Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Franklin searcher of the Month: Robert Cundy

Robert Cundy (L) and Gordon Dean (R); courtesy of the Sunderland Echo
One of the more active armchair Franklin enthusiasts of his day, retired Admiral Noel Wright held a number of unusual views about the Franklin expedition, nearly all of which, sadly, have proven to be mistaken. Still, as a Navy man with considerable interest and enthusiasm, his theories (see his 1959 book Quest for Franklin) were taken seriously by those who read them. One of his more plausible contentions was that the retreating members of the Franklin expedition, some of whom apparently crossed over to the mainland at the narrowest part of the Simpson Strait, may well have been following Dease and Simpson's route, and even used some of the former party's cairns to deposit messages or leave signs of their passing. Wright felt that Dease and Simpson's "Beacon Six," located at the mouth of the Back River, was the most likely of these, the more so as it would have been in accord with the only known written record -- the one left at Victory Point -- which stated that the men were headed there.

So far as Wright or anyone else knew, this cairn might well still be undisturbed, and might yet contain another written record of the Franklin party. This was the idea that motivated Robert Cundy, who hailed from Sunderland on the eastern coast of Britain, to take up the quest to reach that point. Cundy, who commanded his four-man crew along military lines, was somewhat surprised on his arrival in the Arctic to encounter a group of four much more laid-back American paddlers with the same plan;  each hoped to be the first since Back to make a full descent of the river, but Cundy -- as John Lentz, one of the Americans, recalled it, was focused primarily on the goal of reaching the cairn at Beacon Six.

It was a rough journey, with numerous rapids and portages; at one point they were forced to cobble together a kayak out of the broken parts of two others that had been damaged beyond repair. And at the end, for all their hardships, they found that the cairn they sought held only a “small yellow film can, wrapped in polythene” in which a short note had been deposited by some predecessors of “Operation Back River 1960.” As Dave Woodman has noted, Cundy was still hoping that a record might be buried nearby and had come prepared to dig for one, but soon discovered that “there was not a scrap of soil on that windswept bluff, merely an irregular pattern of cracks, which revealed nothing." His disappointment, as recalled in his book Beacon Six, was palpable.

The voyage was only one of many for Cundy, an RAF veteran who took to travelling the world, documenting his trips on film and audiotape. Many of these were later broadcast as episodes of the BBC's Adventure series, including footage of South American diamond-hunters, the mysteries of Mayan civilization, and the newly-emerged volcanic island Surtsey off the coast of Iceland. His work is hard to trace today, and only a few mentions of it survive in the BBC's available archives, and it's not clear whether he himself is still living. According to Chris Cordner, whose excellent article in the Sunderland Echo was where I first learned of Cundy's roots in that area, no readers have yet come forward with information about him. I certainly hope that if he or any of his comrades are still on this side of the soil -- or if any of their family members happen upon this posting -- that they'll let me know; his achievement, though disappointing to him, is still very much deserving of recognition.

Monday, May 23, 2016

HMS Resolute and her Desks

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016
t's widely-known that the "Resolute Desk," currently being used in the Oval Office by President Obama, was crafted from the timbers of the Franklin search ship HMS Resolute. The ship had become, by a strange twist of fate, a symbol of the "special relationship" between the US and the UK; having drifted from where she was abandoned deep in the Arctic archipelago, she was found by a whaling captain and piloted back to port in the United States. Restored to her former glory with funding from the US Congress, she was sailed back to Britain under the command of Henry Hartstene, and presented to Queen Victoria as a gift from the nation. The presentation ceremony, made while Resolute was anchored near the Queen's summer residence at Osborne House on the Isle of Man, was the subject of a famous engraving by William "Crimean" Simpson, a noted war illustrator, and both plain and colored versions -- such as this one at the Library of Congress -- were sold to the public.

US Government official photograph / public domain

It had been hoped by many at the time -- including Lady Franklin -- that the ship might once more be dispatched to the Arctic, but it was not to be. Which was why, when the vessel was being broken up in 1879, the Queen decided to have a series of desks made from her timbers. The large "partner's desk" in the Oval Office, originally used by Rurtherford B. Hayes, is by far the best-known, but the others -- three in number -- are no less significant in their own right.

The Queen had two desks made for herself. One, a modest writing-table or side-table, has a brass plaque similar (but not identical to) the one on the partner's desk; the other, a folding desk, was made for use aboard the Royal Yacht. Both, it now seems, are in Portsmouth, though not on display; the folding desk, indeed, is stored rather plainly, in a crate with a loose plastic cover. Confusion over the similar plaques -- along with the fact that the original plans, now at the National Maritime Museum, were departed from -- apparently led some sources, the Wikipedia among them, to incorrectly state that Her Majesty had also had a partner's size desk made for herself, but that was never the case.

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

The largest of the other three, a ladies' writing desk, was presented to the widow of Henry Grinnell, the whaling magnate who had leant so much of his time and resources to the search for Franklin; it currently resides at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Like many such desks of this period, it has two large compartments and a series of smaller ones built into its top; one may note that the door of one features a crowned lion, a
New Bedford Whaling Museum
heraldic device of the British monarchy, while the other shows a fouled anchor, the symbol of the Royal Navy.

The president's Resolute Desk has played a role in many dramas -- including the film National Treasure: Book of Secrets -- and, assuming the next resident of the White House decides to keep it, it will likely be a part of many more. For those of us who won't have a chance to see it there, there are at least five exact replicas at various presidential libraries -- Kennedy's, Reagan's, Noxon's, Carter's, and Clinton's -- or, if cost is no object, you can order your own replica for a mere $9,495.00 (marked down from $12,000). Of course, it won't be made with oak from the Resolute ... but it would still be certain to impress your friends!

Friday, May 20, 2016

How many?

As a fact-checker, one of the most common things I've had to check in articles about the Franklin expedition are numbers. 128 men? Yes, but only if you exclude those who sailed from Greenhithe but were invalided out and sent home, and you don't count Franklin himself. Dozens of search expeditions? Well, thanks to W. Gillies Ross, we can say that three dozen is a roughly accurate figure, if we limit ourselves to the era up to and including McClintock's search aboard the Fox. But one of the trickiest figures to settle is the number of years we should count Franklin's expedition as missing, which is tied up with the question of what "missing" means. As the author of an upcoming book whose title refers to a "165-Year Search," of course I have some views on the subject.

When Franklin sailed, almost exactly 171 years ago (May 19, 1845), his ships were provisioned for three years of full rations (early press accounts later tended to exaggerate this figure, in part to stave off public concern). Neither he nor the Admiralty expected any immediate news, and given the vagaries of cairns and messages in tin cylinders, it was certainly possible that word -- even of success -- might be considerably delayed. Franklin's sailing orders suggested that, if he made the passage, he might consider calling at the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) to give his crews some R&R, but even had he done so, word of his arrival there would have taken weeks or months to reach London. So it's hardly right to date the Franklin "mystery" to 1845, since there was nothing mysterious about the lack of contact then, or in the succeeding three years. This brings us to 1848, when the first large-scale search sent by the Admirality, that of James Clark Ross, was dispatched. They found no traces of Franklin or his ships, which in one sense is the first note of concern -- but that was not publicly known until he returned to England in 1849. That's the year that I date the "mystery" to, and why -- going from that moment to the discovery of HMS Erebus in 2014 -- I chose the 165 years of my title. There's an argument to be made for 166 years(if one uses either the three-year provision measure, or the date of Ross's initial sailing) or even 167, if one starts counting in 1847, when the very first expedition sent to look for Franklin, that of Richardson & Rae, was dispatched. It's completely wrong, though, to refer as did Macleans in 2014, to a "169-year-old mystery," using the 1845 date, at which time there was no "mystery" at all.

The other number that still vexes, despite Gil Ross's fine work, is the number of search expeditions since the finding of the Victory Point record. Part of it is the question of what qualifies; should we count Allen Young's voyage, even though he never reached the intended search area? Or what about Charles Francis Hall's first foray, which left him stranded on Baffin Island, hundreds of miles from his goal? These questions get even trickier in the twentieth century, when many who sought out Franklin sites were more like pilgrims than searchers, and often were simply making a side-trip from a journey made for other purposes. In my book, I've counted every search that managed to reach its planned search area, even if it was a side-trip, or (as sometimes happens due to weather and ice conditions) it was cut short. By these criteria, the "modern" era -- starting with Rasmussen in 1921 --  gives us fifty-three Franklin searches prior to the first Parks Canada search in 2008. It's a surprising number to some, since relatively few of these searches garnered much publicity. Many know of the exhumations on Beechey in the mid-1980's, but few are aware of Owen Beattie's two earlier exepditions to King William Island; others may know something of searchers such as Dave Woodman or Barry Ranford, but not realize how many times they returned to search again.

And even with that, the number is impossible to absolutely fix. Some searchers have proven nearly impossible to identify or trace, such as the mysterious "Coleman and Holmberg of California," mentioned in William C. Wonders's account as having searched King William Island in 1965, while others, such as John Goldi's 1975 trek, are so incompletely documented that one wonders whether they ought to be counted or not. I've come up with a solution for that, though -- I just say "more than fifty." Which, when added to the 36 in Gil Ross's account, along with Hall and Schwatka, and the seven Parks searches gives us "more than ninety" searches in all. At least for now.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Lachlan Taylor Burwash

One could say that he was the first of the "modern" era of Franklin searchers, but Lachlan Taylor Burwash was at the same time very much rooted in the past. Born in 1873 in Corbourg, Ontario, he was the scion of a long line of eminent Burwashes; named after his grandfather, he grew up under the watchful eye of his father, Nathanael, who was dean of theology and eventually president of Victoria University, which later moved from Cobourg to Toronto. Young Lachlan apparently had a more worldly bent, earning a degree in mining engineering at the University of Toronto -- a prescient specialty, which he soon put to use in administrative work in the Yukon territory during its gold-rush days. When World War I broke out, Burwash enlisted, although he was already forty-one years of age, and rose to the rank of Major (references to him during and this period frequently name him simply as "Major Burwash"). At war's end, he spent some time in London, making the acquaintance of Rupert Thomas Gould, a gifted horologist and bibliophile. It was at Burwash's request that Gould made his famous map, one which catalogued and gave the coordinates for every discovery of evidence related to the Franklin expedition.

It's not quite clear which was the chicken and which the egg, but Burwash soon secured a position with the government of the Northwest Territories -- ostensibly to do geological and practical surveys of the Arctic, but with a broad mandate that would enable him to pursue his Franklin fascination along the way. Posted at King William Island for a season, he solicited stories from local Inuit, and was rewarded with hitherto-unrecounted tale of a cache of crates near Matty Island. Two witnesses, Enukshakak and Nowya, recounted finding a stack of twenty-two wooden crates in an area northeast of Matty Island. The crates contained food, including tins, some of which they said were painted red (only the Goldner's tins supplies to Franklin were known to be so). And, although the story has been dismissed by some as simply referring to crates thrown overboard in the vicinity by Amundsen, which amount to twenty-five in number. Still, as Dave Woodman has pointed out, crates don't stack themselves, and those jettisoned by Amundsen were mostly of pemmican, not the flour ("white man's snow") or red tins reported by Enukshakak and Nowya. Most intriguingly of all, these same two witnesses spoke of a wrecked ship not far from their find, three-quarters of a mile offshore.

Burwash was of course tremendously excited by this story. Over the course of the next several years, he made a number of attempts to visit the site and confirm the testimony. And yet, to his everlasting frustration, snow and ice cover repeatedly prevented him from being able to do so. He searched in other areas as well, including the site of Ross's North Magnetic Pole, and the northwest coast of King William Island (with Dick Finnie, a previous 'searcher of the month'). He retired to his childhood home in Cobourg in the mid-1930's, lecturing on his Arctic researches and writing for a variety of newspapers and magazines. Lachlan Taylor Burwash died in 1940, but his findings still hold potential. Several times, through the 1960's, pilots reported seeing signs of a wreck near Matty Island, and the site has never had a thorough archaeological study. With HMS "Terror" still unlocated, it remains a tantalizing possibility.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Armchair Explorers

Image via Wikimedia Commons
In my upcoming book Finding Franklin, I put it this way: "There’s every possibility that the next vital discovery relating to the fate of Franklin’s men will be made by a lone searcher equipped only with a laptop, in the comfort of his or her own study at home." It's an age of information, and in almost every sense -- maps, satellite images, digitized books and manuscripts, photo archives -- there's a greater wealth of material available to the 'armchair explorer' today than at any previous time in history. The Franklin relics at the National Maritime Museum, the narratives of the Franklin search expeditions, and digital maps showing traditional Inuit place names, all are now at anyone's fingertips who wants them. Most intriguingly, since we now know that HMS "Erebus" lies in water shallow enough that it can be seen from the surface, the idea of using satellite imagery to help find "Terror," or perhaps even smaller Franklin sites on land, seems far less improbable than it once did. There's a good deal of satellite imagery out there publicly (though the best resolution isn't free), and even Google Earth, despite its limited definition in the North, offers a way to put various finds together into a custom-made mapping system.

But although one's armchair is a fine and private place, it's not without its perils, as the cautionary tale of a Canadian teenager who claimed to have discovered a lost Mayan city reveals. The searcher, fifteen-year-old William Gadoury of Qu├ębec, had been using star constellations to find correspondences with the placement of cities, and according to press reports, found one star without a known city that matched. With some help from the Canadian Space Agency, he obtained some fairly detailed telemetry of the site, and found a promising square shape that he believed was an ancient city covered with undergrowth. Alas, according to the experts who have since weighed in, it's more likely to be a fallow field, or perhaps a marijuana plantation, though there's still some talk of taking a team to visit the site just to see if it holds any surprises.

This apparently 'false positive' shows the limits of such technology. What's really needed, in addition to visual telemetry, is a system such as LIDAR which is capable of penetrating surface cover and creating detailed imagery of physical terrain. Such a system was used by archaeologist Sarah H. Parcak this year to search for possible Viking settlements in maritime Canada, leading to a much-vaunted claim of having found several. Work on the ground, though, has yet to yield unambiguous results, and the radiocarbon dates from the sites explored gives a range from 800 to 1300 A.D., which doesn't necessarily confirm -- although neither does it exclude -- the finds being Viking-related. The site supposedly had evidence of 'turf walls,' along with bits of "bog iron" that suggested the possibility of smelting activity, but no items of definitive human manufacture.

Which brings up one of the limits of the armchair/satellite method -- it can indeed locate potentially promising spots, but can't definitively identify anything without work on the ground, which still requires the expense and time of proper archaeological investigation. Still, with very large data sets such as LANDSAT now freely available, it's certainly a valuable way to sort out the promising from the unpromising, a particularly worthwhile endeavor in the Arctic, where the shortness of the search season makes every day count.

And it's not only with on-site archaeological work where armchair searchers can make significant contributions. New images of Franklin's officers, new interpretations of surviving documents, and new understandings of the equipment supplied to Franklin, have all been discovered and developed by dedicated amateurs. What's more, since this work is undertaken in a collective spirit and regularly shared -- via sites such as the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook group -- it has enabled multiple minds to focus on a single question, often yielding fresh interpretations that would be much harder, if not impossible, for any lone individual to discern. And this is the other way in which such groups can make a difference: even once something is discovered, its significance still takes time to understand, a process that can be greatly accelerated when people with many different areas of interest and expertise are part of the crowd.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Franklin Searcher of the Month: L.A. Learmonth

Few men in northern service were as rugged and hardy as Lorenz Alexander Learmonth. Like Dr John Rae before him, he was an Orkneyman, and prided himself on being able to get wherever he needed to go on his own resources, often arriving before, and remaining after, anyone else. And, throughout his time in the Arctic, he took every chance he could to follow up on his longstanding fascination with the fate of the Franklin expedition.

Like many young HBC recruits from Scotland, Learmonth first served as a clerk at the tender age of nineteen. Called away for military service in WWI, he returned in 1919 to become the Post Manager at Port Harrison (now Inukjuak), the first of many assignments. Notably, he was one of the men called upon in 1937 to set up a new post at Fort Ross at the entrance to Bellot Strait. Most of the men and materiel for the site arrived aboard the venerable HBC steamer Nascopie and the sloop Aklavik. but Learmonth insisted on traveling to his new assignment on his own, making his way from his post at Gjoa Haven aboard an old whaleboat towing a canoe. Bad ice conditions delayed him several times; he eventually abandoned the whaleboat and finally made it though by portaging the canoe for twenty miles over part of the Boothia Peninsula. His long journey was only the first of his troubles; just as the ships were leaving, Learmonth was climbing from the rigging of the Aklavik to the Nascopie when he fell to the deck below, suffering injuries that were hard to assess, given the absence of doctors or x-ray equipment (it turned out later that he had broken three ribs). The captain of the Nascopie wanted him the come back south for medical treatment, but Learmonth would hear nothing of it, insisting on staying. To assist him with his recovery, and in running the post, a young carpenter named Don Goodyear -- a man who had loudly declared that he "hated" the Arctic -- was left with him; one wonders as much as how Learmonth survived such forced company as that he managed to recover from his fall.

Back when the ships had been anchored nearby, and before his arrival from Gjoa Haven, Dick Finnie (subject of a previous "searcher of the month" posting) and an RCMP man attached to the group had uncovered an old cairn containing a sodden and illegible note inside a stoneware jam jar, very likely the one McClintock had described leaving near the site (which he called "Depot Bay") in 1859. Learmonth took a keen interest in the find, as he'd already developed a strong Franklin fascination; the spring before, he'd organized a sledge-trip from Gjoa Haven to the purported site of Schawtka's "Starvation Cove." At a site twelve miles west of that place, said to be known in Inuktitut as "Tikeraniyou," Learmonth and his comrade D.G. Sturrock had uncovered the skeletal remains of at least three men, along with a George IV half-crown and a sailor's large ivory button. A few years later, in 1942, Learmonth found another skeleton near Washington Bay on King William Island, along with two skulls on the beach near Tulloch Point. Several times over his career, Learmonth searched other sites, including the location of Ross's Magnetic Pole, recording his finds in his journals and diaries.

Learmonth finally retired in 1957. Aside from a 1948 article on the Franklin relics he'd found, which appeared in the first volume of Arctic, he published no account of his searches, although typescripts exist of at least one longer account. Fort Ross, which had always been difficult to supply due to unpredictable ice conditions, was abandoned by the HBC that same year, its final post manager and his wife evacuated by an emergency airlift (the Nascopie having foundered and been destroyed in a storm the year previous). Learmonth's Inuktitut name was Eetungalik, 'the one with eyes wide open,' which could have been a comment on his appearance, or might suggest that the Inuit had a high level of regard for his perceptive powers. In either case, he was certainly among the more sharp-eyed and persistent of those who searched for remains of Franklin in the 1930's and '40's.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Paul Fenimore Cooper

It may come as a surprise to many to learn that a descendent of James Fenimore Cooper -- his great-grandson Paul Fenimore Cooper -- made significant contributions to the search for remains of the Franklin expedition. It's appropriate, in a way, that this scion of an author known for his writing about the western wilderness in centuries past should find himself drawn to the tale of a lost Arctic navigator and his men.

Cooper was born in 1899, and grew up in relative privilege, attending  the prestigious Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut, then Yale University and Trinity College, Cambridge. He showed an interest in writing early on, and served for a time as the editor of Yale's campus humor magazine, the Yale Record. His primary career was as a physicist, but he regularly returned to his literary pursuits; his best-remembered book is probably the children's tale Tal: His Marvelous Adventures with Noom-Zor-Noom, which has been reprinted as recently as 2001. But it was with his long out-of-print account of the Franklin mystery, Island of the Lost, published in 1961, that he made his most significant contribution to the literature of the Franklin search.

In the book, Cooper offers a comprehensive history of the island, which he refers to by its Inuktitut name, Kikerktak (Qikiqtaq in modern orthography). He begins in glacial time, and tells of the arrival of the earliest pre-Inuit Dorset people as well as their more modern followers. He then gives an account of all of those expeditions -- George Back, James Clark Ross, and Dease and Simpson -- whose journeys took them to, or at least, near, its shores. Cooper then gives a succinct account of the arrival of Franklin's ships; while he was well aware of the 'standard reconstruction' (his correspondence with R.J. Cyriax, now at the Canadian Museum of History, was voluminous), he believed that the 1848 abandonment served a dual purpose -- to get to a place where there was game (the mouth of the Back River) and thence to dispatch a smaller party, using lightened ship's boats, to ascend the river and send rescue. His reconstruction also includes the re-manning of one ship, which he places, in accordance with Inuit testimony, off O'Reilly Island.

The latter part of the book gives a good account of those searches that reached as far as King William, and here Cooper was ahead of his time. Unlike Cyriax, who discounted Inuit testimony, Cooper trusts their information, and his book shows careful reading of Hall's and Schwatka's accounts. A brief final coda looks at "King William Island Today," though one has to read between the lines to realize that the last few pages are in fact based on Cooper's own two visits to the island in the early 1950's.

A fuller account of his visit was made within the friendly pages of the punningly-titled Arctic Circular, the relevant volume of which is freely available online. Cooper was accompanied by his wife and his son, Paul Jr.; on their flight to Gjoa Haven they had the pilot fly low over O'Reilly Island, hoping to spot a ship from the air (a hope which, as we've found with the discovery of H.M.S. Erebus in only ten meters of water in 2014, was not unjustified). They then headed up to the northwestern coast of the island, re-locating and occupying a camp left there by L.T. Burwash and Dick Finnie. With them they also brought Father Henry, a well-known missionary then stationed at Gjoa Haven.

On one of these trips, Cooper picked up or otherwise acquired an artifact at Franklin Point that has since grown considerably in significance. It was a plank, its edges smoothed somewhat by weathering, with a large nail or spike protruding sharply through one side. At the time, he wasn't quite sure what to make of it (he never described its discovery in detail) but he did have the good sense to entrust it to the National Museum. It has now been identified by Dr. Karen Ryan of the Canadian Museum of History as almost certainly a piece of deck-planking from one of Franklin's ships. The artifact will be on public display for the first time in 2017, as part of the Museum's upcoming Franklin exhibit; it would also be a lovely turn if someone would -- as did the Arctic Press with Cyriax's book -- undertake to reprint Island of the Lost. It's still a quite good introduction to the Franklin mystery, and one that ought to be on the shelves of anyone who, like Cooper, wishes to re-imagine the last days of Franklin's men.

Cooper retired in the late 1960's, and died in 1970 in Cooperstown, New York -- his family home, named after yet another one of his illustrious ancestors.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

A Chronometer 'Frozen in Time'

It was abandoned in the Arctic, buried in the snow and ice not far from the place that Charles Francis Hall had dubbed "Thank God Harbor," where his bones rested in a hasty grave while those he once commanded scrambled for survival. Manufactured in New York by Thomas S. Negus, it had been given the number 1366, and issued to the "Polaris" as part of Hall's equipment. And, against all odds, it survived four years of exposure to cold and the elements, being found and retrieved by the Nares expedition. Nares brought it back to Britain, to the Hydrographer's Office where naval chronometers were kept, and at their behest it was cleaned, repaired, and returned to the U.S. Naval Observatory, who sent it back to its maker for further adjustment. The experts there reported:

"We have the honor to inform you that we have repaired and put in good order the Chronometer Negus 1366, recovered from the Arctic Regions by the English Arctic Expedition. We found in an excellent state of preservation, considering its exposure through four Arctic winters with the thermometer recording as low as 104 degrees below freezing, as reported by Captain Nares."

Put through its time trials, it was found to be accurate to within two-tenths of a second in twenty-four hours, which Negus noted was "but a slight variation from the rate it had in June 1871, when we rated it for the [Polaris] expedition." It was then decided not to issue it to another vessel, but -- as the logbook of the Observatory indicated -- to "keep it as a trophy for the Naval Museum."

Courtesy U.S. Naval Obeservatory Library
In 1893 it was displayed at the World's Columbian Exposition in the Naval Department, next to one of the chronometers that had been issued to the equally ill-fated Jeanette expedition. The logs of the Observatory chronicle additional minor events in its career, including an additional time spent back at its makers for cleaning and adjustment in 1906. After that, the trail grows cold, and by the time that the historical collections of the Observatory were inventoried in 1993, the only item recorded was the brass plaque that once adorned its wooden case. I've written to the Observatory's library to inquire after it, and have received a number of helpful replies, the effect of which is that they have not yet been able to determine its present location.

It's possible that Negus 1366 was transferred to another agency, perhaps one of the Smithsonian museums, or that it had been leant out for some other purpose, without a record being made, then not returned. I hold out some hope that it may yet found; it's hard to imagine a more storied instrument, bound up so intimately with both American and British exploration in the nineteenth century -- and I have a feeling that, if it is, it will still be found to keep excellent time.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

True Story: W. Parker Snow and the Franklin Relics in Lincoln's Coffin

W. Parker Snow, wearing his Arctic medal
Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction -- an observation that has a special resonance in the history of Arctic exploration. With this post, I'm inaugurating a new occasional series of 'strange things' up north, and it's hard to think of a better candidate for the first installment than William Parker Snow.

Snow, a man who quest for making a name for himself in the Arctic always seemed beset with troubles, is best known for his involvement with the "Weesy Coppin" clairvoyant episode. Although not as well publicized at the time as other would-be Franklin soothsayers, the story of Captain Coppin's daughter Anne, and the "revelations" given her by the ghost of her dead sister Louisa ("Weesy"), later became the stuff of legend. The Reverend J. Henry Skewes, who first broke the story in 1890, met with skepticism in many quarters -- that is, until Snow stepped forward to vouch for it, and more: to disclose that he himself had first been guided to take up the search for Franklin by a message from the spirit world. Early in that search, Snow had served as the second officer aboard the Prince Albert, the first private vessel dispatched by Lady Franklin, and by all accounts served well; on his return he published an account of the voyage, which enjoyed modest success.

His later pursuits -- both navigational and literary -- met with less success. Hoping to command his own voyage in further pursuit of Franklin, he purchased a small ship, the Thomas, in Melbourne, Australia and had her outfitted for a polar voyage. He sailed for the Arctic, accompanied by his wife and a crew of four, in June of 1853, but encountered a storm which damaged the vessel, and dissent among his crew; the voyage was abandoned. He then took up missionary work, heading to Tierra del Feugo and the Falkland Islands, but was dismissed by his employers; at some point during this period his wife suffered a nervous breakdown from which she never recovered. Snow came next to America, where he was briefly allied with Charles Francis Hall, and was engaged by Hall to help him compile and edit his Life Among the Esquimaux. Snow, however, proved to be a most unreliable collaborator, dragging his heels for months at a time with almost no work to show for it, and complaining frequently of "fearful troubles" of an unspecified nature. Hall, exasperated, cancelled their arrangement and finished the book himself, only to have Snow later complain that he, Snow, had written almost the entire volume!

He apparently was having some sort of breakdown himself, but, never one to miss an opportunity, he found a way to insert himself into the preparations for the burial of Abraham Lincoln. Approaching General John Adams Dix, he offered Franklin relics and, remarkably, Dix accepted them. According to the New-York Herald:
Captain Parker Snow, the distinguished commander of the Arctic and Antarctic exploring expeditions, presented to Gen. Dix, with a view of their being interred in the coffin of the President, some interesting relics of Sir John Franklin's ill fated expedition. They consisted of a tattered leaf of a Prayer Book, on which the first word legible was the word "Martyr," and a piece of fringe and some portions of uniform. These suggestive relics, which are soon to be buried out of sight, were found in a boat lying under the head of a human skeleton.’
How Snow would have gotten hold of such things, which could only have been brought back by Sir Francis Leopold McClintock, is a puzzle -- apparently, they were accepted at face value on account of his reputation -- and, so far as anyone knows, they're still in Lincoln's coffin to this day.

Snow's later years seem to have been as unhappy as his earlier ones; after being profiled in the popular Review of Reviews in April of 1893, he wrote a letter to the editors, appraising them of his dire personal straits and offering his library of books for sale to save himself from privation. It's unclear whether such a sale ever took place -- though at least one book from his library, his copy of Life Among the Esquimaux -- eventually made it into Chauncey Loomis's hands. Filled with angry marginal comments pointing to "theft" of his words by Hall, it was one of Loomis's key sources on the Hall/Snow relationship in his book Weird and Tragic Shores. Scarcely a year after writing this letter, William Parker Snow died; according to the DNB, his wealth at death was a mere £80 17s., 0 d. -- the papers with which his small apartment was filled were later sold to the Royal Geographical Society.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Franklin artifacts in dispute?

The big news out of the north this week is that there's a dispute over the disposition of the relics so far -- and yet to be -- retrieved from Sir John Franklin's flagship, HMS "Erebus." Some Inuit organizations, along with representatives of the Government of Nunavut, have invoked the archaeological section of the Nunavut Act to lay claim to the artifacts themselves, or at least to the right to insist that the protocols of the Act be followed -- which include consultation with local Inuit communities, a written application, and evidence that the person or persons doing the retrieval of artifacts has the proper archaeological credentials. According to the Nunatsiaq News, Peter Taptuna, Nunavut's Premier, citing Article 33 of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, says that "there are some disputes on the ownership of certain relics, certain things that are found on the sea-bed."

But there shouldn't be. Despite the fact that the NLCA has a clause stating that "this Article shall apply to marine areas of the Nunavut Settlement Area," there's a long tradition in international and Canadian law that salvage rights belong to a vessel's owner -- in this case, the British government. In the particular case of Franklin's ships, there also exists a memorandum of understanding, signed by representatives of the Canadian and UK government, that states that, once a ship is found, that the ownership of any articles discovered there "shall be transferred" to the Canadian government (though there has not, as of yet, been a formal enactment of this provision by the UK). Furthermore, the site of the "Erebus" (as well as the site of the "Terror," even though it's presently unknown) have been designated as national historical sites, which generally means that federal Canadian law applies and supersedes territorial law.

Parks Canada, to its credit, has -- despite the fact that it may or may not be legally required to do so -- assiduously followed the provisions of the Nunavut Act, and has consulted with Inuit throughout the process; there's certainly no shortage of qualified marine archaeologists among their team. And yet, apparently, the Government of Nunavut has balked, at least once, at allowing the work on the site to proceed. Some of the regional Inuit associations are reported to not want the artifacts to 'leave Nunavut,' apparently concerned that if they do, it might prevent their being displayed in Nunavut near the site in a manner that would help generate much-needed tourist income.

But herein lies a problem: the Nunavut Act also insists that artifacts be properly conserved and stored, and at present, there's simply no place in Nunavut that is capable of doing so. The "Nunavut collection" at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre -- which came into existence with the territory in 1999 -- is full, and in any case, the GN has not appointed any curator, or appropriated any funds, for its care. There are temporary protocols in place that have fixed this problem for now, as the Canadian Museum of Nature has become a designated repository for artifacts found in Nunavut, but of course there's no way to get the items there without their leaving the territory.

Back under the previous government, an announcement had been made that a Franklin centre was to be built in Gjoa Haven, news which -- though welcomed by most folks there -- was regarded with understandable suspicion, since the plan was announced without any consultation with the Inuit Heritage Trust or local Inuit. I think it's the hope there -- it's certainly my hope -- that the Trudeau government will honor this plan but improve upon it, taking the time to make the consultations that weren't made the last time. Having a facility there which could store and display selected artifacts properly would be a tremendous boon the local economy in Gjoa Haven and a source of pride for all Nunavummiut -- and it would, I hope, address the concerns over the disposition of the artifacts recovered, and yet to be recovered, from among the timbers of Franklin's ship.