16 January 2018

The Ever Evolving Story of the Ill Fated Franklin Expedition

For well over a hundred years, questions relating to the fate of the lost HMS Erebus, HMS Terror and the vessels’ crew shrouded the famous Franklin expedition in mystery. The ships, which set out from England in 1845 in search of a shipping route through the Canadian Arctic and on to Asia, never returned. During the winter of 1845-46, encroaching ice led the crew to overwinter on Beechey Island, an anticipated requirement of arctic travel at that time. The following year, experts believe the expedition became icebound off the shores of King William Island. A note, written first by Franklin and later by his officer Francis Crozier, was found in a stone cairn years later and gives details of the crew’s decision to desert the ships on April 22, 1848 after being lodged in ice since September 1846. Until recently, this was thought to be the last known location of the vessels and its crew. 

The fate of the Franklin expedition has captured public interest and has been the subject many historians’ inquiry. From lung disease to tainted food and lead poisoning, speculation abound. One toxicologist points to malnutrition as a piece of the puzzle after a recent study tested toe nail clippings for lead, copper, zinc and arsenic to gather facts about the health of crew members onboard the expedition. Read that story here

In the years following, over forty search expeditions scoured the arctic in search the missing crew. In more recent years, even with modern technology and over $1 million invested in reconnaissance, the location of the ships remained a prized mystery of marine archeology. 

Finally, in 2014 the sunk HMS Erebus was found in under just 11 meters of water in the Queen Maud Gulf, over 100km south of where the ships were believed to be abandoned. The nearby HMS Terror was found almost exactly two years later in the waters of Terror Bay (aptly named in 1910) off the shores of King William Island. Traditional knowledge passed down among residents of Gjoa Haven have long told of a large wooden ship which sank in the region. According to Inuit oral history, elders observed two ships on the northwest side of King William Island, one of which is said to have remained afloat for two winters before it sank. 

After the discovery of the Erebus, Parks Canada announced nearly $17 million in funding to support archeological research and other initiatives relating to the wrecks. However, ownership and jurisdiction disagreements has created inherent complexity in the recent discoveries. Amidst all of this, Britain has recently announced they will transfer ownership of the two wrecks to Parks Canada. Parks intends to jointly manage the sites in collaboration with the community of Gjoa Haven and will launch a guardian program in the summer of 2018. 

The story of the historic Franklin expedition continues to unfold as archeologists begin to uncover new information lying under the ice of the Arctic Ocean. Underwater archeologists for Parks Canada visited the site of the HMS Terror in April 2017 and the HMS Erebus in August. Below are just a few of the many images and artifacts they have collected since the vessel’s ‘discoveries’. Another visit is planned for the summer of 2018. 


While the sites of the HMS Terror and Erebus are not open to the public, a trip to Beechey Island offers visitors to Arctic Watch the opportunity to experience a piece of the unfolding puzzle of the Franklin expedition. A Canadian National Historic site, Beechey Island is only a 40-minute charter flight from our airstrip on Somerset Island and offers visitors a rare opportunity to interact with a piece of arctic history. Contact us to reserve a Beechey Island flight while visiting Arctic Watch.

All photo credits belong to Parks Canada.