It had been fifteen years since Sir John Franklin had lead an expedition into the Arctic. He was old now, having just turned 59, but there was unfinished business for him. Since his last journey north ended in 1827, there was still some 300 miles of coastline that no man had bothered to survey.
It wasn’t that Franklin hadn’t wanted to finish the survey; the British Royal Navy had turned its attention away from expeditions not long after Sir Franklin’s last one, leaving the lifelong seaman stuck on land. Sir Franklin had been made lieutenant-governor of the penal colony in Tasmania, but his ideas on how to reform the colony, along with his wife Jane’s feelings on women’s liberation left Sir Franklin on the outside looking in. Sir Franklin lost his position as lieutenant-governor just as the Royal Navy decided to restart their Northern expedition.
Sir Franklin was a hero for what he had accomplished, but there was still a part of him that felt the need to prove himself. While his second trek to the Arctic went well, his first was a disaster. Of the twenty-two men that took part in the 1819 expedition, ten died of starvation, and one was murdered. Rumors of cannibalism followed Sir Franklin after that, and he gained the rather cumbersome nickname “The Man Who Ate His Shoes” after his report detailed just that.
Even though Sir Franklin’s second expedition was a success, gaining him knighthood, that remaining unsurveyed coastline had always nagged him. It called to him like the sirens called to Odysseus. When the opportunity arose, Sir Franklin wasn’t about to let it go by.
On 19 May 1845, Sir Franklin took charge of the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, stocked with three years worth of provisions for the combined crew of 134 men, including 8000 tins of preserved meat, and set off from the River Thames to find the Northwest Passage. They stopped in Disko Bay, Greenland to send back letters to loved ones, as well as get five men who had fallen ill onto ships headed back to London. We can only assume that they did some dancing too, being in Disko Bay and all. On July 26, the two ships were seen by whalers near Baffin Bay in Greenland, some 1800 miles from where Sir Franklin’s journey started. That was the last time he or his men were ever seen alive.
For thirty years, the Royal Navy and Jane Franklin paid for rescue missions hoping to find Sir Franklin and his men alive. With each passing year, the missions felt more and more useless. In 1850, searchers found hundreds of empty tins on Beechey Island in Northern Canada. Along with the tins were the graves of three men; twenty-year-old John Torrington, who died on New Year’s Day 1846, twenty-five-year-old John Hartnell, who passed three days after Torrington, and William Braine, who died on April 3. It was determined that Sir Franklin and the crew spent the winter of 1845 on the island after the ocean waters froze over.
In 1854, explorer John Rae found evidence that Sir Franklin and his men had made it to King William Island, 400 miles south of Beechey Island. Locals told Rae about a group of forty men seen struggling to survive before cold and starvation took their lives. Rae found the bodies, their remains showing signs of cannibalism. In 1859, a group of bodies were found in a lifeboat, limbs missing with signs that they had been removed with a saw either for food or due to frostbite.
Around the same time, a note would be found on King William Island. The note explained that Sir Franklin had died on the island on June 11, 1847 and that the remaining 105 men had decided to abandon the trapped ships in hopes that they could walk South out of the Arctic.
In 1984, Owen Beattie and his team from the University of Alberta dug up the graves of John Torrington, John Hartnell, and William Braine. The permafrost had kept the bodies in excellent condition, giving Beattie and his team a great look at what killed the men. The researchers found that all three men had high levels of lead in their blood. Their deaths were most likely caused by lead poisoning, possibly from tins used for the preserved meat.
In 2008, 163 years after the vanishing of Sir Franklin’s ships, the melting of the Arctic ice brought on by global warming opened the Northwest Passage to shipping lines for the first time. Along with it came the hope of gaining more information on what happened to the crews of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus. While conducting sonar scans of the ocean floor just off King William Island IN 2014, Canadian researchers found the remains of the HMS Erebus. Two years later they found the HMS Terror in near perfect condition sitting quietly under the sea.
Today, the picture of what happened to the men of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror is becoming clear as the fog of mystery disperses. In September 1846, Sir Franklin and his men attempted to sail through the Victoria Strait, which was a horrible idea. The Strait, just two-hundred miles from the Canadian coast is famous for having severe ice conditions in the winter. What most likely happened is that the two ships found themselves trapped in the Victoria Strait after a storm froze the waters in a matter of hours. The crews sat on their respective ships, waiting for the summer months to come and thaw the ice, but for two years the temperatures stayed below freezing.
In April of 1848, the 105 remaining men attempted to walk across the ice and reach the Canadian mainland. For three days they walked across fifteen miles of frozen ocean, fighting winds as high as 60-miles-per-hour, to reach King William Island. They continued their journey across the island, refusing help from Inuits who watched as the British men ate their dead, boiling bodyparts in their leather boots.
Still, questions remain. Of the 129 men, only a few dozen bodies have been found. No one knows just how far the final member of the expedition got before he perished in the Arctic. The body of Sir Franklin has yet to be found as well. Many questions will be answered in the coming years, but we will never know everything that happened to these men. The details of their fate are lost to the ravages of time.