This Week in History


McClintock Reveals Fate of Franklin’s Lost Arctic Expedition

For the Week of Monday September 15, 2014

In September 1859, after searching the Arctic terrain and waters for over two years, Captain Francis Leopold McClintock and his crew aboard the Fox finally return to London, England. McClintock led the last major expedition in search of English Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin and the 134 men aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. Franklin and his men were last seen in August 1845 while searching for the elusive Northwest Passage. The British Admiralty and Lady Jane Franklin had since ordered some 35 search expeditions without success. Still determined, Lady Franklin purchased Fox and hired McClintock as her last hope to find her husband.

Captain McClintock led the last major expedition in search of Franklin and his companions.
© The British Library Board
McClintock sailed to Beechey Island (Nunavut), which was the site of Franklin’s first wintering quarters and last known location. Following Inuit evidence and witness accounts gathered by John Rae during an earlier expedition, McClintock and his crew continued on southward, eventually reaching King William Island in April 1859.

Local Inuit told McClintock stories of a wrecked ship and men dying, lost in the ice. More chilling was the discovery of a naval record from Franklin’s expedition. Two separate messages were left on one sheet of paper in a cairn, the only known written record of Franklin’s expedition. The first message, dated May 1847, reported that all was well. The second message, however, was grim. Written almost a year later, the note revealed that Franklin and 24 crew members were dead. The surviving men were forced to abandon the ships, which were trapped in the unforgiving ice. McClintock and his crew further discovered a trail of evidence left by the sailors as they struggled south, but found no evidence that any of them had survived. It was confirmed: Sir John Franklin and his men perished on King William Island, alone and hopeless.

McClintock and his crew discover the frozen bodies of some of the men aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.
© Collection of Russell Potter

Upon his return to England, McClintock was knighted and officially declared the “Discoverer of the Fate of Franklin.” Public intrigue surrounding the lost Franklin expedition continues even today.

Among other searchers, Sir Francis Leopold McClintock is a National Historic Person, as is Sir John Franklin himself. Franklin’s ships, HMS Erbus and HMS Terror, and Beechey Island, a major landmark in the search, are National Historic Sites.

This summer, Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team located one of Franklin’s historic ships (Erebus or Terror)! After six years of searching with partners from the public, private and non-profit sectors, one of the world’s greatest maritime mysteries is closer to being solved. For more information, see Parks Canada’s 2014 Search for the Lost Franklin Expedition.

To learn more about Franklin and the historic searches for his expedition, read: Lost in the Arctic, Generosity in Early Canada: A Key to Franklin’s Success, In Pursuit of Erebus and Terror: An Arctic Mystery, and John Rae: Intrepid Northern Surgeon and Surveyor in the This Week in History archives. See also Owen Beattie and John Gieger’s book Frozen in Time: The Fate of The Franklin Expedition.

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