With climate change and sophisticated icebreakers opening the Arctic Ocean to ships looking for a shorter route between Europe and Asia, it’s hard to believe that at one time the Northwest passage was the two-hour marathon of missions – seemingly achievable yet frustratingly unattainable … often with fatal consequences. One of the most famous was the 1845 Franklin expedition led by Sir John Franklin, who took 129 sailors on two ships, Erebus and Terror, on the quest. Frozen permanently in the ice on King William Island in 1845, 105 sailors abandoned the ships and attempted to finish the trip on foot – a 100% fatal decision. The two ships and many remains have since been found, but unless they were buried in marked graves, they were unidentifiable … until now.
“I took the plunge. For us, this is history.”
Dr. Douglas Stenton, an Adjunct Assistant Professor of anthropology at the University of Waterloo, has been on a decade-long quest to link the remains to the list of crew members on the two ships. Jonathan Gregory of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, shared the same last name with John Gregory, a Warrant Officer and engineer aboard HMS Erebus, and told The New York Times he’d heard his family legends about being related to him but never had any proof. However, the legend was enough for him to be contacted by Stenton and his research team and asked to provide a DNA sample in hopes to find a match to DNA extracted from the remains of 27 members of the Franklin expedition found in nine archaeological sites on their final 1848 walk away from the ships.
"Having John Gregory's remains being the first to be identified via genetic analysis is an incredible day for our family, as well as all those interested in the ill-fated Franklin expedition. The whole Gregory family is extremely grateful to the entire research team for their dedication and hard work, which is so critical in unlocking pieces of history that have been frozen in time for so long."
After 16 failed attempts, the team got a match with Jonathan Gregory’s DNA, confirming that he is the great-great-great grandson of John Gregory. Stenton and his team chronicled their long and demanding search in a paper published in the latest edition of the journal Polar Record. They used Y-chromosome haplotyping, a process involving the male-specific Y chromosome which facilitates identification of a person’s male ancestral lineage. This made Warrant Officer John Gregory the first member of the 1845 Franklin expedition whose identity has been confirmed through DNA and genealogical analyses.
Dr. Stenton was also able to inform Gregory’s family that their ancestor was not alone when he died – Gregory’s remains were found with two other crew members. He now hopes that more matches will be found – identifying the remains may help understand what happened to the crew, how and why each made the decision to embark on their own fatal path, and possibly more information on the long rumored cannibalism which many believe some of them resorted to to survive.