Humans have always had a strong drive towards exploration. Whether it be land, the ocean, or space, we have an innate sense of wonder about our world and an instinctual desire to prod at its boundaries, an irresistible need to know what lies over the next hill, around the next wave, and indeed beyond the next planet. It is this spirit of exploration that thrums at the heart of our civilization, an engine of enlightenment that has propelled the advancement of human achievement since time unremembered.
In the annals of great explorers, there have been those who were successful in their endeavors to expand our world, and then there have been others who, while perhaps having grand goals, have disappeared into the wilds of the world never to return. In many cases, these lost expeditions and the circumstances of their doom have become enduring mysteries every bit as compelling as the things they had hoped to discover. One such case of an ambitious expedition that has vanished into the realm of mystery is of a exploration team known as the Franklin expedition, which in 1845 sailed from England into the great northern cold at the edges of our mapped world only to never be heard from again.
The expedition was launched in the spring of 1845 with the goal of trying to find the legendary Northwest Passage. Back in 1845, there was a great preoccupation with finding to the north an alternate, navigable route that connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which was called the Northwest Passage. It was an endeavor that had captured the imaginations of Arctic explorers for centuries and had fueled many expeditions to find it, starting with the explorations to find a route through North America by John Cabot in 1490, and continuing all the way through the 19th century. Such a passage was considered a pretty big deal in those days. Up until then, the only way to reach the Pacific from the Atlantic was a long, perilous journey around Cape Horn at the southernmost end of Chile in South America, or the equally treacherous passage around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. If anyone could find another way to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific, then they could open up a very lucrative alternative trade route to the Orient and the Spice Islands, and it would be worth vast fortunes. The British in particular were convinced that such a route existed, and by the 19th century, they were absolutely obsessed with finding it.
The Franklin expedition was headed by John Franklin, a seasoned seaman and explorer who had joined the Royal Navy at the age of 16 and had fought in the Napoleonic Wars, as well as completed three successful voyages to map the northern coast of Canada and northeastern Alaska. He was an esteemed captain who had received a knighthood for his work and had served a stint as the lieutenant governor of Van Diemen’s Land (now known as Tasmania, Australia) before returning back to England to pursue Arctic exploration once again. Franklin had always been obsessed with the idea of the Northwest Passage, and wanted to find it once and for all. To this end, he organized a two ship expedition that would be comprised of the Erebus and the Terror, two ships that had proved their mettle in exploration of Antarctica, as well as 24 officers, and 110 men. The Erebus was to be commanded by James Fitzjames and the Terror was placed under the command of Francis Crozier, while the whole expedition was under the experienced leadership of Franklin himself, despite his rather advanced age of 60 years old.
The expedition was very well prepared and equipped. Both the Erebus, which was 19 years old, and the Terror, at 32 years old, were considered to be very old ships, but underwent extensive renovations to transform them into some of the toughest and most advanced ships around. They were modified with reinforced masts, retractable rudders and screw propellers, a first for Arctic ships, and fitted with powerful new steam engines that were very technologically advanced for the time. The ships were also tricked out with various other features that were considered to be advanced for their time, such as bows reinforced with thick beams of iron in order to make them able to withstand the rigors of the icy seas to which they were headed, and an internal steam powered heating device to keep the crew warm. The whole expedition was also very well provisioned with 3 years worth of preserved and tinned food, and stocked with extensive libraries of books as well as various other luxuries.
With their high tech gear in order, state-of-the-art steam powered ships ready for action, and their expedition well-prepared and provisioned, the Erebus and Terror headed out onto the high seas from Greenhithe, England, on the morning of 19 May 1845, after which they made a brief stop in Scotland for provisions before heading out across the Atlantic, bound for the frigid seas of the Arctic, to unmapped waters, and the groundbreaking discovery that they were convinced they would make. With such impressive preparations and equipment, and under the leadership of men who were well versed in Arctic exploration, no one suspected that anything could possibly ever go wrong. As the reveling crowds that had gathered to see them off watched with excitement and dreams of fortune as the ships slipped over the horizon, surely no one suspected that the Erebus and Terror were destined to become one of the greatest lost expedition mysteries in history.
The Franklin expedition was quickly beset with trouble and misfortune soon after departing England. Each of the ships had been packed to the limit with 65 crewmen each, resulting in cramped conditions that led to an irritable crew that were prone to arguments and fights. Disorderly conduct was rife among the vessels, which Franklin would not tolerate. The commander was notoriously strict about profanity and drunkenness, and five crewmen were sent home for drinking and swearing when the ships had stopped for provisions in Scotland before their trek across the Atlantic, essentially before the expedition had really even begun in earnest. It was not a good sign of things to come. Despite the low morale of the crew, Franklin managed to maintain control and get them across the Atlantic to Disko Bay, on the west coast of Greenland, where the ships stocked up on fresh meat from oxen and other supplies. It would also be when the crew would write the last letters home that they would ever send.
The expedition headed for Lancaster Sound, where they planned to begin their push into unknown territory. These were uncharted waters that they were about to try and tackle. Up to that point, various Arctic expeditions had gradually mapped out parts of the region, but there remained about 181,300 km2 (70,000 sq mi) of un-navigated, unmapped territory and it was into this vast, great unknown that the Erebus and Terror were about to journey. On 26 July, 1845, Captain Dannert, master of the Hull whaler Prince of Wales saw the two ships in Disko Bay, waiting for clear conditions to enter Lancaster Sound. It would be the last time anyone from their homeland would see them alive.
When nothing was heard from the expedition for two years, their backers back home in England became concerned. Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, urgently pressed the Admiralty to do something, and a search was launched in 1848 to try and locate the missing expedition. The Admiralty spared no expense in their search, throwing every ship they could spare into the hunt for the lost Franklin expedition, and in 1850 alone, a dozen ships were sent to find them. It was in this year that the first traces of relics of the expedition were found, with the discovery of the remains of a winter camp and the graves of several crew members. Both sea searches and overland searches were launched at great expense. Eventually Americans became embroiled with the search too, as the president allowed naval vessels to be used in the hunt. Despite these efforts, no trace of the missing expedition was found save the winter camp, and the Admiralty officially closed the search in 1857.
This by no means marked the end of the hunt for the missing Franklin expedition, which was still very much in the public consciousness. Propelled by curiosity and the promise of a finder’s reward offered by the Admiralty, there were several expeditions launched to try and find the missing ships and any evidence of what had become of them. A few of these expeditions uncovered tantalizing clues. In 1854, John Rae uncovered Inuit stories of 30 or 40 white men who had died of starvation and reportedly resorted to cannibalism, as well as many artifacts including silver spoons that were all later identified as belonging to Franklin and his men. In 1855, another explorer by the name of James Anderson found further evidence of the expeditions when he discovered a piece of wood inscribed with the word Erebus at the mouth of the Back River.
An overland search launched from the steam ship Fox, led by Royal Navy Lieutenant William Hobson in 1859 around the location of Rae’s findings turned up documents and messages left in a cairn on Victoria Point by the lost expedition that gave information on their progress up to April, 1848. Among these messages was the somber news that Franklin himself had died on 11 June, 1847 under unknown circumstances. The Fox expedition also found various possessions from the Franklin crew, as well as the gruesome discovery of skeletons lying in the snow and decapitated skeletons in a boat tied to a sled made of ship’s wood, as well as piles of discarded clothing on King William Island. Piled high on these sleds were numerous odd, nonessential items such as books, silk handkerchiefs, scented soap, sponges, slippers, hair combs, and teaspoons, although why the crew had decided these were worth hauling over the ice was a mystery. There were also many unopened cans of meat, which was also an odd thing to find considering the men had no doubt been starving by that point. It was a mystery as to what had happened here.
Although the exact fate of the Franklin expedition and the cause of their decline could not be discerned, the various findings and pieces of evidence uncovered by such search parties allowed a picture of what had befallen them to be gradually pieced together. It was revealed that in 1846, the Erebus and Terror had had ideal open water conditions soon after entering the Lancaster Sound. With such pleasant weather on arrival and a fairly warm winter, the crew stayed put and spent this first winter camped out on Beechey Island. After this, it is believed that the camp was suddenly and inexplicably abandoned, leaving behind a cairn made of around 700 food tins filled with gravel, as well as the graves of three crewmen. The cause of death was not immediately apparent.
After this first winter, the two ships had set forth south into Peel Sound and Franklin Strait, but were eventually caught in foul weather and ice. The ice refused to release its grip and the two ships essentially became icy prisons for their crew. For a year and a half, the crews lived trapped within their drifting, icebound vessels in the bitter cold, far from any sign of civilization, until they finally abandoned ship on on 26 April, 1848. At that point in time, 24 men had died, including Franklin himself. The remaining 105 men, all haggard and starving, had then set off overland towards the Great Fish River, after which their fate is unknown. With no written records after this overland escape, the only evidence as to what had befallen the crew comes from the many stories from the native Inuit telling of starving white men dying on the ice and cannibalism. Some Inuit accounts tell of sinking ships and others suggest that some crew members lived among them for up to a year. It is uncertain exactly what happened to these remaining survivors, but it is apparent that they all gradually perished in one way or another at some point during their overland journey out over the frigid wilderness.
The ultimate fate of the Franklin expedition and the ships Erebus and Terror, which have never been found, has become one of the great historical mysteries of the century. Various theories have been put forth over the years as to what happened to the doomed men after they set out over the ice. One of the most common ideas is that they simply starved to death, but it has been pointed out that there were still food supplies found with some of the men that had remained unopened. Additionally, the Inuit of the area were not against trading with outsiders for food and supplies, so why would the men have not traded the many supplies such as the spoons and other goods they carried for food? Surely many of the men would have died of starvation, the cold, illnesses such as pneumonia, or accidents, but it seems strange that all 105 men would die in such short order considering that similar Arctic expeditions had survived such conditions before.
A popular theory is that the men were beset by health problems due to ingesting high levels of lead in their canned food. The expedition’s canned food provisions had been hastily prepared and cheaply soldered by provisioner, Stephen Goldner. It is believed that this poor soldering allowed high levels of lead to seep into the food and cause a wide range of complications, including mental disorientation, confusion, and clouded judgement. This could explain some of the more bizarre decisions made by the crew, such as dragging heavy sleds with them overland piled with unnecessary items such as books, silk handkerchiefs and silverware, as well as their refusal to open some of the cans of meat even when starvation had gripped them to the point of cannibalism. Surely such mental deterioration would have hindered survival efforts. The poorly prepared canned food has also been blamed for perhaps causing an outbreak of botulism among the ill-fated crew which would only have served to speed up their impending doom.
Other theories claim that the survivors had become embroiled in a war with the Inuits or even with each other, which could explain the grisly discoveries of the headless skeletons. In the end, it was probably a combination of starvation, illness, extreme conditions, and malnutrition that all conspired to finish the crew off, but the exact circumstances and the bizarre findings surrounding the deaths have never been completely explained. In addition, many of the bodies have never been recovered or accounted for, and remain somewhere out there in their frozen, barren graves.
As to the whereabouts of the ships themselves, it has long been thought that they would have broken up in the jagged ice of the Arctic ice and sunk. Various searches have been conducted over the years for wreckage of the ships, with large swaths of the Arctic seabed meticulously searched for any signs of them, yet without success. The Canadian government alone has sent 6 such expeditions since 2008, and claims to have found wreckage of one of the ships in the far northern Nunavut province, although it is not clear if the ship that was found is the Erebus, the Terror, or indeed whether it is either one of them at all. Whether one of the ships has really been found or not, the other is still at large and very likely gone forever.
One of the greatest mysteries of the lost Franklin expedition is the complete lack of written records except the scant documents found at the cairn at Victoria Point. Why would there not be more documentation on such an important expedition? Common practice of the day would have dictated that each ship have two sets of duplicate records outlining the entire documentation, so where did they go? It is believed that such papers must exist somewhere, but as of yet none have been found and they seem to have suffered the same mysterious fate as everything else on the expedition. It is likely the contents of such papers will never be known. It is a shame, as such a cache of documents would shed an enormous amount of light on the case.
The lost Franklin expedition poses many mysteries. What exactly happened to these men? Why did they set out over the tundra heavily laden with unessential goods like scented soap, slippers, silk handkerchiefs, and silver spoons? What happened to the rest of the bodies that have never been found? Why were there skeletons that had apparently been decapitated? Where is Franklin’s final resting place? Did any of the crew perhaps survive the ordeal somehow? Where are the ships and if one has been found, then where is the other? Where are the written documents or ship’s logs? The secrets to all of these questions remain out there in the cold Arctic wasteland. The lost Franklin expedition has been called one of the longest running cold cases in maritime history and doesn’t seem to be much closer to being solved than it was 170 years ago.