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. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Franklin Searcher of the Month: William C. Wonders

It may well have been the most ambitious single Franklin search of all time, and -- although its results were modest -- we now know it came agonizingly close to discovering the wreck of HMS "Erebus." It was officially known as "Project Franklin," and much of what we know of it today is thanks to the accounts written by William C. Wonders, a leading geographer of his day and project participant. What follows is largely based on his article, "Search for Franklin," which appeared in the Canadian Geographical Journal (now Canadian Geographic) in 1968.

The search had its origins in the Franklin fascination of yet another passionate amateur, Mr. W.G. McKenzie. McKenzie, an insurance agent then working in London, Ontario, he had a particular conviction that Franklin's grave, which he believed must have been a substantial one, ought to be able to be relocated, given sufficient manpower. McKenzie write to the Minister of National Defence (Paul Hellyer, who is still living as of this writing), with what turned out to be a very convincing proposal. The original plan called for just eight searchers, drawn perhaps from the Naval Training Division, but it grew in the planning to be a substantial land, sea, and air exercise. Part of this was due to 1967 being Canada's centennial year, but the friendly rivalry between various departments and branches of service also played a role, Ironically, as Wonders noted, "what was originally conceived as a naval expedition became essentially a Canadian Army operation, with support from the R.C.A.F., but without one member of the Navy being directly involved."

The search was planned to focus on the former site of the North Magnetic Pole (on the theory that Franklin's grave might be nearby), the vicinity of Cape Felix (for the same reason), and eastern Victoria Island, on the thought that men from Franklin's ships might have reached there. In the later stages of planning, a five-man diving team was added, to be deployed in the vicinity of O'Reilly Island. Two  CH-113A Voyageur helicopters were assigned for transport and support, and a base camp near the DEW-line station at Gladman Point was established early on August 5, 1967. A total of fifty-two men would ultimately participate in the search.

Weather, as it always will in the north, delayed the deployment of some of the teams, and conditions on the ground limited some of their searches, but by the project's conclusion twenty days later, nearly all the target areas had been visited. The team at Cape Felix re-discovered notes left by Henry Larsen in 1949, along with a boot-heel and some Inuit artifacts; searches at Terror Bay, the Clarence Islands, the west coast of the Boothia Peninsula, Taylor Island, the RGS Islands, and the Adelaide Peninsula found no Franklin materials, though numerous Inuit tent-rings and artifacts were observed. It was, for the land searches, a disappointing result.

The land search of the northern tip of O'Reilly Island, however, came up with a number of promising items -- copper sheeting, spice tins, a block and belaying pin, and an oar -- which testified to the possible presence of a wreck nearby. The divers, in Wonders's account, "discovered nothing" -- but as sometimes happens, that wasn't quite true. On a ridge on the island, one of the divers came upon a substantial piece of wood, which -- with the names of his mates carved into it -- he turned into an ashtray and retained as a souvenir! It was, without doubt, a piece of HMS Erebus, as the diver, Bob Shaw, later realized.

William C. Wonders was one of Canada's most eminent geographers in his day; he served a term as President of the Canadian Association of Geographers, and received both the Order of Canada and the Queen's Jubilee Medal. Sadly, he did not live to hear news of the discovery of Erebus; Dr. Wonders passed away on January 24th, 2011. You can read the full text of his article at the Canadian Geographic website.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Finding Franklin

Many readers have noticed my hiatus here at Visions of the North, with only one new post since October of last year. The reason for this, though, is a happy one: I've been at work on the final touches of my new book Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a 165-Year Search, which will be coming out September 1st from McGill-Queen's University Press.

Finding Franklin brings together much of my research on the Franklin mystery from the past twenty years, but there's also a great deal of brand-new material. I spent much of 2015 digging into the history of the Franklin search in the modern era, from Lachlan Taylor Burwash and "Paddy" Gibson in the 1920's and '30's to Barry Ranford and David Woodman in the 1990's and 2000's. I conducted more than a dozen new interviews with archaeologists, journalists, and amateur Franklin searchers, working to create a more complete and detailed picture of what we know, what each search has added to our knowledge, and what remains unknown, or unknowable. In the process, I found that searches for Franklin had been far more numerous and ambitious than I'd previously realized, and that much of what was once found has since been forgotten, with artifacts and human remains shelved away in obscure collections, or simply lost. In fact, between Burwash's first searches in the 1920's and the last of the private searches before Parks Canada became involved in 2008, there were more than fifty Franklin searches.

Finding Franklin sets the stage for these searches by recounting the essential details of the Franklin mystery, and the questions raised by early searchers such as Rae, Hall, and Schwatka. A focus throughout is the Inuit testimony, widely credited for helping to find HMS "Erebus" in 2014, but seldom discussed, or understood in detail. The book also showcases the new ways in which old evidence is being freshly examined, from the question of lead poisoning to that of identifying specific human remains. And, along the way, I offer my own reflections on the meaning of such a search, and reminiscences of my encounters with my fellow-searchers, whether on the glistening  ice of Resolute Bay or in a dim-lit booth in a pub in County Kildare. My book will, I hope, interest and engage both those who've long been curious about the Franklin mystery but have been unsure where to start, as well as those who, like myself, have long ago been bitten by the bug that leads to 'Franklinitis' -- a so-far incurable condition that spurs its sufferers to undertake their own personal pilgrimages to the books, the places, and the artifacts in which the Franklin story resides.

As the book's publication draws nearer, I'll share some of the fruits of my recent work, including a revival of my "Franklin searcher of the month" feature, this time highlighting those whose contributions, though significant, have been largely forgotten. I hope that all who have followed my earlier posting here will continue to do so, and can promise fresh news, and new approaches, to this storied mystery.

Friday, December 25, 2015

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 McCormack, 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 McCormack'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, November 13, 2015

Charles Francis Hall and Robert Kruger

Sometimes it happens that the Internet, derided by some as a great time-waster, enables the sort of serendipity that would never otherwise be possible. Such is the case with Mary Greulich Moran and her great-grandfather, Johann Karl Kruger (known at the time as Robert Kruger), one of the seamen who served under Charles Francis Hall on the ill-fated "Polaris" expedition. In her comment on my earlier post about Hall's murder, she spoke of family stories of her great-grandfather's survival with the party stranded on the ice-floe, in the company of Hannah and Joe, under the command of George Tyson.

And, even more remarkably, her family still had the letter that Hall had addressed to the sailors. Some background: While the "Polaris" was still underway, some distance from her rendezvous with destiny, the regular sailors had complained, with some justice, about the poor fare they were served, while the officers and the German scientific staff enjoyed fine meals. Hall, who had apparently been unaware of this arrangement, immediately ordered that 'thenceforth, all differences between the officers' and enlisted men's messes would cease; they were brothers in a common cause and would eat the same food' (Loomis). The grateful men penned a letter of thanks:
"The men forward desire publicly to tender their thanks to Capt. C.F. Hall for his late kindness, not, however, that we were suffering want, but for the fact that it manifests a disposition to treat us as reasonable men, possessing intelligence to appreciate respect and yield it only when merited; and he need never fear but it will be our greatest pleasure to so live that he can implicitly rely on our service in any duty or emergency."
This letter deeply touched Hall -- so much so that he penned a reply, appending a list of all the crew and signing it with his traditional flourish. This letter must have been greatly valued by Kruger, and it has since been kept in good care by his family for three generations: "Sirs: The reception of your letter of thanks to me of this date I acknowledge with a heart that deeply and fully appreciates the kindly spirit that has prompted you to this act. I need not assure you that your commander has and ever will have a lively interest in your welfare. You have left your home, friends, and country—indeed, you have bid farewell for a time to the civilized world— for the object to aid me in discovering these mysterious hidden parts of the earth; therefore, I must and will care for you as a prudent father cares for his faithful children. "Your commander, “C. F. Hall."

It's not quite clear whether Hall made eleven copies of the letter (but then why list all their names and give only the general salutation "Sirs"?) or whether it was simply circulated among the men, and Kruger ended up with it, which would make its survival even more remarkable.

I am deeply indebted to Mary Greulich Moran for her forwarding a scan of the letter and her permission to publish it; on future blog posts I'll pass along more information about her great-grandfather and his role in the "Polaris" expedition. 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Last Leaves of a Sorrowful Book

Appearing, as fate would have it, just a few weeks before McClintock's news of the fate of Franklin reached England, "The Last Leaves of a Sorrowful Book" captured the elegiac public sentiment about the lost explorers, picking up on passages from letters home from one of Franklin's officers. Their author, of course, was James Fitzjames, Franklin's second aboard HMS "Erebus," and easily one of the most capitvating figures on the expedition -- young, full of energy and passion, and (at one point) expressing his hope to spend 'at least one winter in the ice.' The letters had been reprinted before, in a nautical journal (without Fitzjames's name), though it was fairly clear then that the author must have been one of Franklin's officers on Franklin's vessel. Many years later, these letters formed the inspiration, as well as the opening passages, of John Wilson's novel, North With Franklin: The Lost Journals of James Fitzjames.

This version, published in Charles Dickens's journal All the Year Round, opens with a lyrical elegy to the letters' author, framed in terms of the common fate of death that awaits us all, and the ways in which small relics of the departed still testify to their presence:

At every point of the dread pilgrimage from this world to the next, some domestic trace remains that appeals tenderly to the memory, and that leads us on, from the day when the last illness began, to the day that left us parted on a sudden from our brother or sister-spirit by the immeasurable gulf between Life and Eternity. The sofa on which we laid the loved figure so tenderly when the first warning weakness declared itself; the bed, never slept in since, which was the next inevitable stage in the sad journey; all the little sick-room contrivances for comfort that passed from our living hands to the one beloved hand which shall press ours in gratitude no more; the last book read to beguile the wakeful night, with the last place marked where the weary eyes closed for ever over the page; the little favourite trinkets laid aside never to be picked up again; the glass, still standing by the bedside, from which we moistened the parched lips for the last time; the handkerchief which dried the deathly moisture from the dear face and touched the wasted cheeks almost at the same moment when our lips pressed them at parting—these mute relics find a language of their own, when the first interval of grief allows us to see them again.
It's quite an astonishing passage, and for many years, its author was unknown. Unlike Dickens's previous journal, Household Words, the contrubutors' book for ATYR was lost, and until quite recently no one had any means of verifying who had written a given piece (there were no by-lines). But recently, with the discovery of a set of ATYR annotated by Dickens himself, these hundreds of little mysteries have been at an instant solved -- and, though I'd long guessed that Dickens himself was the writer, it turns out that it was Wilkie Collins, whose play, The Frozen Deep, had served as a more public, dramatic elegy for Franklin some three years previous.