The Northwest Passage refers to a sea route connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean via the Arctic Ocean. As early as the 15th century European explorers began exploring the Arctic in the hopes of finding a route to Asia. Among the notable voyagers was Martin Frobisher who arrived in the Eastern Arctic in 1576. John Davis who in 1580 navigated the waters between Greenland and Baffin Island, and Henry Hudson, who discovered what would come to be known as Hudson Bay in 1610, quickly followed Frobisher. More attempts followed in the 17th century, including William Baffin in 1616, however ultimately all failed to find the fabled Northwest Passage. In the 19th century, the search continued, motivated by the spirit of exploration, but also by economic interests, as it was believed that the discovery could open up significant trade routes. Following the lost Franklin expedition and its numerous searches parties that followed and which are described below, Arctic exploration ceased until the early 20th century when Otto Sverdrup (1898-1902), Roald Amundsen (1903-1905) and Robert Peary (1909) all helped to chart the waters, but also prove that the Northwest Passage had little significant commercial value as a trade route.
Sir John Franklin
By the time he undertook his doomed arctic voyage in 1845, Sir John Franklin was a seasoned British explorer. He had led several expeditions to chart the Canadian Arctic with varying degrees of success. During a failed mission to chart the northern Canadian coastline in 1819, Franklin lost 11 of his crew members to starvation. Despite the loss of men and failing to accomplish his task, Franklin returned to England as a national hero in 1922. When in 1845 the British Admiralty expressed an interest in completing the mapping of the Northwest Passage, Franklin, despite his advanced age of 59 and his previous failures, was asked to lead the expedition.
Franklin set sail from England on 19 May 1845. His ships the Terror and the Erebus were loaded with 129 crew members and three years worth of supplies. Their route was to take them from England’s Thames River north to Scotland, Greenland and on to the Canadian arctic.
The last sighting of Franklin’s ships occurred on 26 July 1845 when whalers in Baffin Bay spotted them. While Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, first expressed concern for the safety of her husband in 1846, the British Admiralty believed that given both the experience of Franklin, and his well supplied ships, there was little cause for alarm. Lady Jane persisted in her concern and two years later, in 1848, the first of the Franklin search parties set sail from England.
The Search for the Franklin Expedition
Beginning in 1846 Lady Jane Franklin lobbied tirelessly for the formation of search parties that would locate the whereabouts of the Franklin expedition. She sunk her own family fortune into rescue efforts while also coordinating efforts to raise public funds. Lady Jane also pressured the British Admiralty to put their own resources into finding Franklin and his crew. In total, it has been estimated that the British Admiralty spent, what would today be the equivalent of, $64-72 million in their search for Franklin. In addition, Lady Jane contributed $3.7 million, while the British public raised a further $13 million. While some of these searches met their own doomed fate, and most turned up little information regarding Franklin, they can be credited with helping to map the Arctic landscape and chart the Northwest Passage.
The first attempt by the British Admiralty to locate the Franklin expedition relied on several expeditions covering both land and sea. In January 1848, the Plover and the Herald were the first ships to be sent on a search and rescue mission. Their efforts were unsuccessful. Later in 1848, Dr. John Richardson and Dr. John Rae of the Hudson’s Bay Company began an overland search. While Richardson returned to England one year later with no information, Rae remained in the arctic and covered an extensive area of land. Rae failed to gather any clues on Franklin, but he remained convinced that he was on the right track. Finally, in May 1848, the British Admiralty dispatched two further ships in the search. The Investigator, helmed by Sir James Clark Ross, and the Enterprise, commanded by Leopold McClintock followed the same path of the Erebus and Terror. Ultimately, while the ships failed to locate Franklin and suffered the loss of some of their own crew after becoming stranded in ice, this voyage did chart vast areas of the north and improved techniques of overland arctic travel. In 1850, with no information on Franklin having been found, six more expeditions set out that year in search of answers.
The first credible information on the Franklin expedition ultimately came from John Rae. While conducting a land survey for the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1854, Rae encountered a group of Inuit who related a story that had been passed down of a group of “kabloonas” or white men who had been seen in the area in 1850. One year later, when the Inuit returned for their hunt, they discovered corpses and graves. The Inuit also told Rae of evidence of cannibalism among the men. Upon learning this information Rae returned to England to convey the news.
While Rae received a reward for his information, he also was greeted with backlash from the British public. The British people, including Lady Jane, were offended by the rumours of cannibalism and they criticized Rae for wholly accepting the Inuit story without any physical evidence. Despite Rae’s account, Lady Jane called for further expeditions.
The British Admirality ultimately refused Lady Jane’s request, however through private contributions she was able to fund one more expedition. In 1858 Leopold McClintock, who had served on two previous Franklin searches, set sail aboard the Fox. McClintock and his crew eventually produced the first physical evidence of ill-fated Franklin expedition when they discovered bones, clothing, medicine and supplies at King William Island. Furthermore, they uncovered two written notes. While the first note, dated May 1847, declared that all was well, the second note from 1848 reported on the death of Franklin and other crewmembers, and on the abandonment of the Terror and Erebus.
In 1997, more than a century after Rae’s report, Inuit claims of cannibalism were proven by scientific study. Today, the mystery of the Franklin expedition still intrigues. In 2010, Parks Canada announced plans to search for the lost ships of the Franklin Expedition. The search continues.