Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

Uncharted Waters: A Skeptic’s View of the latest search for the lost ships of Sir John Franklin

By Russell A. Potter

The news is currently making the rounds that another, bigger and better search for the lost ships of Sir John Franklin is being mounted by the Canadian government. There’s some historical irony here – since “bigger” and “better” were the very words used to underpin public confidence Franklin’s original expedition when it first sailed – and we all know how well that turned out. Nevertheless, there are some modest auguries of success with the present expedition, though nothing quite as grand as the press releases would suggest; even when looking for a needle in a haystack, there is something to be said for looking where others have not looked before, and having more people doing the looking.

The chief reason given for the launch of a new search at this time is historian Dorothy Eber’s account of fresh evidence from Inuit oral traditions, as well as the discoveries of modern-day Inuit themselves. Eber’s evidence, gathered together for her upcoming book Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers (University of Toronto Press), is unusual in that most of it dates to the past forty years, a time when the oral traditions of the Inuit have been interrupted by resettlement, loss of language, and enormous changes in everyday life. True, the elders still preserve an enormous wealth of traditional knowledge, but when it comes to recollections of specific historical events, the continuity of that tradition has been severely compromised. The principal witnesses of the fate of the Franklin expedition, it should be recalled, were actually quite few in number – the party of three hunters who encountered a group of survivors at Washington Bay were the only ones to speak with the living – and many of the eyewitnesses were members of Inuit bands, such as the Utjulingmiut, whose members were already scattered and displaced when they spoke with John Rae at Repulse Bay in 1854. The echoes of that tradition, such as they are, are faint indeed, and in many instances in Eber’s book, it’s not quite clear which among these new accounts can actually be definitely identified as stories of Franklin’s party.

Almost all of the Inuit testimony agrees that one of Franklin’s ships was deliberately anchored, and her gangplank lowered, somewhere in the vicinity of Queen Maud Gulf, most likely on the western shores of the Adelaide Peninsula. This is the area where David C. Woodman, the foremost modern interpreter of the Inuit testimony, has been searching for years despite limited funds and resources. Through his labors areas near Kirkwall Island and O’Reilly Island, two sites which match the early Inuit stories, have been fairly exhaustively searched, but represent only a small percentage of the overall area associated with the Inuit tales. The present search will be led by Robert Grenier, lead archaeologist for Parks Canada, who caught the Franklin bug while working with Woodman. Initially a skeptic of Inuit testimony, Grenier was impressed by finds of sheet copper and other nineteenth-century relics at sites identified by Woodman as those in the Inuit stories.

Robert Grenier

Robert Grenier

He has now, apparently, linked these to tales recounted by one of Ebert’s informants, who believed that the remaining ship was in fact further west, in the vicinity of the Royal Geographical Society Islands. Unlike Woodman, who believes Inuit accounts of the ship having been deliberately anchored, Grenier says in his proposal that the ships may have drifted to this location, or run aground.

Prior northern surveys for the Franklin wreck - Blue (1997) and Brown (2000)

Prior northern surveys for the Franklin wreck - Blue (1997) and Brown (2000)

As suggestive as it is, the testimony about the RGS Islands site is one of several accounts in Eber’s book, others of which are quite different, and even mutually exclusive. Some even suggest that one of Franklin’s ships attempted to sail around the eastern shores of King William Island, the opposite of what has always been believed to be their route. These stories seem to be based not on sighting of ships, but of debris and cargo. A more likely explanation lies in a substantial amount of material tossed overboard by Roald Amundsen near this point in order to enable his ship the Gjøa to ride higher in the water, and thus navigate the shallows – but in the ice-floes of such a long tradition, keeping one story distinct from another is as treacherous as navigating a strait far narrower and more convoluted that that where these boxes of supplies were found. For a Franklin researcher such as myself, Eber’s book makes for fascinating reading, but as a guide for archaeological searches it may prove frustrating.

Another source of evidence has been provided by contemporary Inuit searchers, such as Gjoa Have resident Louie Kamookak. Kamookak, who some years ago led the crew of the St. Roch II expedition to human remains near the Todd Islets on the south coast of King William Island, is to be part of Grenier’s new search. The bones located by Kamookak, however, had actually been found many years previous; their location was known to Hall (although snow prevented him from seeing much), and the entire site was gone over by William Gibson in the 1931, who located and reburied some skeletal remains. Kamookak simply did the modern searchers the favor of reminding them of something they actually already knew. Of course it is vital to include Inuit in the search for an expedition that involved their ancestors, and in the recounting of the history of the Franklin era – but there’s not necessarily any special knowledge of this period among Inuit today. A coordinated search of all known Franklin sites and reports might be better begun in a research library than in the Arctic itself, at least if the findings of the past are not to be needlessly repeated.

Louie Kamookak

Louie Kamookak

All of which illustrates the difficulty of using Inuit evidence to limit the area of one’s search – there are so many tales, so intertwined, that it’s nearly impossible to separate one sighting of “Kabloonas” from another. This is a difficulty which Grenier’s party may find slightly less daunting; with more resources to deploy, a wider area can be searched, and precise accuracy may be less important. The unusually good ice conditions these past few seasons have also opened up areas for searching by ship that were formerly rendered inaccessible by heavier coastal ice. If indeed, as the Inuit stories traced by Woodman recount, the lost vessel was at anchor, and sunk at its moorings in an area shallow enough that the tops of the masts were still above water, then there may be some hope that the hull of the vessel is largely intact, supposing it could be found.

And yet, if it is, it will be the preponderance of the Inuit testimony – and the courage of researchers such as Woodman in trusting it – rather than any new bit of information, that should be credited with the find. If you look back far enough, in fact, it’s really Charles Francis Hall who deserves the ultimate credit – for it was he, during a time when most Europeans and Americans discounted the word of the Inuit as the “vague babble of savages” (the phrase is Charles Dickens’s) who continued to collect, and to implicitly trust, the accounts of the Inuit people of the fate of Franklin’s men. In his tiny, folded “field notebooks” from the 1860’s – preserved at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. – lie the original accounts, carefully translated by his faithful guide Tookoolito, upon which the hopes of present searchers most greatly depend.

Recommended Links:

The Fate of Franklin

David C. Woodman’s Search Pages (at my Franklin site): http://www.ric.edu/faculty/rpotter/woodman/mainpage.html

Inuit Testimony about Franklin, collected by Hall, Schwatka, and Rasmussen:

Robert Grenier’s original IPY Proposal for the new search



  Joe O’farrell wrote @

Hello Russell, and greetings from Ireland. Hope all is well with you since we met in Dundalk last Jan for the McClintock School. Any news on the latest search for Erebus & Terror? They must now be nearing the end of the season in the ice. It’s hard to find an up-date on the WEB! Maybe Ernie Coleman will be vindicated: after all, he told Dundalk he knows exactly where the ships are! For myself, as you may recall, I’m very much “open minded” that the “ships on the ice” may (only may!) have been Erebus & Terror. Best regards. Joe

  Russell Potter wrote @

Hello Joe, it’s great to hear from you. I have many fond memories of the Dundalk conference, and I’m sure nearly all of us there are following this news. Alas, all that has been heard so far is that the present search, somewhere in the area of the RGS islands, found some “metal and scraps of wood” — hardly anything to write home about. Nevertheless, they’re pressing on — even once this year’s search is over, they’re funded to return for two additional seasons, so there’s still some hope. Of course if the ships seen embedded in the iceberg were the Erebus and Terror, they’ll be out of luck! All best regards, R U S S E L L

  Chris Valade wrote @

Sorry to hear that the latest Franklin search has turned up very little though I’m not surprised at this.

Do we know if it is possible for the Terror and Erebus to have sailed or drifted South of the Royal Geographical Society Islands? Each ship had a 27 foot draught and that area might be shallow.

I’ve wondered if the Utjulik wreck wasn’t actually located West of Cape Crozier. Dorthy Eberly mentioned that this general area was called Utjulik. On the other hand the Utjulik wreck was said to be pointed out on a map by the Inuit themselves.

Inuit testimony aside, the first strategy that comes to mind is estimating the drift of the ice bound ships and searching along that route. This appears to be the strategy being employed by the current three year search effort. Ultimately someone needs to go out there and “mow the lawn” with video and sonar to locate the ships. Though given the terrain, ice and limited operating seasons this can’t be easy.

In order for the Terror and Erebus to have drifted out into the Atlantic I believe they would need to have been sailed out into Devon Straight. Cyriax states that the ice bound ships would have been brought further South by prevailing currents.

In order to understand the disaster and its timeline of events we need to find written documents or more physical evidence. Locating the ships and surveying their condition and contents will tell us something. I would like to believe in the Bayne story but I have heard of no evidence to prove that the story wasn’t simply made up by Jamme for financial gain.

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