Saturday, February 3, 2018

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Stephen J. Trafton

Image courtesy Stephen J. Trafton
Long before Owen Beattie's taking up the Franklin cause, before David C. Woodman's searches of King William Island and the coast of the Adelaide Peninsula, and decades before the involvement of Parks Canada, the search for evidence of the fate of the Franklin expedition was in the hands of a few persistent trekkers who made the journey north on their own dimes. We've hailed a few of these, such as Dick Finnie and Paul Fenimore Cooper in previous columns, but I'm especially glad this month to recognize Stephen J. Trafton as our Franklin searcher of the month. He led many expeditions to the shores of King William Island, tracing some familar areas as well as mapping out new discoveries. He also had an experience which -- I think it's fair to say -- is the kind of thing that happens only once in a lifetime, and would be the envy of any searcher: he found a note in a cairn. True, it wasn't one left by Franklin's men, but it was nearly as fantastic: a note left by Frederick Swchatka on his Franklin search expedition in 1879!

Happily, Mr. Trafton is still alive and well, and has in fact just published a book recounting his treks, both in search of Franklin and for other great geographical challenges. Its apt title is At The Edge, and in its pages one gets quite the curriculum vitae of Trafton's achievements, including decades working for mountain rescue in the North Cascades, his crossing of the Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland, treks in remote corners of Baffin and Ellesmere,  and a series of ascents of mountains in the British Empire range whose names will instantly resonate with readers here: Hecla, Fury, Griper, Resolute, North Star, Victory, and Investigator. And yet, though these journeys involved at times no little risk from cold, exposure, or treacherous ice, Trafton's tone is mostly light-hearted, evidence of a sense of humor which seems to have been as regular a part of his equipment as his snow-mitts and Sorels.

Of course, for those of us who have come down with incurable cases of the bug known as "Franklinitis," the chapters on King William Island will be of greatest interest. Two of his journeys there -- one a long retracing on foot of the greater part of the southern coast of King William Island, the other, an extensive search of the northwest corner of that same island -- were groundbreaking in every sense of the word, and it was on the second that Trafton was rewarded with a find that the rest of us only idly dream of, that of Schwatka's note. Using that commander's own account, as well as that of his comrade William Gilder, Trafton re-located that cairn they'd taken down and rebuilt to mark their furthest north. As Gilder described it:
Lieutenant Schwatka found a well-built cairn or pillar seven feet high, on a high hill about two miles back from the coast, and took it down very carefully without meeting with any record or mark whatever. It was on a very prominent hill, from which could plainly be seen the trend of the coast on both the eastern and western shores, and would most certainly have attracted the attention of any vessels following in the route of the Erebus and Terror, though hidden by intervening hills from those walking along the coast. It seemed unfortunate that probably the only cairn left standing on King William Land, built by the hands of white men, should have had no record left in it, as there it might have been well preserved. When satisfied that no document had been left there, the inference was that it had been erected in the pursuit of the scientific work of the expedition, or that it had been used in alignment with some other object to watch the drift of the ships. Before leaving we rebuilt the cairn, and deposited in it a record of the work of the Franklin search party to date.
And there, nestled in the rocks of that cairn, he spotted a green bottle with the stopper still in it, and a paper inside. He dared peep no further than the top edge, where he could make out the date: July 5th, 1879.

And then, of course, on his return, he faced the dilemma that everyone who joins in the Franklin search and finds an item of value faces: what to do? By regulations, the note ought to be turned over to the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, but in Trafton's view, an American note left by an American explorer would be more at home in the United States. On the advice of his mentor, George Hobson, Trafton agreed to send them the note for conservation and study, though he found a clever way (which one will have to read his book to discover) to hold on to the bottle which contained it. The note, which passed into the Nunavut collection upon the creation of that territory in 1999, is currently in storage, but Trafton is hopeful that someday it will be shown to the public, and he'll be able to lay eyes on it again.

The book is supplied with a goodly number of color photographic illustrations, as well as clear, readable maps. In it, we get a glimpse of what it was like to take up the long search for traces of Franklin in the days before it became a more celebrated cause. When Trafton, stumbling into a D.E.W. Line station in search of shelter, was asked what he was doing there, he first told the officer he and his friends were selling magazines -- would he be interested in any? The joke unappreciated, he explained his real mission was to retrace Franklin's footsteps. Back then might have been the last time when either explanation might have seemed equally implausible!

Mr. Trafton has very graciously agreed to answer any questions here that readers may have about his Franklin searches, or his other many adventures -- please post them as comments, and I'll work to ensure that his responses are posted here in a timely manner.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

A Letter from Ebierbing

As historian Kenn Harper has noted on many occasions, the strong bonds of friendship that tied Charles Francis Hall’s Inuit guides and translators, Ebierbing (“Joe”) and Tookoolito (“Hannah”) together were extraordinary. As Joe himself put it, several years after Hall’s death, "never be such a good man as Hall again - never so good to me."

And yet, as with any friendship, there were a few rough patches. One of the rougher of these was doubtless the time when, though King William Island lay in reach, Joe and other Inuit refused to take Hall there, as they were worried about persistent accounts of a hostile Inuit band, the "See-neem-e-utes," whose territory lay between them and their goal. Up until recently, we’ve had only Hall’s account of the affair, but a few years ago in the Hall papers at the Smithsonian, I stumbled upon a document that turned out to be a letter — the only one known — written (or rather dictated) by Joe to Henry L. Brevoort, the son of one of Hall’s key supporters. It’s a fascinating document, and touches on many subjects, including Joe and Hannah’s daughter (“Punny go to school every day”), daily life in the home established for them by Sidney O. Budington (“the old man is good friend”), and Joe’s request for some New York cigars, which he declares are the best.

But in the midst of this, Joe recounts, from his own perspective, what happened when Hall's party was forced to turn around, knowing that a return to King William Island would have to be delayed by about nine months:
2 years I stay Houdsons Bay try go King William Land then I give it up, meet 3 men from their tell me give it up make me afraid. Mr. Hall tease me all time make me go their never give it up. Next time I go like a soldier every body go so every body carry gun. 
It's easy to imagine Hall, whose bursts of anger when the Inuit on whom he relied were reluctant to follow his dictates were well-known, being furious at this delay. It seems, though, that whatever rift this may have caused must have eventually healed.

Joe's letter closes with a poignant and somewhat puzzling series of phrases: "Ebierbing. Joe. Esquimaux. Elonder. Pleas call haff wite man no Esquimaux Joe." Clearly, he did not like the sobriquet "Eskimo Joe," a name that has persisted in popular culture (and as the name of a popular restaurant in Oklahoma), but "Elonder" is a puzzle. His request to "pleas call haff wite man" may similarly reflect a desire to not to be seen as some cultural outsider, rather than as any actual comment on his ancestry.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Repost: Christmas in the Frozen Regions

At this time of year, many of us are seeking a bit of Christmas past by revisiting Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol." There are innumerable local productions, dozens of film versions (I'm most fond of the one starring Alistair Sim, or else the Muppet Christmas Carol, which I actually feel is the best recent adaptation), and of course the book itself is always available. But most today are less acquainted with Dickens's other Christmas tales -- at one point he was writing a new one every year -- or with the many special Christmas numbers of his magazines Household Words and All the Year 'Round, which Dickens personally selected and edited with great care. It was, in fact, in 1850 -- the very first year of his first magazine, Household Words -- that Dickens, hoping to revive the fading hopes that Franklin and his men might yet live, selected a piece describing an Antarctic Christmas aboard the "Erebus" and "Terror" -- the very ships that Franklin had taken on his expedition a few years later. Making this connection was important enough that Dickens wrote a fresh introduction to the article, as well as a brief coda, himself, and his words are animated with all his usual spirit:

"THINK of Christmas in the tremendous wastes of ice and snow, that lie in the remotest regions of the earth ! Christmas, in the interminable white desert of the Polar sea ! Yet it has been kept in those awful solitudes, cheerfully, by Englishmen. Where crashing mountains of ice, heaped up together, have made a chaos round their ships, which in a moment might have ground them to dust; where hair has frozen on the face; where blankets have stiffened upon the bodies of men lying asleep, closely housed by huge fires, and plasters have turned to ice upon the wounds of others accidentally hurt; where the ships have been undistinguishable from the environing ice, and have resembled themselves far less than the surrounding masses have resembled monstrous piles of architecture which could not possibly be there, or anywhere; where the winter animals and birds are white, as if they too were born of the desolate snow and frost; there Englishmen have read the prayers of Christmas Day, and have drunk to friends at home, and sung home songs."
The account that follows is by Robert McCormick, who had recently served under James Clark Ross as surgeon and naturalist aboard HMS "Terror," and describes the first Christmas of their Antarctic voyage. McCormick seems to have been an excellent writer, and this account is all the more notable as it's his earliest publication; he found himself unable to write up the expected naturalist's report for the Ross expedition, and his own account of his career, Voyages of Discovery in the Antarctic and Arctic Seas, was not published until 1884. As Dickens hands the narrative off to McCormick, the mystery and anxiety then surrounding Franklin's name is directly evoked:
"In 1819, Captain Parry and his brave companions did so ; and the officers having dined off a piece of fresh beef, nine months old, preserved by the intense climate, joined the men in acting plays, with the thermometer below zero, on the stage. In 1825, Captain Franklin's party kept Christmas Day in their hut with snap-dragon and a dance, among a merry party of Englishmen, Highlanders, Canadians, Esquimaux, Chipewyans, Dog- Ribs, Hare Indians, and Cree women and children.
In 1850, some commemoration of Christmas may perhaps take place in the Frozen Regions. Heaven grant it! It is not beyond hope ! and be held by the later crews of those same ships ; for they are the very same that have so long been missing, and that are painfully connected in the public mind with FRANKLIN’S name."
You can read McCormick’s account in full here. Of course, much of the resonance of his story is how it shows the explorers keeping the traditions of home, evoking an elaborate Victorian Christmas even in the most desolate regions of the world. On this occasion, the ship was redecorated as a "hotel," and the drinks were kept cold by being served atop an enormous block of solid ice. McCormack, oddly, says very little about the food, but other explorers were far more voluble; you can follow the links here to read of a feast of "Banks Land Reindeer" in "Christmas-Keeping in the Arctic Regions, 1850-51," relish Elisha Kent Kane's Christmas on the Second Grinnell expedition, at which mere "pork and beans" were disguised as all manner of delicacies by the men's scurvy-fed imaginations, or devour A.W. Greely's luxurious first Christmas with the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition at Fort Conger, which featured mock-turtle soup, salmon, tenderloin of musk-ox, plum pudding with wine sauce, dates, figs, cherries, egg-nog, and an extra ration of rum -- a sad contrast with the meals of the last few survivors three years later, who endeavored to support life by fishing for brine-shrimp through a sieve.

Wherever readers of this blog may find themselves this Christmas, I hope that your evening meal is enriched by all the warmth and spirit of domestic tranquility that these men's meals -- whether in reality, or in their imaginations, or both -- sought to evoke so far away from home.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The man with the long teeth

Not a man with long teeth
The question of whether there may or may not be human remains aboard either HMS "Erebus" or "Terror" is haunted by the long shadow of a story that was passed through Inuit oral tradition for many decades: the story of the man with the "long teeth" whose body was found on board the ship at Utjulik. A version of this story, with many of the same essential points, was told to Franklin searchers from McClintock in 1859 onwards. At one point, Franklin theorist Noel Wright theorized that perhaps HMS Investigator had drifted south, and that its figurehead, said to resemble a walrus, might have been mistaken for a man with long teeth by the Inuit! This of course, ignores two vital details: 1) The Inuit knew quite well how to tell a carved walrus from a dead man; and 2) figureheads don't "smell very bad," another key part of the story. And of course, we now know what he didn't: that HMS Investigator never moved from her final resting place in Mercy Bay.

But let's look at this story, with all its variants, across time. The version told to McClintock was second-hand, and provided by a young man whom they interviwed alongside old Oo-na-lee, a Netsilik elder then camped near Cape Victoria: "The [young man] also told us that the body of a man was found on board the ship [at "Oot-loo-lik]; that he must have been a very large man, and had long teeth; this is all he recollected having been told, for he was quite a child at the time."

As David C. Wooman has noted, Hall was repeatedly told of the “very large man” whose teeth “were long as an Innuit finger & of very great stature.” In-nook-poo-zhee-jook's account had several key details:
"The party on getting aboard tried to find out if any one was there, and not seeing or hearing any one, began ransacking the ship. To get into the igloo (cabin), they knocked a hole through because it was locked. They found there a dead man, whose body was very large and heavy, his teeth very long. It took five men to lift this giant kob-lu-na. He was left where they found him." 
As with the boy who spoke with McClintock, In-nook's story was a second-hand one; he was retelling what he had been told. In Hall's notebooks at the Smithsonian, another account adds this detail: the man's teeth "were long as an Innuit finger" and he was "of very great stature" (Hall field notes, book 22). Another witness in this same notebook, Seeuteetuar's wife, Koo-nik, offered the most detailed account of all:
"She says that Nuk-kee-the-uk & other Ook-joo-lik Innuits were out sealing when they saw a large ship - all very much afraid but Nuk-keeche-uk who went to the vessel while the others went to their Ig-loo. Nuk-kee-che-uk looked all around and saw nobody & finally Lik-lee-poonik-kee-look-oo-loo (stole a very little or few things) & then made for the Ig-loos. Then all the Innuits went to the ship & stole a good deal - broke into a place that was fastened up & there found a very large white man who was dead, very tall man. There was flesh about this dead man, that is, his remains quite perfect - it took 5 men to lift him. The place smelt very bad. His clothes all on. Found dead on the floor - not in a sleeping place or berth."
Finally, when during Schawatka's search a decade later, Puh-too-raq told of the ship he had personally visited, aboard which there was a "dead body in a bunk inside the ship in a back part." Both Gilder and Klutschak confirm that his story included mentioning "a dead man in a bunk," though none of their, or Schwatka's accounts include the detail of the teeth. Rasmussen heard from the grandchildren of some of these same witnesses, and they too spoke of bodies -- this time in the plural -- "lying in their beds" (presumably bunks or hammocks).

John Hartnell -- a man with long teeth!
The best explanation for this tradition of stories is that there was at least one body on board the ship at Utjulik. The points of general agreement are that it was in the "back part" (stern) of the ship, in a room that may have been fastened (locked) or nailed shut, and that it was a large, heavy, tall man. That he would have seemed tall to the Inuit who, historically, were a foot or more shorter in statue that the average European at the time, is not surprising; that he was "heavy" and that his remains were "quite perfect" suggests that he died aboard, quite possibly where he was found. The "long teeth" are doubtless due to the desciccation of the lips and gums, which has in known cases made the teeth appear much longer than they would in life -- see for example John Hartnell (right).

I would be willing to bet that these remains, which sank with the ship in question before the next summer, are still on the site. The ship must be HMS "Erebus," so if the body was in fact in the stern, it might well have been in the captain's or "great" cabin. By the same token, since portions of that area of the ship have been torn away and lie below the vessel, the most likely place for these remains would be in the débris field at the stern.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Talk at the National Maritime Museum

In just a few days, on November 29th, I'll be delivering a lecture, "Making Marks: Officers' Crests and Sailors' Scratches" -- at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, UK, in connection with their current exhibit Death in the Ice. It's a lunchtime lecture, hosted by curator Claire Warrior; after my remarks, she and I will have an open discussion, and welcome questions from the audience. The talk will start at noon, and with the discussion will go until 1 p.m.

What is mark-making, some may ask -- and what has it to do with the history of the lost Franklin expedition? In one sense, mark-making is the oldest of all human artistic impulses, going all the way back to the painted handprints in neolithic caves; in an ultimate sense, they all say the same thing: I was here. And, in one sense, that's just what happened with Franklin's men: at some point, probably around the time of his ships' initial abandonment in 1848, much of the silverware that had been brought by the officers was distrubuted to the ordinary seamen of each vessel. The motive may have been to preserve these items, which were of both monetary and personal value -- but it may also have been to communicate with the outside world. The leaders of the expedition at that time -- Francis Crozier and James Fitzjames -- knew that items traded with the Inuit might travel far, and could potentially be recovered by those who would recognize their meaning. For the sailors, though, these items also had personal value, and many of them chose to mark the items they received by
scratching their initials onto them. In some cases, the letters are clear -- the WC on the Franklin fork above is William Clossan, though of course sometimes the initials match more than one man. Some, such as caulker's mate Cornelius Hickey, carved their full surnames, while in other cases the marks are ambiguous -- a scratched A? D? -- or perhaps simply a random pattern. The Inuit themselves sometime modified the utensils, as they did with a large serving spoon from Franklin's service; the bowl having become cracked, they mended it with copper (many Inuit were skilled at re-working and cold-forging metal). These additions allow us to trace, in many cases, the path of the silver item from the officers' mess to the crew of their ship, to Inuit who then exchanged these items with searchers such as Leopold McClintock, Dr. John Rae, Charles Francis Hall, and Frederick Schwatka.

Photo used with permission of Jersey Heritage
My talk will be illustrated with slides -- many of them the first high-resolution images ever made of the utensils in question -- and will be a reunion of sorts, with items not only from the NMM's own collection, but from museums around the UK, US, and Canada, and even from the island of Jersey, where a lone fork is preserved with other remembrances of Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte, whose family was from there. We'll also have a look at some of the plates recovered from HMS "Erebus" by the Parks Canada underwater archaeology team; some of them, too, have marks that suggest connections between the officers and crews. I'll also show maps of where the spoons were recovered, and what kind of story they tell of Franklin's men once they set foot on land. His ships -- HMS "Erebus" and "Terror" -- will have many tales to tell once archaeologists dig a little deeper into their holds, but until then, these humble souvenirs of ordinary sailors speak volumes as to the final journey their owners undertook.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Accuracy -- and respect for Inuit culture -- matter

For some time now, I've been thinking about Paul Watson's book about the Franklin search, which has been published under the title Ice Ghosts. People have asked me about it, and as I'm generally reluctant to say unkind things about someone whose book might be seen as competing with mine, I've usually demurred. But now that the book is coming out in paperback, and is therefore likely to reach even more readers than before, I feel that it's my obligation to speak out.

As the founding editor of the Arctic Book Review, now in its nineteenth year, I've had occasion to read, and often to review, all the many new books about the Franklin expedition that have been published since 1999. My personal library has nearly every book ever written on the subject, which runs to well over a hundred volumes. Some are rather silly -- a book by a woman in Florida who had psychic "conversations" with Sir John and Lady Franklin; the late Jeffrey Blair Latta's The Franklin Conspiracy, which marks the far outpost of what one reviewer dubbed the "Franklin lunatic fringe"; or the small self-published leaflets of homespun enthusiasts.

But even among all these, Ice Ghosts stands out. It's one of those books that tries to beef up personal  reportage with a large dollop of historical background, and turn the author's journey into a combination whodunit and adventure yarn. It's an approach that can work well for a writer with a journalistic background, and there's nothing wrong with the basic idea. However, not all journalists are as good at handling historical narratives that stretch over centuries as they are at dramatically retelling events of the present, and that's the case with Mr. Watson. The sort of "potted history" he has written is big and dramatic on the surface, but wanting in the kind of substance that can only be gained by longer study and the consideration of multiple sources.

If these were the only issues with the book, though, I wouldn't feel as strongly as I do about it. Its inaccuracies may be due to mere carelessness, but it seems Mr. Watson's editor did no fact-checking. The errors are both numerous and substantive, such as having Lady Franklin pass through the Panama Canal (it wasn't completed until more than forty years after her death); James Fitzjames's letters to his sister-in-law are referred to as letters to his "wife" (he was unmarried); Parry's crucial 1819 expedition is missing from the book's chronology; winter and summer are confused with one another.  Any book, of course, had some errors -- cataloging them is not necessarily criticism -- but Watson's are so numerous as to erode the confidence of any well-informed reader in what he has to say. The author's tendency to drift into purple prose doesn't help matters, nor does his decision to personify the Arctic as female ("That was the plan. The Arctic, as she usually does, decided otherwise"). Yet these, though they will doubtless frustrate many readers, aren't the real problems with the book either.

As part of the story, Mr. Watson rightly wished to include the Inuit role in the search for Franklin's ships, and like many such, he decided to speak with Louie Kamookak, who's certainly the most important Inuk historian of all matters Franklin. Watson apparently interviewed him at length, and ultimately decided to make the results of the interview into a centerpiece of the book, dubbing Louie his "Inuk detective" and devoting most of two chapters to him. Unfortunately, Watson's tendency to expand and gussy-up the story got the better of him, and he ended up putting in material -- such his a story of Louie playing with a polar bear paw as an infant -- that was completely inaccurate, and untrue to Inuit culture generally. To make things worse, he never gave Mr. Kamookak a chance to look over what he'd written, so that by the time he saw it, the page proofs were already printed. Louie wrote a letter to Watson, asking him in the strongest terms to remove this material, and Watson flatly refused. It's an odd way to try to honor Inuit oral history by misrepresenting, and then insulting, one of its leading historians.

And then there's the matter of the discovery of HMS "Terror" in 2016. Watson, as many at the time will recall, published an exclusive news story with The Guardian about the find. Why was it exclusive? Well, because Watson had been given the story several days (at least) before the Arctic Research Foundation, whose vessel the Martin Bergmann made the discovery, had notified either its partners at Parks Canada (under whose permit they were operating) or the government. During that time -- nearly eight days in all -- the crew of the Bergmann first dispatched several cameras in a net (which snagged on the wreck, possibly damaging it, and was lost) and later, having doubled back to Cambridge Bay on the pretense of engine repairs, dispatched a ROV with which they made and edited a substantial video, at one point directing the ROV below decks and capturing imagery of a cook's pantry or storeroom.

It's shameful that the ARF failed to notify its partners for so long -- and it's criminal that they depoloyed a camera bag and a ROV on the wreck, since they had no permit to conduct such a search. In fact, the permit, issued to Parks, specifically excluded Terror Bay as a search site. At the behest of the Government of Nunavut, the RCMP launched a months-long investigation, which ended without charges being filed. Nevertheless, the language of the Nunavut Act is quite clear that to approach within 20 meters of an underwater site without a permit is forbidden. And, as the chronicler of this act, who was aware of it (and should have been aware that it was illegal), Watson is, I believe, complicit in it. And this is the most serious problem of all with his book: no one reading it will know anything about the above issues, as Watson simply omits them.

Watson's book, and the fact that it has been taken as somehow authoritative, has something in common with ARF's deployment of cameras and a ROV -- it actually damages the thing it claims to protect. Yet unlike those actions back in 2016, Ice Ghosts will continue its damage every time someone reads it, likely for years to come. It's especially frustrating, given that it appears under the imprint of W.W. Norton in the United States, a publisher whose textbook arm is known as authoritative, and which has a (deservedly) high reputation for quality publications.  And so, in the interests of placing the full facts in the hands of its present and potential readers, I've decided to speak out.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Anchors aweigh ... or not?

The image at left, recently released by Parks Canada, is captioned "Anchors still in their sailing position on the port stern quarter of HMS Terror." Earlier imagery showing an anchor cable (rope) played out from the ship had led some to think that the ship might have been at anchor, but as it turns out, the line had simply played out from the windlass and the anchor was still stowed. Had the ship been at anchor, that would have been evidence that, at least at some point, it had been re-piloted, since dropping or weighing anchor are things that can only be done if the ship is under someone's command, and a conscious decision and order has been made to do so.

Nineteenth-century Inuit evidence as regards the "Terror" is far more scarce than that concerning "Erebus," and for good reason -- the former ship sank quickly, in deep water, and "nothing was obtained from her," whereas the latter was, for many years, a go-to site for Inuit seeking wood and other valuable things. It's possible that the "Erebus" was even beached for a time, before sinking, and even after she sank, wood and other precious things washed up on shore. The Inuit had no such luck with "Terror" --which is good news for Parks's underwater archaeologists, although it seems that, for now, work will focus on the more damaged and fragile flagship of Franklin's expedition.

All of these matters speak to a central question: was either of the ships piloted to its final location? If so, an argument can be made that they completed the final link of the Northwest Passage (albeit that some feel that a discovery that the discoverer does not live to report should not be counted). Indeed, the same argument could be made of the survivors on land, since they reached and passed the location of Dease and Simpson's cairn (again, we know this from Inuit testimony, and again the men did not live to tell their tale). What could such evidence then be?

The possibility of the ships having drifted can't be entirely dismissed, however unlikely. Inuit testimony tells us that "Erebus" had been re-inhabited by a small group of perhaps four men, but it's not clear whether they arrived at her final location aboard, or simply found and used the vessel as a shelter for a season. The possibility is still less for "Terror," since drifting ships rarely send themselves into a convenient harbor, and indeed the general drift path of the ice would have taken southeast them along the same route as "Erebus," whereas "Terror" took a turn to the eastward. Some drifting ice has however -- on occasion -- followed a similar route, so such a course can't be entirely eliminated.

I suspect that the only way to really ascertain whether either ship was piloted would be to find a clear indication in writing. Even if manned by a skeleton crew, it would be contrary to all the training and habit of the Royal Navy to steer a ship and keep no log, no record, of its voyage. Barring the discovery of such a log, even a single dated document with some indication later than that in the Victory Point note saying the ships had been deserted would make the case for piloting much likelier, though it couldn't -- unless the writing specifically addressed what had happened -- eliminate the possibility that some men had simply re-occupied the vessel. And, in either case, it seems clear that, for at least some period following the initial abandonment, the ships drifted without guidance, and that such drift might affect how some people assessed the accomplishment of that journey.

Now that the question of national ownership has been resolved, and now that full cooperation and co-management of the finds with Inuit organizations and local communities are in place, the odds are that we will have some kind of answer to that central question. It's quite possible, though, that the answer may be ambigious or incomplete; in some areas of the Franklin story, we may simply have to learn to "let the mystery be."

Friday, October 27, 2017

Franklin searchers of the Month: Operation Northern Quest

Courtesy Royal Canadian Regiment Museum at Wolseley Barracks, London ON
Although it was conduced by the famed Royal Canadian Regiment, and in many ways was among the most elaborately-planned and ambitious of Franklin searches, few people today know much about what was known as "Operation Northern Quest," which took place in 1973. A few footnotes here and there, along with a long-forgotten feature article in (of all places) Canadian Motorist magazine, were all that were publicly known about it. Now, with the help of the Regimental museum, I'm finally able to share with readers of this blog some details of the operation, which included the identification and removal of skeletal remains of a member of Franklin's expedition.

According to an article in Pro Patria, the regiment's official journal, the aim of ONQ was two-fold: "first, to practice skills valuable for the infanteer in the harsh environment of the Far North" and secondly "to uncover useful information about the fate of the Sir John Franklin expedition." That it undoubtedly did, including a nearly-complete skeleton discovered by Corporal Dave Willard "while taking a break only five miles from our firm base." The finds were all mapped, but unfortunately the map -- a detail of which is shown here -- does not say anything about what was found, with the exception of the skeleton. Stars simply mark "19th Century Findings." including one tantalizingly located at the back of Terror Bay. All the findings were to be deposited at the Museum of Man, but unfortunately the Canadian Museum of History -- today's successor to that institution -- has no records of them.

"Joe," in situ, courtesy RCR Museum
The skeleton was found not far east of Gladman Point, and indeed may be one of those previously observed by earlier searchers, such as Hobson, McClintock, or "Paddy" Gibson. The expedition's journal offers a fairly detailed description of the find:
[We] found bones protruding from the ground by a large rock. A quick check showed this to be the bones of a large man; too large for an Eskimo. We uncovered as much of the skeleton as we could without unduly disturbing things. We planned on returning tomorrow morning with the metal detector and shovel. Eddy said he knew where a sheet of plywood could be located on the beach to put the bones on. The skeleton had been covered by several inches of moss and rocks. The skull was not visible to us but the jawbone was there. 
It was not, needless to say, a careful archaeological procedure -- but the bones were gathered up on the plank, and brought back to the Museum of Man. The estimated height of the individual, from the bones, was six feet, and horn and bone buttons were found with it, the combination of which is consistent with the Franklin period (according to the Bertulli report on NgLj-2, four-holed black bone buttons were fading from use in the 1840's; vegetable ivory bones were just being introduced then). The men jovially nicknamed the skeleton "Joe," and searched about for a other artifacts, but found none. It's also noteworthy that the skeleton appears to have been placed in a sort of stone-lined grave, which would make it the furthest-south full burial managed by the survivors of Franklin's crews.

Outposts were established at Terror Bay and Douglas Bay -- two known sites of Franklin-era remains -- and apparently items were found at both; the reports unfortunately don't seem to include a listing of what was found where. One find was described as "a badly disintegrated ship's rudder held together by wooden pegs" -- how intriguing that is, and how much more it could tell us if its exact location were known. Might it have been at Terror Bay? Did the party at Douglas Bay disturb the pile of skulls reburied there by "Paddy" Gibson, and might that be why they were missing when Owen Beattie and Jim Savelle went looking for them in 1981?

I'm hopeful that publicizing this expedition might lead, as it has in other cases, to more information from persons who participated in it, or their friends of families.  If any such are reading this, I would be very happy indeed to hear from them.

[UPDATE: According to a 1974 article in the Sentinel, "Joe" may in fact have been reburied rather than brought to Ottawa. I'll continue researching the matter.]

Monday, October 23, 2017

Franklin's Ships now Canada's

Approximate sites of Erebus and Terror
With a dramatic announcement, British Defence Minister Sir Michael Fallon declared that Sir John Franklin's ships, HMS "Erebus" and "Terror" would shortly be officially given to Canada, with the UK presumably abandoning all salvage rights that would have been its perogative, since the naval vessels of all nations (unlike private or commercial ships) normally remain the property of that nation. It's a welcome development, as it at last removes the veil of uncertainty that had recently descended once more on these fabled ships, despite a 1997 Memorandum of Agreement (which you can read in full here) stating that the UK would abandon or delegate these same rights, "with the exception of those items of particular historical significance to the Royal Navy."

The earlier agreement was somewhat ambigious about these items -- would they be brought to the UK and loaned for display, or kept permanently? This new announcement says that only a "small sample" of items will be retained, but these (presumably) permanently. I have checked with my contacts at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, but they had no further information on which items these might be; it's quite possible that the National Museum of the Royal Navy -- mentioned in the announcement -- might be the intended repository. I hope that this small sample will be discrete and remain so; it would be a shame if, every time an artifact is brought up from one of the ships, a fresh debate had to take place over how "significant" it was.

There is another crucial part of this news which, as is their wont, many press outlets have ignored -- which is that this announcement will have no effect on the agreements already made with the Franklin Advisory Committee, the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, the Inuit Heritage Trust, and the Government of Nunavut. Parks Canada has issued a press release, which reads in part:
The Government of Canada recognizes the invaluable contributions of Inuit of Nunavut, the Government of Nunavut, and all partners in the search and discovery of the wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. Most importantly, the discoveries would not have been possible without the support, guidance, advice and traditional and modern knowledge shared so generously by Inuit of Nunavut.
Frank Pederson, who respresents the KIA and chairs the Franklin Advisory Committee, had this to say:
I am very pleased by the announcement today from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on the intent to gift the Franklin wrecks to Canada. This exceptional gift will allow for the joint ownership of the artifacts by Inuit and Canada, as stipulated in the Nunavut Agreement. We look forward to working with Parks Canada on the future management of the Wrecks of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site and helping to protect and present these wrecks and artifacts to tell the story where these events took place.
So it is good news all around -- now that these issues are settled, we have every reason to expect much good work, and continued co-operation and respect between Parks Canada and Inuit organizations, will continue througout the many years it will take to learn all these storied vessels have to teach us.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Joseph René Bellot

"The death of Bellot" (with thanks to Andrés Paredes for this image)
Among all the storied names of Arctic explorers from the "heroic age," none resonates so widely, and yet (in some parts of the world) is so imperfectly known, as that of Joseph René Bellot. In the search for Sir John Franklin, which attracted support from people of many nations, he became -- in 1851-- the lone active-duty member of of the French navy to volunteer for such service. Although only twenty, Bellot was no stranger to exploration and its hardships; having already participated in French expeditions to Madagascar and South America; as part of his embrace of the rigors of Arctic travel, he permitted himself only one blanket, and a thin mattress atop a bare wooden board.

Passing through the Bellot strait, 2017
He served under William Kennedy during the latter's Franklin search, which covered more than 1,800 kilometers to and from their winter quarters on Batty Bay. Kennedy, for reasons that are still no quite clear, did not seem to fully trust his second; indeed, he went out of his way to prevent Bellot from making independent navigational observations. When the two came upon the strait that bisected Somerset Island from the Boothia Peninsula, Bellot was -- in part as a result of Kennedy's keeping him in the dark -- reluctant to claim it for what it was. So it was that, when Kennedy named the strait after him, Bellot a first felt more concern than pride; what if this vaunted waterway turned out to be as insubstantial as the Croker Mountains?

But it didn't. Indeed, although Leopold McClintock, the first to try to sail through it, was blocked by ice on its western outlet, the Bellot Strait was to become a mainstay of transit between the Eastern and Western Arctic, and is much used to this day; this past August, I passed through its waters three times aboard two different vessels. Because of its strong currents, it needs to be entered at slack tide, and ships often find themselves passing through in company with others. These same current make the strait, effectively a polynya, generally ice-free throughout the year except for that sea-ice that drifts in from one side or the other.

The Forestier memorial to Bellot
Bellot, committed to the cause of finding Franklin, returned almost immediately after his first expedition, serving under Captain Edward Augustus Inglefield. His high personal character and complete devotion to his duty once again drew admiration from all with whom he sailed; no work seemed onerous to him, no mission too risky. It was on one of these -- an attempt to walk over the ice to deliver a communication to Sir Edward Belcher, that Bellot met his end, falling through the ice so quickly that his comrades could find no trace of him save his walking-stick. The area, in Wellington Strait, is notorious for thin ice; one of my shipboard lecturimg colleagues this summer, Christian Haas, noted that it was near this same area in 2015 that two Canadian ice researchers met with a similar fate. It's comforting to think that it could have been just such a patch of treacherously thin ice, rather than some unexpected crack or lead, that took the life of such a skilled and resourceful man.

Beyond the strait itself,  Bellot's name is remembered in many places in the Arctic and beyond. At Beechey Island, a memorial headboard once stood beside those of Franklin's men; when the others were replaced by replicas, none was made for his, on the theory that it might confuse people as to whether he was buried there. This lack has since been made up by Jean-Claude Forestier, who installed a plaque on a nearby cairn in 2012. There is also, at the other side of the island, a plaque to Bellot placed between Lady Franklin's marble slab and Belcher's Cenotaph. In Greenwich, on the grounds of the old Royal Naval Hospital, a granite obelisk to his memory stands facing the Thames. And, perhaps most fiitingly of all, a crater upon Earth's Moon was named after Bellot in 1935; there, in the "Sea of Feritility," it has among its neighbors craters named after his fellow Arctic explorers Crozier and McClure, as well as two named after Ferdinand Magellan.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Port Leopold

The site of the winter encampment of the first major Royal Navy search for Sir John Franklin's expedition, Port Leopold possesses a sense of desolation unlike any other place I've visited in the Arctic. The vast plateau of barren gravel dwarfs even that of Beechey Island, its lone and level plane stretching out toward distant grey cliffs, with only a few signs that living things ever tarried here. The famous rock, carved by the men of HM Ships "Enterprise" and "Investigator" in the latter part of their sojourn there, still stands; nearby, a small and battered HBC outpost is its only company. Built in 1926, it was abandoned in 1927, when (as the HBC record drily notes) it was found to be "too isolated" to carry on a profitable trade. The Inuktitut name for the post, Siqiniq -- the sun -- also seems to mirror that isolation (the HBC post at Arctic Bay was symmetrically known as Taqqiq -- the moon).

The abandoned Hudson's Bay Company post
Indeed, the most lively time ever experienced there was likely that of Ross's encampment with his two ships. Sledge parties were sent forth, exploring the northern and western edges of Somerset Island (not yet known to be an island), and on board the ships, the usual regime of stage-plays, schooling for sailors, and other ship-board occupations continued. Yet even though the crews spent only one winter, their rate of sickness was unusually high, a problem possibly due to the hastily-assembled provisions and equipment. It had been a cold year coming in, and it was a cold year coming out; the Enterprise and Investigator were not released from the ice until the 29th of August. The date on the rock was one that the men had ample time to carve, motivated in part by the hope that no further date would need to be added.

It's not often remarked on, but Ross left behind a store-house full of supplies, should Franklin or his men come that way, said to contain a year's provisions and fuel sufficient for sixty-four persons. Those supplies were never called upon, not does much trace of them remain today, though a slight scattering of barrel-staves and hoops hints that something was there.