On the 19th of May, 1845, two ships with the ominous names Erebus and Terror left England in search of the mythical Northwest Passage. Lead by Captain Sir John Franklin, the Franklin Expedition was bound for a doomed voyage. The crew consisted of 24 officers and 110 sailors, including Franklin himself. They were never to be heard from again.
They set out from Greenithe on the 19th of May. They stopped over in Stromness, located on the Orkney Islands in northern scotland. From there, they were attended by the also ominously named HMS Rattler as well as a civilian transport called the Barretto Junior over to Greenland. This branch of the trip took 30 days.
At Whalefish Islands located in the Disko Bay on Greenland’s west coast, the Barretto Junior slaughtered ten oxen for fresh meat, transferring supplies to the Erebus and the Terror, because slaughtering 10 cows on the eve of a perilous journey is always a good idea of only to appease the slumbering sea demons.
Five men transferred from the Rattler and the Barretto Junior, joining the Erebus and the Terror, bringing Franklin’s crew total to 129. The men wrote letters home, complaining that Franklin was a jerk of a boss and didn’t let them get drunk and swear, literally the only two things sailors at the time were good at aside from sailing and playing hurdy gurdys.
The last time Europeans saw the ships was in July of 1845, when a civilian whaling vessel called, ironically, the “Prince of Wales,” and another called The Enterprise, spotted them heading into what would become modern day Nunavut, specifically in Baffin Bay.
The ships would never be seen by white people for over 150 years.
So, following Franklin’s doomed expedition, numerous expeditions were launched to try and find them over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Most of them failed, either blocked by bad weather, dangerous conditions, or simply not finding anything worthwhile. Of these early expeditions, it’s worthwhile to note the 1850 expeditions which discovered the hastily made graves of 3 of the crewmen on Beechey Island, and the 1854 Richard Collinson expedition, if because they became the first Europeans to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage.
In 1981, Owen Beattie, a professor at the University of Alberta, traveled from Edmonton, all the way to King William Island, which at the time was located in the Northwest Territories but now lies in Nunavut. They found some human remains with pitting and marks indicating scurvy and cannibalism, and further bone tests also contained abnormally high levels of lead.
Beattie returned in 1984 to exhume the bodies of buried crewmen on Beechey Island in order to perform forensic examination on soft tissue to see if lead poisoning could have been the reason for the loss of the Franklin crew. Some of the hair and tissue was tested and was found to also contain high levels of lead. While the crewman’s cause of death was ultimately believed to be pneumonia, lead poisoning was believed to be a contributing factor.
Sources of lead on the ship could have been munitions, the lead solder used to preserve food, or even the ship’s water distiller. The ships for this expedition had been outfitted with converted railway engines for additional propulsion, a kind of primitive steamboat engine, and as such the ships were equipped with large desalination tubs as the engines could only be fed freshwater, not salt water, and would have produced huge amounts of lead-laced water.
More recent research on samples and studies done in 2016 however cast some doubt that lead poisoning was a contributing factor, as it seems that their levels of lead had not spiked. They were definitely higher than those of the local inuit buried in the region, most likely because the inuit both in the 20th and 19th centuries who lived in what is now Nunavut were not nearly as acutely exposed to lead over the course of their lives as Europeans and white Canadians would be.
Leading up to the first real break in the case in 2014, more bones and graves were discovered over time, solidifying the theory that the crew succumbed to cannibalism in their last days. Bones that were found showed signs of ‘pot polishing,’ which happens when bones are boiled to extract nutrient from the marrow and the bump against the bottom of the pot.
The mystery was ultimately solved with the discovery of the boats, starting in 2014.
In 2014, on September 7th, the Victoria Strait expedition set out and found the wreck of the Erebus. Two years later, in 2016 The Terror was also found. The ships are both in surprisingly good condition, and are still being explored and excavated. Exploration of the ships is proving difficult due to the bad weather and extreme conditions of the Canadian north.
When the Terror was found, it seemed that the ship had been battened down for the winter before it sank. Based on the wreck, it seems that the crew likely abandoned the Terror and boarded the Erebus, sailing south before meeting their ultimate grisly fate.
We ultimately owe the discovery of the wrecks to an inuit man named Louie Kamookak. Kamookak had remembered stories told to him by a woman named Humahuk, who remembered being a little girl and finding artifacts including shot and a butterknife, that Kamookak realized were likely related to the Franklin expedition.
He began doing his own research, looking into the Inuit oral histories to try and find out more information about the Franklin expedition.
In 2014, his research coincided with those of European-style archaeologist and historians, and with their information combined they were able to find the Erebus.
This discovery was important. In 2008, arctic sovereignty had become a hot issue in Canada. The Russians had recently planted a titanium flag on the North Pole using a submersible–yes, underwater–and Canada was trying to find a way to “one up” them and to maintain northern sovereignty. Finding the Franklin Expedition would help to do this, likely as it would prove that English funded explorers were the first Europeans to visit the north, because who gives a crap what the Inuit think I guess.
Finding the Erebus was a turning point in the investigation. The ship was very well preserved. Inuit oral history suggests that a group of inuit boarded the vessel at some point, and found a human body in Franklin’s cabin, his face peeled back in a rictus grin. While the Erebus hasn’t been fully explored yet, we have yet to prove this particular part of the oral history, but so far a lot else regarding the location and the artifacts found on board have proven true.
Despite the finding of the two vessels, one part of the mystery remains: where was Franklin buried? We know that Franklin died before the boats were abandoned, as there has been a letter uncovered that has suggested this. But Louie Kamookak believes that Franklin’s body is still out there.
Inuit oral history has suggested that Franklin was buried with a cairn and a type of “liquid rock,” which suggests the Europeans sailors may have made a mortar or concrete that they used to build a tomb for Franklin. The location has yet to be discovered, and the Canadian arctic is a vast and difficult to explore expanse. Shifting ice, receding ice caps, and the simple passage of time may mean that Franklin’s location is forever lost to us.