TIME WINDOWS: Reappraising the Franklin Expedition

Two winters ago I connected with William Battersby, British author of a biography of James Fitzjames, who perished in the Arctic.

A daguerreotype of James Fitzjames

A daguerreotype of James Fitzjames

Two winters ago I connected with William Battersby, British author of a biography of James Fitzjames, who perished in the Arctic, along with John Franklin and 127 other men. He was in command of HMS Erebus after Franklin’s death.

Our discussions centered on the two records that were found in cairns on King William Island, both written by Fitzjames. Although the records cleared up a lot of the mystery behind the tragedy, certain ambiguities persisted. Battersby felt Franklin could not have sufficient time to circumnavigate Cornwallis Island prior to settling in for overwintering at Beechey Island in 1845. I was of the same opinion and looked carefully at the record. It all hinges on one sentence:

“Having wintered in 1846-7 [should be 1845-6] at Beechey Island in [coordinates follow] after having ascended Wellington Channel to Lat 77 and returned by the West side of Cornwallis Island.”

I noticed that Fitzjames had a peculiar habit of writing the letter a in lower case form only, and just writing it larger to signify it was a capital. That was evident in the word April and in a short phrase (All well), where capitals would be expected. He also implies a capital in the word After in the sentence quoted above. That changes the entire meaning, from “having wintered on Beechey Island after having ascended …” to “having wintered on Beechey Island. After [i.e., afterward] having ascended …” In other words, that event occurred in the summer of 1846, after the ships left their winter quarters, leaving behind three sailors, who had died from the effects of lead poisoning from poorly soldered ration tins. They were the lucky ones.

After the push northward around Cornwallis Island, Franklin led his flotilla south into Peel Sound, and then south-westward into Victoria Strait. Here they encountered the unrelenting conveyor belt of ice floes from the Beaufort Sea, which surrounded their ships and locked them in an unyielding grip. Had Franklin adopted the narrower passage to the east of King William Island, he would have found the Northwest Passage he was seeking.

In May 1847 Franklin sent an expedition under Lt. Graham Gore to King William Island, with instructions to place two notes in cairns. The nearly-identical notes were written by Fitzjames on board the Erebus and sealed in metal cylinders. Nothing is said about Gore’s main task on this expedition, and historians have assumed they set out on a long trek southward to procure fresh meat.

On this point I offered an alternate explanation. The men, I believe, had been directed to head east (a much shorter journey) to see if the eastern channel was opening and if it appeared to be navigable. Gore would have witnessed a reassuring sight and rushed back to advise Franklin, depositing the second record in a new cairn several miles south of the first one at Victory Point. Back at the ship, they found Franklin on his death bed. Gore would follow before another year was out.

Eleven months later, the surviving men made a desperate move. Under the leadership of Francis Crozier, they set out on a march southward, towards the mainland, in the vain hope of reaching some outpost of civilization. Fitzjames updated the note he had written the previous year with the grim news. Some were able to get off the island, only to die in the estuary of Back River. The majority of the 105 souls perished along the island shores as they succumbed to scurvy and starvation. Cannibalism stretched out resources for the hardier ones.

There is evidence that the party split up several days after departure, and a fraction decided to return to the ships. Fitzjames was probably among them. Fortune may have smiled at him as tentative leads opened up around the Erebus, allowing him to carefully work her southward, probably using the steam engine on board. Eventually the ice trapped them again.

During the winter Inuit hunters saw an icebound ship just off the Adelaide Peninsula, with smoke coming out of a stack. There was still life on board. Later when all signs had faded, the hunters boarded the ship and discovered a corpse of a giant. Fitzjames was a tall man, and the local Inuit were short in stature.

That, of course, is precisely the spot where the Erebus was found. Battersby is quite sure Fitzjames had manoeuvred the ship to that location, with some additional positioning by drift ice prior to sinking. We are both eagerly awaiting results of the archaeological surveys by Parks Canada.

Below: The upper half of the Victory Point Record, including the sentence Walter Volovsek discusses. The 1848 update is written around the margins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walter Volovsek’s website can be found at trailsintime.org

Previous installments in this series

Connecting with Albert McCleary

A story behind a photograph

Tribute to a photographer

Farron summit industry

Farron memories

Ben Shaw: Myth and reality

Lilette Mahon: Art in living

Lilette Mahon: A mentor’s gift

Edward Mahon: Searching for a legacy

Edward Mahon: A stimulating childhood

Ole Skattebo: Fishing legend

Ingenuity: Milking the river

Intrigues: Castlegar’s lacklustre childhood

Perceptions: Adrift on the River of Life

Local history interwoven with rivers

Drawn into the currents of time

Just Posted

Forty sled dogs were seized by the BC SPCA from a Salmo kennel in February. A recent ruling has decided the dogs won’t be returned. Photo: Gounsil/Flickr
BC Farm Industry Review Board rules against Salmo kennel after 40 sled dogs seized

Spirit of the North Kennels was also ordered to pay BC SPCA $64,000

Residents line up outside the Vernon Recreation Complex for their COVID-19 vaccine Saturday, June 5. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
No appointments necessary for first dose COVID-19 vaccine: Interior Health

People can just show up at clinics, register on the spot and get the shot

Image: Castleview Care Centre’s Safety Den presentation
Castlegar’s Castleview Care Centre wins safety innovation competition

The Dragon’s Den-style competition was sponsored by Safecare BC

SD20 now has an electric bus. Photo: Submitted
Kootenay-Columbia School District 20 adds electric bus to fleet

Bus will be incorporated into Castlegar route for next school year

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry on Thursday, June 10, mentioned Grand Forks among two other COVID “hot spots” in B.C. Photo: Screenshot - YouTube COVID-19 BC Update, June 10, 2021
PHO Henry says West Kootenay city is a COVID ‘hot spot’ in B.C.

There are 11 cases of COVID-19 in the Grand Forks local health area, according the BC CDC

At an outdoor drive-in convocation ceremony, Mount Royal University bestows an honorary Doctor of Laws on Blackfoot Elder and residential school survivor Clarence Wolfleg in Calgary on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘You didn’t get the best of me’: Residential school survivor gets honorary doctorate

Clarence Wolfleg receives honorary doctorate from Mount Royal University, the highest honour the school gives out

Police cars are seen parked outside Vancouver Police Department headquarters on Saturday, January 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Vancouver police officer charged with assault during an arrest in 2019

The service has released no other details about the allegations

Denmark’s Christian Eriksen receives medical attention after collapsing during the Euro 2020 soccer championship group B match between Denmark and Finland at Parken stadium in Copenhagen, Saturday, June 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, Pool)
Denmark soccer player Christian Eriksen collapses during game against Finland

Eriksen was given chest compressions after collapsing on the field during a European Championship

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Members of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Marine Mammal Response Program rescued an adult humpback what that was entangled in commercial fishing gear in the waters off of Entrance Island on Thursday, June 10. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Response Program)
Rescuers free humpback ‘anchored’ down by prawn traps off Vancouver Island

Department of Fisheries and Oceans responders spend hours untangling whale

As stories of the horrors of residential schools circulate after the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced it had located what are believed to be the remains of 215 children, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said he feels a connection with the former students. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
2 sides of the same coin: Ex-foster kids identify with residential school survivors

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip says the child welfare system takes Indigenous children from their families

Nathan Watts, a member of the Tseshaht First Nation near Port Alberni, shares his story of substance use, a perspective he said isn’t seen enough. (Photo courtesy of Nathan Watts)
Public shaming, hate perpetuates further substance use: UVic researcher

Longtime addict Nathan Watts offers a user’s perspective on substance use

57-year-old Kathleen Richardson was discovered deceased in her home Wednesday, June 9, 2021. Her death is considered a homicide and connected to the slain brothers found on a Naramata forest road. (Submitted)
Condolences pour in for Kathy Richardson, Naramata’s 3rd homicide victim in recent weeks

Richardson was well liked in the community, a volunteer firefighter with a home-based salon

Most Read