Franklin's Lost Expedition

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Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert and joining me today is Sarah Dowdey. How are you, Sarah?

Sarah Dowdey: I'm good, Katie.

Katie Lambert: Good. We keep getting e-mails requesting more about Canadian history, and I have something close to Canadian history today.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, a spooky arctic mystery.

Katie Lambert: So we're gonna go ahead and say that counts. We're talking about Sir John Franklin's lost expedition. John Franklin was one of 12 kids, and his parents wanted him to become a clergyman, but he loved the sea, and he was absolutely sure that was his destiny from a young age.

Sarah Dowdey: So he entered the Royal Navy at 14, where he had a varied career. He took part in expeditions to Australia. He fought in the Battle of Trafalgar. He commanded the Trent on an 1818 arctic expedition.

Katie Lambert: And an attempt to reach the North Pole, and from 1818 to 1822, he conducted an overland expedition from Hudson Bay to the arctic, I think, and surveyed part of the coast, parts that people had never seen before, a large swath of the coast and published a book about it, The Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea.

Sarah Dowdey: And did another narrative a few years later, after a second overland expedition on the same region! During this time, it was post Napoleonic wars; the British Navy really needed something to do, basically.

Katie Lambert: They needed a purpose.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, and so largely thanks to Sir John Barrow, they decided their purpose was gonna be to navigate the Northwest Passage. The Northwest Passage had been an idea floated around since Elizabethan times, even.

Katie Lambert: Right.

Sarah Dowdey: But it was essentially that there was a way to take a ship from the Atlantic to the Pacific, going above Canada.

Katie Lambert: And they knew it was there somewhere, they just didn't know where.

Sarah Dowdey: Somewhere in all that ice between all those islands, they knew there was a way, but it took a very long time to find it and even longer to actually navigate it.

Katie Lambert: So in 1845, they decide they're going to launch another expedition, and Franklin is not their first choice because he's older. He's 59, and they think that might be too old for someone who's going to be in such strenuous conditions.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, it basically seemed like his naval career was over. He's been the governor of Tasmania for several years. He's been knighted. It doesn't seem like he's the man to choose for your arctic expedition.

Katie Lambert: But he's convinced that he's the right one, and I think someone said something to him about being 60, and he said, "No, no. I'm 59, so let's make that clear." So it's a go, and Franklin is their choice. And the ships they were going to take were state of the art at the time. They had iron reinforced hulls and steam engines. They were very well equipped.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, they have three years' worth of canned food on board, which partly ends up being a problem, but we'll get to that. So they dock in Greenland in July of 1845, and they send home a few men and a batch of letters. If you were one of the men to be sent home there, you were very lucky because things didn't go well from there on out.

Katie Lambert: The last s ighting of them is by British whalers north of Baffin Island at the entrance to Lancaster Sound in July of 1845. Then, they disappear and go completely off the map.

Sarah Dowdey: So what happened?

Katie Lambert: Search parties were sent in 1847 to answer that exact question because two years was too long. They should have heard something by now, and the searches keep going.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, by 1850, as many as 14 ships were in the area at the same time looking for them. This turned out to be kind of the romantic adventure of the age, searching for Franklin and his lost crew. Consequently, a lot of information about the Northwest Passage was discovered during these rescue attempts. But we're gonna kind of give the overview of what happened to Franklin and his men during this time. This was all pieced together over years and years.

Katie Lambert: And something like 30 expeditions to go and find them.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: They each came back with little pieces.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, in 1845 to 1846, they winter at Beachy Island, and three crewmen die there.

Katie Lambert: And they'd started with, what? 129 people?

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, 128 or so.

Katie Lambert: So the numbers are dwindling slowly.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: In 1846, the ships, which were named Erebus and Terror, not a good name for a ship, leave Beachy Island.

Sarah Dowdey: No, it's [inaudible].

Katie Lambert: And they sail down Peale Sound to King William Island.

Sarah Dowdey: Then, by September of 1846, the ships get trapped in the ice off of King William Island and Victoria Strait, and so they winter there. There's a note that was found later from May 28, 1847 saying that things were okay. They were stuck in the ice still, but it was going on.

Katie Lambert: Everything was all right. But on June 11, 1847, as close as we can tell, Franklin died, and he is the head of everything, of the whole expedition, and he's one of very few men in the crew who actually has arctic experience.

Sarah Dowdey: And things get bad then because that's when the ice from the winter should have thawed, and they should have been able to move on.

Katie Lambert: And it didn't.

Sarah Dowdey: And it doesn't, so they winter again on King William Island. Obviously, there are questions of food that are gonna come up soon, so they have to start making difficult decisions in the next year about what they're gonna do.

Katie Lambert: They abandon their ships on April 22, 1848 and decide to try to make a go of it.

Sarah Dowdey: And in a note that was later found, by April 25 of 1848, 24 men had died, and the survivors were marching south to the Black River, and things got very messy there. They resorted to cannibalism, and a lot of them were addled by what later looked like lead poisoning. Some people say the lead poisoning was the result of poorly tinned foods.

Katie Lambert: Right.

Sarah Dowdey: The foods were apparently supplied by kind of a cut rate dealer, and lead was supposed to have actually dripped into the cans from the soldering. But an author of Ice Blink, Scott Cookman, actually has a different theory. He thinks that botulism in the cans caused all of the mental and physical issues that happened and was responsible for why these men died on the ice, not on the ship, on the ice when they were away from reliable cooking sources because proper heating will kill -

Katie Lambert: That kills the clostridium spores.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: But if they don't have a stove to heat it.

Sarah Dowdey: If you're out on the ice, and maybe you have a dinky little stove or not a stove at all, so he kind of thought that explained why they all die out there and not on the ships.

Katie Lambert: And there was also evidence of scurvy, which is what, happens when you don't get enough vitamin C, and scurvy and lead poisoning lead to the same kinds of weakness that make you unable to do the hard work that's necessary to do in the arctic.

Sarah Dowdey: To walk across the ice and they weren't adapting Inuit ways of dealing with the weather. They were carrying lots of unnecessary supplies with them, so it was not - they weren't equipped for an overland expedition at all.

Katie Lambert: No. The list of their supplies - I wish I had it on me - is just so strange. It wasn't at all survival stuff.

Sarah Dowdey: No.

Katie Lambert: It was things like books.

Sarah Dowdey: Silver.

Katie Lambert: Yes, you don't need silver if you're trapped in the arctic. For future reference for all our listeners, don't bring the silver.

Sarah Dowdey: The first search for Franklin goes out in 1847. The first official search isn't until 1848. Over the years, a lot of the expeditions get very close to where Franklin's ships were actually abandoned, but there was a lot of delay. One of the reasons is when ships were over there looking at Peale Sound where the boats went, it seemed impossible that they could have gone in that direction because the ice cover was so heavy.

Katie Lambert: Right, so they just skipped over it, and of course, there was a huge cold snap going on in the arctic at this time too, so these weren't normal conditions for that area.

Sarah Dowdey: No. The early searches turned up some accounts from Inuit who had seen the explorers and had stories about starving men. There was even one account that was taken much, much later from an Inuit in 1929 saying that some of the boats were re-manned, and they knew of large vessels that lay on the other side of the island, basically, far away from where they were supposed to have been.

Katie Lambert: And they also said that because the winter was so cold, they too were having a really hard time finding food and hunting, so if the crew was depending on the locals for food, they didn't have any to give.

Sarah Dowdey: And it's likely that the crew wouldn't ask for help too. They weren't -

Katie Lambert: They were self sufficient British men.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, the Royal Navy men, exactly. In the process of the search, the Northwest Passage is actually completed, although it's by several ships and sled. It's not completed by one ship until the 20th Century, I believe.

Katie Lambert: By the one guy.

Sarah Dowdey: But in 1859, there is a very important search mission sent out. The Royal Navy was effectively done with this after getting -

Katie Lambert: They'd been looking for years.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. And they felt like they had gotten back enough information about the men, but Franklin's widow wasn't satisfied.

Katie Lambert: Jane, Lady Franklin, was the first woman to receive the Founder's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society because of everything that she'd done to organize these expeditions. She was determined that they would at least find some concrete proof that the men were dead.

Sarah Dowdey: So she hires Captain Francis Leopold McClintock, who had actually been on several earlier search missions and during some of those, had really developed the art of sledging across the land and learned a lot of the Inuit customs and helped prepare future arctic explorers for conditions.

Katie Lambert: And he was very effective because he used all of these other resources. His crew found skeletons of the Franklin expedition; I think only four of them.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, but most importantly, he finds that note which has the first message saying that everything is okay, and then the later message abandoning ship.

Katie Lambert: That everything is not okay.

Sarah Dowdey: Lots of people dying, we're walking, finds it in a pile of stones on the icy island. It's very creepy.

Katie Lambert: It is. And we'll never know entirely what happened. These are just, again, what historians and scientists are able to piece together from the evidence that they had, so there are things we're sure of, like there was too much lead in the bodies. There was evidence of scurvy. There was definitely cannibalism from what they can tell from the bones. But some of it, we'll never quite know.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. And a very strange thing to think of today is icebreaker luxury cruises go right up by the island where they all died. Now, it's strange to think how accessible all that is. Actually, the Northwest Passage is open. It first opened in 2007. Enough ice had melted that it was considered fully navigable, and it happened again in 2008, along with the Northeast Passage, which made the North Pole circum navigable for the first time in 125,000 years.

Katie Lambert: That is insane. See, that's why we need your green knowledge on the podcast. And I'll end with a memorial by Tennyson, who was a kinsman through marriage to Franklin. And he said, "Not here. The white north has thy bones, and though heroic sailors soul art passing on thy happier voyage now toward no earthly pole." And you had mentioned a rather ironic fact that happened from that memorial poem.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, another ill fated polar explorer, the American Adolphus Greely, became fascinated by the arctic by a visit to London, where he read those words.

Katie Lambert: That's what happens when you romanticize tragedy.

Sarah Dowdey: The chain continues.

Katie Lambert: So if you'd like to learn more about survival, we've got all kinds of survival articles on the website, and check out the Stuff You Missed in History blog at

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