Stories of the Northwest Passage
Franklin in the News
Historic Image of Poster Offering Rewards© Parks Canada
Canadians’ current interest in the location of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror is part of an ongoing curiosity about the fate of the 1845 Franklin expedition. Over 30 Arctic expeditions participated in the official search effort between 1848 and 1854; 12 major expeditions sent in 1850 alone. Many people expressed enthusiasm to enlist in searches for the missing ships, encouraged perhaps by the large rewards offered by both the British Admiralty and Lady Jane Franklin as well as an additional reward for the discovery of the Northwest Passage. The general public followed developments with great fascination through the newspapers in Great Britain, British North America, the United States, and elsewhere.
While the initial departure of Franklin and his two ships had received some attention, it was only after they failed to return home on schedule that interest in the story really took hold and the public became engaged. Beginning in 1848 with the first search expedition and continuing for over six years, Franklin’s fate consistently made headlines in the newspapers of major cities such as Halifax, Quebec City, Montreal and Toronto. The papers fed the public’s interest by publishing any and all news connected with the search. In the years following his disappearance, old, previously unpublished letters from Franklin and other crewmembers containing updates on the expedition’s progress were printed alongside fresh reports from the search expeditions. In April 1857, the Quebec Gazette printed an excerpt from Franklin’s correspondence titled “The Last Letter from Sir John Franklin.” The letter, written from Greenland and dated 11 July 1845, described the Christian mission on Whale Fish Island, Bay of Disco. It was sent to his sister with the whalers who had encountered HMS Erebus and HMS Terror near Greenland about two weeks later. The whalers were the last known Europeans see Franklin’s crew alive.
An extract of a letter from Canadian Missionary Rev. Father Taché based at Isle à la Crosse [hyperlink to Isle à la Crosse National Historic Site of Canada] in present-day northern Saskatchewan appeared in the Quebec Gazette in 1848. Father Taché’s letter recorded what he interpreted as an attempt for communication made by Franklin. Taché speculated that the sounds of cannon fire which had been heard in northern Canada during the winters of 1846 and 1847 were actually signals of distress from Franklin’s ships. According to the paper, this coincided with Inuit reports of cannon fire as well as sightings of two “big canoes” in the north at the same time.
This letter to the editor of the London Times (11 October 1851) sent by C.R. Weld of the Royal Society, an elite academy dedicated to scientific discovery. Mr. Weld provided information which discredited the authenticity of the balloon found by Mrs. Russell in her garden.© Parks Canada
One proposal presented to the Admiralty to ensure that messages sent in bottles were actually from Royal Navy ships was to supply pre-stamped copper plates which could be placed in bottles that were floated back to England. The engravings would be unique to each vessel and thus more easily recognizable to the Admiralty. (Source: "Letter from Major Bentham containing Suggestions for depositing Notices." Arctic Papers volume III, (London: George Edward Eyre and William Spottiswoode,1954).
Back in Great Britain, rumours concerning Franklin’s condition and whereabouts came from many sources. Newspapers were overwhelmed with stories of people having visions of Franklin, or receiving various forms of communication from him. The vast majority of these eventually were proven to be hoaxes. The London Times reported in 1851 that a woman saw a gas-filled communication balloon landing in her garden. At the time, the government did issue balloons as a way to relay messages across great distances by attaching small note cards. This particular balloon bore a card with an inscription disclosing the coordinates of Franklin and his crewmembers. Because these balloons were difficult to acquire, this message appeared credible and newspapers took an immediate interest. Reporters interviewed the woman, Mrs. Russell, and her servant, Edward Edmunds. Speculation about the balloon’s authenticity was debated in letters to the editor [see illustration] and subsequent developments continued to receive coverage overseas. The report was eventually discredited when authorities verified that neither Franklin nor any of the search expeditions had been issued with communications balloons.
A September 1853 article found in Toronto’s Globe reported that a woman had found a bottle containing a message washed up on the Irish shore. The message, attributed to Franklin himself, claimed that he was being held captive by natives on an Arctic island. In this case, the reporter approached the story with some caution, prefacing it with a warning: “It is most probably one of those cruel hoaxes or false reports, which have so often been made public with reference to Sir John Franklin.” Authorities initially seemed to authenticate the letter and its handwriting, but it received no further publicity after the initial report.
In addition to newspaper reports, public lectures on Arctic exploration became very popular. Some of these were hosted by groups such as the London Geographical Society, the Mechanics’ Institute in Toronto and the Geographical and Statistical Society in New York with scientists, philosophers and search expedition crew members serving as their guest lecturers. On one occasion, the Quebec Gazette reported in March 1854 that a Mr. Harrington presented a theory that the earth’s poles are “the two hottest portions of the globe,” evidenced by aurora borealis [link to Polar Sea story]. Mr. Harrington insisted that Sir John Franklin “may be in a genial climate, but that without fuel and steam he may be unable to return, on account of a constant wind rushing towards the pole to feed the fire.” Such events as these were well-attended in the years following Franklin’s disappearance, with lectures often led by crewmen, researchers and scientists who had recently returned from a search expedition and were eager to share their own theories about the expedition’s whereabouts.
Whether it was through newspapers or public lectures, the Franklin expedition captured the attention of multitudes. People were fascinated by the mystery of his disappearance, a mystery which has not entirely been resolved today. This continued interest in Franklin, his men and his ships is reflected in today’s popular culture, with songs like “The Ballad of John Rae” by Tiller’s Folly and Stan Rogers’ famous “Northwest Passage,” as well as the many books and articles that continue to be published. There are yet so many outstanding questions about this part of Canada’s history, and perhaps some answers will be found during this summer’s search undertaken by Parks Canada.