Franklin'€™s Arctic Expedition

  • By Susan K. Lewis
  • Posted 02.28.06
  • NOVA

It was the largest voyage of exploration to the Arctic that the British Empire had ever launched. Led by seasoned naval captain Sir John Franklin, 128 men set off from London in May of 1845 to pioneer a route through the icy Northwest Passage. Three years later, there was still no word from Franklin or his men, and the shaken Royal Navy launched a series of search parties. In this audio slide show, historian Russell Potter guides us through how the mystery of the lost expedition was solved.

Launch Interactive

See how the great mystery of Sir John Franklin's lost expedition was solved with the discovery of traces and artifacts.

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Arctic Passage.



My name is Russell Potter. I am professor of English at Rhode Island College. And I've spent most of the past 10 or 15 years working on, some would say obsessed by, the mystery of the lost Franklin Expedition.

You see a region of the earth that defeats this imperial power. I think that's the underlying fascination for me. You're seeing one of Earth's great empires at its peak, facing a challenge that it can't really ultimately overcome.

During the Victorian era, the Franklin mystery was incredibly captivating, and the more so the longer Franklin remained missing.

And because it was an era where the illustrated press, and the Transatlantic telegraph, and so forth were just coming into their own, there was a large media interest in the possibility of showing people what it might look like; trying to draw pictures, reproducing those pictures. In some ways, it was sort of the first mass media mystery.

This illustration appeared in 1849 in the Illustrated London News, and it gave people some sense of what the Arctic regions must have looked like, some sense of what people there on the expedition might be seeing.

This is a perfect capsule of polar romance. I mean, you have all of the basic ingredients. You have Arctic mammals, you have whales, you have the aurora looking sort of like some kind of rainbow, the threatening ice, but it‚í„ôs really more scenic ice here. There's no sense in this image of anything perilous, at least, not yet.

There's an idea, especially among the British, that, you know, with resourcefulness and technology, you could live anywhere. It's the sort of Robinson Crusoe idea. So when you see people industriously building a snow house out of blocks, and fishing and hunting, and housing in the ships with canvas and so on. It gives a hopeful image of them surviving effectively and well through their own inner resources, even in a very hostile and inhospitable region.

The polar regions, the Arctic in general just exercised a tremendous pull on the public imagination. And this pull increased as the fate of the Franklin Expedition was unresolved year after year after year.


This is an etching based on a drawing that was actually done around 1851. It shows the three graves of the expedition members who died in the very first winter of the Franklin Expedition there on Beechey Island. This was the very first place where any remains of Franklin's expedition were found by searchers.

People wanted to see the scene of these three desolate graves, there was something thrilling and chilling about it. I mean, having been there, I can say that the cliffs are not actually that tall or grim looking, and the graves are even a little bit smaller and more isolated. But I think the big cliffs, the moon breaking through the clouds, this was a scene that encapsulated the fear and anxiety that people felt, when there was still perhaps some hope that the rest of the expedition might be found.

In 1854, Dr. John Rae ran into a bunch of Inuit, and from them obtained a number of relics. Included in that batch of relics were broken watches and chronometers, utensils that had belonged to some of the officers and had the officers‚í„ô crests. These were the first substantial relics that were brought back from the expedition, and people were just stunned.

They were-- They were brought back to England, they were put on public display in Greenwich. People wanted to see these things; they wanted to see some kind of proof that, in fact, this inconceivable failure had occurred.

This is an image from Harper's Weekly, from 1859, and it shows the artist‚í„ôs depiction of what it must have looked like to find these skeletons in an abandoned whaleboat on King William Island, where the last survivors of the Franklin Expedition had come ashore. And it's, you know, it's incredibly lurid. I mean, the skeletons, the expression, the eyes are popping out on the explorers' faces as they pull back the canvas and see these skeletons. It's a very sensationalistic illustration, but at the same time, I think it captured that sense of, "Oh My God, now we haven't just got relics, we have bodies."


Over the years, mostly in the 1850s, 60s and 70s, we've recovered more than 1,000 artifacts of the expedition.

The trail of artifacts is very significant, because we today can still look at these actual physical artifacts, and by mapping where they were found, we can perhaps even have a slightly better idea of what happened to the last survivors than people in the Victorian period were able to obtain.

These sketches of the artifacts were published in the Illustrated London News, and they're in kind of these still-life groupings. They're these sort of memorial arrangements. Sort of like something you might put on top of a casket.

You see a shot bag and some ammunition, one of the curious things is that the guns and ammunition sent with the expedition were shotguns. These were really for shooting birds; they weren't good for shooting big game or mammals. It was for sport. And you think, "Well, they must have been out hunting for birds.", But that's no way to feed 129 very hungry people.

People really had faith just in the tinned food as a kind of an accomplishment. It was a high-technology item. It was like space food sticks, you know, "the food of the astronauts, the food of the explorers‚" So that, "If we send them tinned food, they'll be fine." Unfortunately, they didn't really have good quality control.

All of the tin food is, at least to some degree, suspect, in terms of the lead solder being a possible source of poison. We find a lot of these cans that have not been opened, and there is some speculation: Does this mean that they realized the food was poisoning them? And they, even though they were starving, they wouldn't eat it? And that's possible.

We see a star from a Marine's shako, or hat. Each of the ships had three or four Royal Marines on there, they were sort of the police of the expedition. It's a very significant relic. It speaks, perhaps, to a breakdown of order, or the loss of individual Marines who would have worn it.

The snow goggles are interesting. You would think, given that snow blindness was a familiar phenomenon they had experienced before that they would have issued these with the expedition. But these show that they were probably made improvised on board ship; little bits of wire or gauze or cloth that had been stitched around pairs of glasses by the sailors on the ships, that this wasn't something they were supplied with in advance.

The clothing that the expedition's members had was woefully inadequate. Certainly, having been there myself, I can testify that an ordinary pair of wool mittens, even if you were lucky enough to have one, would be inadequate for keeping your fingers warm in that kind of climate, where, even in April, it's 20 degrees below zero.

They really just had to keep wearing more and more clothing to try to stay warm. But it wasn't the kind of clothing that was really designed for living outside the ships.


It is astonishing to find novels among the things that were being hauled over the ice. Somebody must have really loved The Vicar of Wakefield, I guess.

I think The Vicar of Wakefield, for me, it's just an epitome of high culture and the comforts of civilized London that you cannot get to, so the closest thing you have is your favorite novel.

The other books that were found were quite often bibles or prayer books, and those are a little easier to understand. I mean, when you're in the last extreme, some people feel that, you know, you'd do better to care for your soul than care for your body. And evidently they were of comfort to people until their last extremity, otherwise they wouldn't have brought them so far.

The medicine chest that you see in the center of the picture there was recovered, and is still in The Maritime Museum's collections. And it's been gone through, one scholar actually went through each individual vial to see which medicines had likely been dispensed, and what those medicines were meant to treat. And the answer is, indigestion. It seems to have been the most common complaint. And if you have lead poisoning, one of the symptoms is painful stomach cramps and indigestion.

The other thing with the medicine chest is, whatever good it may have done, it was among the items abandoned fairly early on. So it wasn't something that was deemed worthy of hauling along, so, "leave the medicine chest behind, bring The Vicar of Wakefield.", And you think, "wow, what's up with that?"

Every one of the senior officers would have been trained in using a sextant, it's the most common navigational tool. It's also very heavy and difficult to use in the Arctic because it's metal, and even touching it with your bare skin can be harmful. But any group of people who had hoped to have any way of getting out would at least have to have a sextant. And if they've abandoned that, well, they've probably abandoned all hope.

In a number of these images, you'll see tools and implements made by the Inuit from materials that they recovered. And I think that's very significant, I mean, when they found a piece of wood or even a rifle barrel, they didn't just leave it there. They picked it up, they didn't know necessarily what it was meant for, but they found a way to use it. They made the rifle barrels into spearheads, they took the wood and made arrows out of it. These were items made from abandoned equipment, or equipment recovered from dead bodies that were resourcefully reused.


What they sent with the expedition was designed for the sustenance of 129 men in two ships who weren't expected to ever have to leave those ships behind.

The enormous number of books. Silverware. I don't think all of that was necessary. Button polishers, carpet slippers, tea? You know, you really could live without tea. I'm sure they didn't want to, but you could. They brought a lot of stuff that I think was more for trying to keep their sense of civilization, rather than stuff that was actually going to be useful enough to be worth hauling it over miles and miles of frozen tundra.

They didn't supply themselves with lightweight sleds or portable equipment that could have been easily hauled over long distances. In a sense, they didn't have a Plan B.

And I think that, and their sort of cultural arrogance, the belief that there was nothing to be learned from the Inuit, they didn't learn how to hunt sea mammals or seals. They didn't learn how to hunt big game, or bring equipment for shooting caribou. Even things they could have done they didn't choose to do, because they were confident in their own resources.

They didn't anticipate leaving the ships for anything other than brief excursions.

It's possible that these ships may still exist, at least one of them. And if it is, it would probably be in a very good state of preservation. You don't have wood borers in the Arctic, you don't have coral, you don't have a lot of things that cause ships to decay. You could find even written or printed materials on board ship that would be in readable condition. And until we do, we'll never really solve this mystery.



(Russell Potter, Resolute Bay, graves on Beechey Island)
Courtesy Russell Potter
(Franklin ship in ice, Franklin ship in water, Arctic ice aerial)
© NOVA/WGBH Educational Foundation
(chronometer, cutlery, gold watch, shot bags with shot, mitten, eyeglasses, metal flask, tin can, Vicar of Wakefield book, prayer book, medicine chests, Inuit tools and weapons, tea canister)
© National Maritime Museum/London
(Amundsen with snow dogs)
© Princeton University Library


Courtesy Russell Potter

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