Lost in the Ice - History of the Franklin Expedition

In 1845, Sir John Franklin’s journey to complete the Northwest Passage with two of the most well-provisioned and technologically advanced ships set sail for Barrow Strait. As an accomplished northern trailblazer and veteran captain, it was assumed that this journey would be the final push to opening passage for Britain. 

However, after being seen in Baffin Bay, the fate of all 129 men on the two ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror would remain a mystery for more than 150 years, and even today there are still many unsolved elements to Nunavut’s most mysterious and unsettling Arctic exploration disappearance. 

 

A historic illustration of the Erebus and Terror ships.

The Fateful Expedition and Discovery

The HMS Erebus and Terror were supposedly well-equipped for the difficult journey through Nunavut’s Arctic waters - the ships carried three years of supplies and had their prows outfitted with sheet iron to withstand ice. 

Both ships spent their first winter at Beechey Island in 1846, but found themselves again trapped in ice off King William Island after the ice did not recede in the summer of 1847. This kept both ships locked in ice throughout the summer, with little hope of making any distance as winter approached. It was in the summer of 1847 that Sir John Franklin, who was 61 at the time, died aboard the HMS Erebus. He was not the first casualty, as several men had died ominously early in the trip and had been left buried on Beechey Island.

 

Four of the Franklin Expedition grave sites on Beechy Island.
Photo: Wikipedia

With mounting casualties, a written note found in a stone cairn detailed that the surviving members abandoned the ships in April 1848 to attempt to cross the ice and reach a Hudson Bay company outpost near Back River. The crew never made it to the outpost, but they did encounter local Inuit, who later reported they found the remains of dead crew members and several artifacts tracing their final route.

With the ships missing and the crew’s disastrous fate, expeditions for remnants, artifacts, and ultimately answers continued from the 1850’s into the 2010’s. In the 1990’s, the Parks Canada Underwater Archaeology team supported the ongoing efforts of Inuit historian and teacher Louie Kamookak and Canadian researcher David Woodman. After another unsuccessful search for the wrecks in 1997, Kamookak shared traditional Inuit knowledge from the residents of Gjoa Haven, which was the closest community to the current search efforts.

“...without traditional knowledge the search would have been wholly impractical…” - David Woodman

Map of the Franklin Expedition wreck sites
Map Credit: Parks Canada

Inuit knowledge was crucial in the eventual discovery of the two ships, which had drifted further south and around King William Island from their last position documented by the crew. Inuit oral histories of sightings and interactions with the crew of the expedition and the abandoned ship exist, and it was ultimately two artifacts that had been cached by an unknown Inuk that pointed the Government of Nunavut to the right location of the HMS Erebus in 2014, 166 years after it was abandoned by its crew.

 

The Legacy Today 

Neither site was discovered until more than 150 years later when the combined resources of historical research and Inuit knowledge made the discovery of the HMS Erebus in 2014 and the HMS Terror in 2016 possible. Currently, Parks Canada states that it is not allowing public access to either wreck, but they are jointly managing the future of the National Historic Site with Inuit. 

 

While both sites of these historic wrecks are currently protected by Parks Canada, with the goal of protecting their archaeological significance, there are still plenty of ways to engage with this unique and enticing part of Nunavut’s history.

Gjoa Haven is a must visit for arctic history buffs, with a storied past of Inuit history and European exploration. From there, the Northwest Passage Territorial Trail will lead you through the community to learn about the local Inuit culture that interacted with Europeans on their many failed attempts to complete the Northwest passage.

For exploration of the ships themselves, Parks Canada has provided a guided video tour through the wreck of the HMS Terror, which captures the haunting scale of the vessel, well-preserved under 24 meters of arctic waters. As well, there is a growing image catalogue of artifacts retrieved from both ships, which are being analyzed and preserved to be presented to the public at a later date.

The wrecks of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror are still sources of mystery for anyone with a passion for arctic exploration - why was the journey plagued with casualties from such an early point? How did the ships end up more than 70km apart? What artifacts can still be discovered on the surrounding islands that can shed light on the mystery?