This Week in History


Lost in the Arctic

For the week of Monday May 14, 2001

Sir John Franklin sailed from England on May 19, 1845, to complete the search for the Northwest Passage. He never returned and the search for more clues of this lost expedition continues to this day.

Sir John Franklin

Sir John Franklin
© LAC / C-1352

Franklin went to sea at age 13 and joined the Royal Navy two years later. His first attempt at discovering the Northwest Passage, via the North Pole to the Orient, met with failure in 1818. By the 1840s, the Northwest Passage had been explored from both east and west; all that remained was to connect these two known routes. In 1845, the British Admiralty chose the 59-year-old Franklin to complete several centuries of searching. He and his crew of 129 men left on the Erebus and Terror, iron-fortified bomb vessels of 340 and 370 tons, abundantly stocked for the journey with three years worth of provisions. They did not intend to live off the land and took no special Arctic clothing.

When no word had been heard from the expedition by 1847, searches began by land and by sea. The first clues were found on Beechey Island in 1850: three graves, the remains of workshops, a cairn built out of tin cans and bits of Navy clothing, food containers on the barren, rocky beach. Beechey Island became the centre for 32 Franklin search expeditions, which between 1847 and 1859 explored and charted vast areas of the Canadian Arctic and claimed the prize of discovering the Northwest Passage.

Grave markers photographed during recording of the Franklin Site, Beechey Island by Parks Canada archaeologists in 1976

Grave markers photographed during recording
of the Franklin Site, Beechey Island
by Parks Canada archaeologists in 1976

© Parks Canada / P. Sutherland

In 1859, the only written record of the expedition was found, revealing that the ships left Beechey Island in the summer of 1846, probably sailing south through Peel Sound toward King William's Land (now King William Island). Trapped in ice in Victoria Strait, the expedition drifted helplessly until 1848. By this time Franklin and 24 others had died. The surviving men were forced to take to the ice, heading south towards mainland Hudson's Bay Company posts. Inuit later saw the abandoned ships in the Strait.

Sir John Franklin and his Second Arctic Expedition are both of national historic significance. Although the ships have yet to be found, the Erebus and Terror were designated national historic sites in order to protect them from looting. The Beechey Island Sites include the Franklin wintering quarters, the search expedition sites and the sunken search vessel Breadalbane. Remains of many of the men have been located along with artifacts from the expedition.

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