The quest for a Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean was a great interest to Great Britain, whose maritime vessels sailed the world in support of its colonies and trade. To discover the fabled Northwest passage would reduce the distance between Europe and the far east dramatically. The Northwest Passage would not only save time and money, it would also become the main transit route for trade between Europe and Asia. This was the purpose of the Franklin Expedition.
On 19 May 1845, Sir John Franklin and his men (24 officers and 110 men) sailed two modern vessels, the Erebus and the Terror, on an expedition to discover this route. The ships were reinforced to manage this journey in rough arctic waters and supplied with three years of goods, to include tinned food and a large library. The crew of the Franklin expedition were last seen by whalers in Baffin Bay on 26 July 1845.
At this point, the story becomes sketchy. What has been discovered is that they spent the winter of 1845-1846 camped on Beechey Island. Once the ice broke, they sailed to the northwestern portion of King William Island. Once there, they were again trapped at Victoria Strait by sea ice that refused to let them go.
After two years of no word from the Franklin expedition, many rescue attempts were conducted with no success. It wasn’t until 1854 that some information was finally uncovered as to what happened. John Rae, a Hudson Bay Company surveyor reported that some Inuits encountered 40 white men on King William Island in 1850. The men and the Inuits could not communicate with each other, but according the Inuits, the Franklin expedition team were starving and heading in a southerly direction. The Inuits had no food to spare and each went their separate ways. Additionally, three bodies of white men were discovered near a river on King William Island which showed signs of cannibalism. The surveyor offered rewards to the Inuits for any information regarding the lost men. They soon returned with several artifacts that were confirmed to have come from the Franklin Expedition.
In 1859, Sir John Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, hired Leopold McClintock to look into these findings. On his expedition to King William Island, they found two notes. One dated 28 May 1947, which provided details from 1845 outlining the ships movements and included the positive remark “All Well”.
The second was dated 25 April 1848. The second note listed how things had turned for the worse. The ships were abandoned on 22 April, and nine officers and 15 men had died. Sir John Franklin was listed as dying on 11 June 1847, and the rest of the expedition were making their way to Back’s Fishing River, which was 746 miles south. McClintock followed a trail of scattered corpses. He found a sled made of ships’ wood that carried silver teaspoons, slippers, the book “The Vicar of Wakefield” and unopened tin cans of meat. It was a mystery as to why these things would seem so important to carry. And if they were starving why were there still unopened cans of meat?
Medical analysis of the three bodies uncovered at Beechey Island confirmed they died of pneumonia and possibly tuberculosis. They also had low levels of lead poisoning, most likely from the tin meat they were eating. Lead poisoning symptoms usually include impaired judgement and concentration.This may explain the unusual items Franklin’s men decided to salvage and put on a sled. Further interviews with Inuits claimed one of the vessels was destroyed by ice, but the other eventually sank upright further south. Many mysteries still remain as to what happened to all the men and their ships. Where is the final resting place of the Erebus and Terror? Do they contain the ship’s logs that may tell the world exactly what happened? Where is Sir John Franklin’s grave? Did any of the men survive long enough to reach Back’s Fish River? Did they realize the lead in the tinned meat was affecting their judgement, forcing them to resort to cannibalism to survive?