. He participated in the Battle of Trafalgar and was wounded during the Battle of New Orleans, one of the last battles the War of 1812. When peace arrived, Franklin was discharged and like many former soldiers and sailors, he found himself on half pay and without work.

In 1818, the Royal Navy revived its search for a Northwest Passage and Franklin was appointed captain of the Trent, a small whaling vessel. The expedition, under Commander David Buchan, planned to cross the Arctic from Spitsbergen, north of Norway, to the Bering Strait.At this time, it was believed that the North Pole was surrounded by open water, known as the Polar Sea and the expedition could simply sail straight north. This first mission failed when the ships encountered impenetrable pack ice and were forced to turn back.

The following year, Franklin was put in command of an overland expedition charged with the task of charting a large section of the northern coast of Canada's mainland as part of finding the most direct route for a Northwest Passage. He led a mixed group of twenty men including four Royal Navy officers, one of whom was George Back), Aboriginal guides and fur trade voyageurs from both the Hudson's Bay and North West companies. This expedition ran into serious difficulties caused in part by the competing fur trade companies, which had both promised to provide food and skilled guides but failed to do so.

After a difficult winter spent at Fort Enterprise, the expedition made its way north. Progress was slow and the men were forced to turn back after surveying only a short piece of the Arctic coast. On the return journey, the expedition split into smaller groups, each one struggling south. Franklin's group reached Fort Enterprise first and were reduced to eating deer skins, bones, lichen and boiled boot leather before George Back and a party of Dene finally arrived with food. In total, eleven men from the expedition died from starvation, exposure and in-fighting.

While the expedition itself was a disaster, it brought Franklin into the spotlight. Back in London, he was acclaimed as a hero and became known as "the man who ate his boots." He also received an admiralty promotion to post-captain. During his time at home, he married his first wife, Eleanor Anne Porden, who soon after gave birth to their daughter Eleanor Isabella.

In 1823, the Royal Navy accepted a new proposal from Franklin to explore more of the Arctic coast. Learning from the mistakes of his last expedition, Franklin developed a new strategy to focus on self sufficiency. He made preparations well in advance and sent supplies ahead to Hudson's Bay posts along the route.

Franklin left Great Britain in February 1825 and his expedition travelled across North America and down the Mackenzie River to reach the Arctic Ocean. They returned south to spend the winter of 1825-26 at Fort Franklin constructed on the shore of Great Bear Lake. Greatly helped by the Dene, hunting and fishing augmented their supplies.

In the summer of 1826, the expedition travelled down the Mackenzie once more and split into two parties to map the north shore of the continent, charting nearly 2,000 kilometres of coastline. Passing through Upper Canada on his journey back to England, Franklin stopped at a small lumber community called Bytown, which later became Ottawa, Canada's capital. While there, he laid the cornerstone for one of the locks of the Rideau Canal.

Franklin returned home in September 1827 only to find that Eleanor, his wife, had died a week after he sailed in 1825. In November 1828, he married Jane Griffin, a friend of his late wife. He received a knighthood from King George IV a year later. Although Franklin anticipated being appointed to further Arctic expeditions, this did not materialize. Instead, the Admiralty sent him to the Mediterranean where he served from 1830-33 during the Greek war of independence. In 1836, he accepted an offer to serve as Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania).

Franklin was recalled in 1843, and the Admiralty informed him of its plan to renew the search for the Northwest Passage. He was made commander of an expedition with Captain Francis Crozier as his second in command. Franklin began his final voyage on 19 May 1845 as HMS Erebus and HMS Terror departed from England. The last Europeans to see Franklin and his men alive were whalers in Baffin Bay.

We know from a note left by Francis Crozier that Sir John Franklin died on 11 June 1847 and was buried on King William Island. The location of his grave and those of the wrecks of Erebus and Terror , the two ships he lead to the Arctic, are still unknown.