John Franklin was born in Spilsby, a village in the English county of Lincolnshire, in 1786. By marriage, he was a step-cousin of Royal Navy captain Matthew Flinders, who inspired Franklin to join its ranks when he was only 14. Franklin circumnavigated Australia with Flinders in 1802-1803, served in the Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars, and fought in the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. His brave actions caught the eye of the Second Secretary of the Admiralty, Sir John Barrow, who had big plans for the young lieutenant. Franklin’s first Arctic expedition in spring 1818 was unsuccessful, his second overland exploration of subarctic Canada in 1819 was also much worse, during which his crew fell short on provisions, and had to stew up leather shoes, after which he was called the “man who ate his boots.” He also explored Alaska and was Governor of Tasmania. Despite those failures on his assigned expeditions, Franklin was appointed to lead another historic attempt at the passage planned by the British admiralty. By this point, Franklin was a decorated naval officer and experienced explorer—but he was also 59 years old and out of shape. The mission was destined to be the validation of a final, triumphant voyage to crown his naval career.


The expedition, consisting of two ships and 134 men under the command of Sir John Franklin, was meant to be the final exploration of the Northwest Passage – the sea route linking Europe and Asia through the Canadian Arctic. The two ships, HMS Erebus which stands for “place of darkness” in Latin, and HMS Terror had already been to the Arctic. They were originally designed for war – constructed as bombing vessels with rotating mortars mounted at the bow which needed to be supported by a strong internal wooden structure. This made them ideal vessels for the mission; their robust construction provided them with the ability to withstand their long journey. However, the ships needed more in order to withstand punishing Arctic conditions. Coupled with their already vigorous framework, thick iron plates reinforced the bows of the Erebus and the Terror; inside walls were fortified with added beams to protect the hulls against run-ins with ice. Additionally, the ships were retrofitted with steam propulsion engines to provide enough power to pierce through the icy obstacles. They appeared to be ideal ships for Arctic exploration. Instead, the expedition ended in a disaster. HMS Erebus and Terror were lost with all hands. The clues to why this happened were few and mysterious. The expedition was well equipped for a long stay in the Arctic but it ended so badly.

The ships sailed from England in May 1845. They were last seen in Baffin Bay in July of the same year, when five expedition members were discharged and sent home with whalers. After this, there was only silence. Since the expedition was equipped with three years of provisions, the Admiralty in London did not send out rescue missions until 1848. By this time, most of the members of the Franklin expedition were already dead.

The Franklin ships had sailed from Beechey Island and south through Peel Sound in the summer of 1846. Both ships got stuck in the ice off King William Island in September and the second wintering took place there. To the shock of the expedition members, the ice did not melt during the 1847 summer. The situation was made worse by the death of Franklin on June 11 1847, according to a note later found in a cairn on Victory Point, King William Island. This somber note was discovered in 1859, the message revealed that in late 1846, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror had become imprisoned in ice and remained there for approximately one and a half years. After another wintering off King William Island, the men abandoned the ships in late April 1848. They simply could not wait another year in the hope that the ships would be released by the ice. The provisions would have run out by then and the men would have been in no state to trek south.

By April 1848, 9 officers and 15 seamen had died, according to the note mentioned above. The remaining crew tried to reach Back River and a Hudson Bay company outpost further south. They dragged along lifeboats on sleds with provisions and equipment. During this trek, the seamen encountered local Inuit. The Inuit later reported these meetings and their subsequent discovery of dead expedition members to the search parties. These reports also included information about cannibalism among the seamen. The expedition members did not make it, succumbing to hypothermia, scurvy, and starvation, leaving skeletons and artifacts scattered along the route on the western and southern coast of King William Island and on the northern coast of the mainland. The Intense searches in the 1850s shed light on the fate of the expedition. Search parties discovered many of these remains; the wintering quarters were found, including a small cemetery with the burials of three seamen who had died during the overwintering.


Multiple search efforts and scientific research projects tied to Franklin’s last voyage continued in the late-19th and 20th centuries. They collected relics and bones, located graves, and partnered with Inuit communities to conduct long-term searches for more clues to the expedition’s fate. Yet two significant artifacts remained missing for more than 165 years: the ships themselves. Many researchers believed that the Erebus and Terror could hold a trove of clues to the men’s final activities, but the brutal climate and brief research season on King William Island stymied progress. Physical evidence of the ships was gone but not lost. Nearly 170 years after Franklin’s ships left England, the Victoria Strait Expedition led by Parks Canada with funding from the Canadian government and new sonar technology, archaeologists and Inuit historians, including Franklin scholar Louie Kamookak, finally found the HMS Erebus in Victoria Strait. They discovered the wreck sitting in just 11 meters (36 feet) of water in September of 2014. Among the artifacts retrieved was the ship’s bell.  Two years later, on September 18, 2016, the Arctic Research Foundation with a report from an Inuit hunter, Sammy Kogvik was also discovered the almost-pristine wreck of the HMS Terror off the shores of King William Island in Nunavut in deeper water to its companion’s northwest.

The immediate and ongoing hope was that the discovery of the wrecks would fill in the missing pieces and shine a light on what happened to the Franklin Expedition. But at first, it only deepened the mystery—the wrecks were in the wrong place. Terror was about 60 miles south of where the 1848 note said the ships had been abandoned, and Erebus was 30 miles farther south still. The shipwrecks may hold important evidence that could explain what happened during the final phase of the expedition. The geographical location of the wrecks could indicate that some members of the expedition returned to the ships and sailed south, before they finally succumbed to the High Arctic conditions. That this may have happened is backed up by Inuit oral sources.


Books, tools, boots, buttons, spoons, combs, pocket watches, food tins, Crozier and Fitzjames’s note, and even a piece of canned meat from Franklin’s last expedition are stored in the collection of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. Artifacts retrieved from the Erebus and Terror, including the ships’ bells and other relics are part of the critically acclaimed exhibit, Death in the Ice, currently on display in the Canadian Museum of History through September 30, 2018.

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