Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Victory Point Record

It is perhaps the most evocative document in the long history of the Western exploration of the Arctic regions: a single sheet of paper, a pre-printed form with two handwritten messages written not quite a year apart. The first, full of optimism, describes the Franklin expedition’s achievements up through May of 1847, including the circumnavigation of Cornwallis Island, and ends with a forceful “Sir John Franklin commanding.” The second, written in a tight scrawl around the margins, tells of the death of Franklin (only weeks after the first record was made) and many other officers and men, the abandonment of his ships, and a plan to trek overland to the Back River.

A facsimile of this record, brought back from the Arctic by Sir Francis Leopold McClintock, was reproduced in the Illustrated London News and Harper’s Weekly, and a fold-out facsimile was included in all editions of his book, The Voyage of the Fox in Arctic Seas, in 1859, a book which became a world-wide bestseller. The novelist Joseph Conrad credited this document with “letting in the breath of the stern romance of polar exploration into the existence of a boy,” and setting him off on “romantic explorations of [his] inner self.” It has been the subject of more speculation and analysis than any other piece of paper this side of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and yet it is far from yielding up all its secrets.

So what can we learn from this record? Well, we can learn the direct information it conveys as to the location of the ships and the disposition of the crew, and so forth. But we can also glean a great deal more. To give just two examples: First, as William Battersby has noted, the first note is entirely in the handwriting of James Fitzjames; this is unusual, as Franklin would ordinarily have signed these himself; a note tossed overboard earlier in the expedition was signed by him. We may infer from this that, for some reason, Franklin must have been unable to write the note himself; that he died only a few weeks later suggests that illness may have been the cause. Second: the years of the expedition’s wintering at Beechey Island are given as 1846-7, which is certainly in error; from the headboards at Beechey we know it was the winter of 1845-6. Why would Fitzjames have made such an elementary mistake, and made it in both the Victory Point document and in a second, identical form left a few miles away at Back Bay? This suggests that Fitzjames’s memory was clouded, a potential sign of lead poisoning. Those in the early stages of this condition have problems with forming lasting short-term memory, which progresses to difficulty with accurate recollection of the mid-range past. As Colin Field, an Australian pathologist with whom I’ve consulted on this problem, notes:
“I can imagine a situation where members of the expedition, and in particular the officers, will begin to show gradual problems with memory for recent information, as well as subtle but progressive deficits of organisational function. They begin to make subtle errors; forgetting where they have put things, or whether or not they have issued certain orders. As things progress they become more and more forgetful for events of the recent past. One of the earliest signs of memory deficit is the loss of ability to update, on a daily basis, the current day and date. Failure to be able to name the current day, month and year, and in some cases the current whereabouts, is one of the most telling early signs of all organic dementias, and it is for this reason that mental status examinations always include these orientation questions.”
At the same time, lead poisoning would have no immediate effect on what’s known as “habitual” memory, including things such as how to tie one’s shoes or ascertain one’s position with a sextant. And indeed, we find in the second part of the note that the location of the record – “Lat. 69º37’42” Long. 98º41’” – is remarkably accurate.

But it’s the second note that gives us some of the most suggestive information about the fate of the crews, and the cause of their distress. There is a lengthy aside about how Sir James Clark Ross’s cairn was not found where it was thought to be, and a new cairn erected at the site – a curious waste of precious ink and time – and another possible sign of mental difficulties. The date of death of Franklin, June 11th 1847, is given, but no cause of death or indication of his burial site – another peculiarity. For the rest of the officers, we hear only of Irving and Gore; Gore we now know to have received a field promotion, as he is referred to as “Commander” – and also to have died, as he is referred to as “late.” This has given rise to speculation that Gore, who was in command of the party which left the original paper, must have reached Simpson’s cairn at Cape Herschel, returning with the news just in time to be promoted by Franklin as a reward. Of course, it is entirely possible that he was simply promoted as a matter of course after Franklin’s death when Fitzjames became Captain. With Lieutenant Irving, his name comes up only in the context of the description of the search for Ross’s cairn – and yet here lies a further mystery, as a body believed to be Irving’s was found not far from this very spot by Lieutenant Schawtka’s searching expedition years later. How could Irving, who was well enough to be scouting about in 1848 at the start of the southward march, have died near the very place where it began? Is this a sign of an attempted return to the ships at a later date?

Next, there are the overall casualty figures for the crews: 9 officers and 15 men. There were 24 officers on the two vessels, including the Ice Masters, and 105 men; this gives an officer casualty rate of 37% as opposed to only 14% among the ordinary seamen and marines – a remarkable ratio. Why did nearly twice as large a proportion of officers die? If we assume that lead poisoning was a key factor, we may attribute this to the officers’ consuming more of something – tinned food, in the Beattie theory, distilled water, in the Battersby solution – which impaired their health significantly. Alternatively, it’s been proposed that a large party rich in officers – perhaps a burial detail – was lost in some accident, skewing the overall ratio. Whatever the cause, the difference is far too large to be accounted for by random chance.

Finally, we have the enigmatic, and deeply unsatisfactory addendum in Crozier’s hand – “and start on tomorrow 26th for Back’s Fish River.” Was this the destination of the entire body of men who abandoned the ships? Or was it, as David C. Woodman has argued, simply a large detachment of men gone in search of food and possible Inuit contact to aid their less able comrades? Having reached that area, was the plan to ascend the river – a perilous journey filled with rough portages that Back, a famously able Arctic traveler, condemned as one of the most difficult journeys of its kind – or rather to track to the southeast in the direction of Repulse Bay, in hopes of meeting with Inuit or whalers?

These, then, are the central questions raised by the Victory Point record, and which may never be completely resolved until some further record or evidence is found. And yet, even in all its ambiguity, it continues to be a rich source of fascination, and the terrible irony between its two messages will always evoke what Conrad called “the tragic ending of a great tale.”


  1. What is the effect of lead poisoning on a person's handwriting? The part written by Fitzjames incorrectly stating the winter at Beechey Island as 1846-47 seems to be quite clear handwriting.

  2. Handwriting is a learned habitual activity, as above, and as such would not be affected until a more serious level of lead poisoning was reached. Nevertheless, an expert might learn something by comparing Fitzjames's hand in the first note from that in the second, bearing in mind that the first was written on board ship in comfortable quarters, the second out on the land in very cold conditions.

  3. "This note was found under the cairn supposed to have been built by Sir James Ross..." I read this to mean that Ross' cairn was gone but that a cairn did exist which had been mistaken for the actual Ross cairn. That Graham Gore and party left the note under this cairn of unknown origin. (Perhaps James Ross built more than one carin in that area)?

    It always weighs on my mind that much of the information gained from the Victory Point note is inferred. For example the ships were "deserted." To me this implies that the ships were undamaged because they were "deserted" not "abandoned." However I'm never quite sure how much faith to put in this interpretation. It's a bit like seizing on Crozier's "and start of tomorrow 26 for Back's Fish River" and extrapolating that to mean they were headed up that river to the HBC outpost.

    Also, the note gives very precise Longitude and Latitude for Beechy Island. Plotting this in Google Maps gives a point on the shore of Devon Island, to the East of where the ships were anchored. Was this the location of an observatory?

    Just think of all the speculation that would surround Robert Falcon Scott had the snow around his tent been only a few feet deeper. We are very lucky to have this document. McClitock said that the rusting exposed tin was nearing its end when Hobson found it.

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  5. Russell,

    Thank you very much for all your assistance and thanks for putting this piece together. This truly is a fascinating record, but for me, raises more questions than it answers. At the risk of exposing myself as the novice that I am - a quick question before diving into this subject. Did the expedition circumnavigate Cornwallis Island in 1845, before wintering in or after they left Beechey Island in 1846?

  6. Cyriax in his study expresses the prevailing view that Franklin circumnavigated Cornwallis Island in 1845 prior to wintering on Beechey -- in a season when, presumably, a southwestern route from Cape Walker was closed, thus making this choice consistent with his orders -- and then, the following season, found the route south via Peel Sound that led him to the place where his ships became trapped in the ice off the coast of King William Island.

  7. "Having wintered in 1846-47 at Beechy Island ... after having ascended Wellington Channel to Lat 77and returning by the West sided of Cornwallis Island."

    The "1846-47" is thought to be a mistake. It probably should read "1845-46." There is a good amount of evidence to support this. So they did navigate Cornwallis Island (they proved it to be an island) in 1845 prior to wintering at Beechy.

  8. Okay, I just bought a copy of Cyriax’s book – thanks for the link, Russell. I look forward to reading what he has to say.

    In a part of the world where it can take you 2 years to move a mile, I realize distance is not a function of time, but what we do know is that it was August before the expedition started making its way through Baffin Bay. The Prince of Wales and the Enterprise said that the expedition had been held up for a few days waiting for the bay to be clear enough to navigate. For the expedition to make its way through Baffin Bay, Lancaster Sound, past Beechey Island, up Wellington Channel, overtop of Cornwallis Island to the northern tip (Lat. 77) of Devon Island and then travel back around the west side of Cornwallis Island and then back east to Beechey Island before icing in, to me seems like a lot given the time of year.

  9. “All Well” – Really!?!?

    As Russell says, this type of record would normally be filled out by Franklin himself. The fact that it wasn’t, suggests that all was not well. Given that we later find out that Franklin would be dead in a little over two weeks time and others who had died before him did not die suddenly, would suggest that all was not well. This is a sledge team that is going to deliver a message at the end of May. I can understand sledge expeditions venturing out in the winter time, but to be sending out a team at a time when then would likely be preparing for break-up seems odd. If in fact it was evident that with the ice conditions they wouldn’t be going anywhere, then that would suggest all was not well.

    Just my thoughts.

  10. The term "all well" is a general term -- even if Franklin were known to be on his deathbed, it simply meant that the expedition, as a whole, was believed to be progressing effectively.

    Sledging was never done in the winter, unless in an emergency -- the extreme cold, darkness, and enjambed ice made that the worst time of the year for sledge travel. Spring was the ideal time -- temperatures were higher, daylight by April nearly day-long, but coastal ice not yet melted. And the ice would never have broken up in May, or even June; July would have been considered an early break-up. So there would, in May, have been plenty of time for optimism about the eventual break-up of the ice.

    Interestingly, the Inuk guide Adam Beck found a date-post at Beechey with the date "3d Septmber 1846" written on a "shining skin" (probably painted metal). If this was the date of departure for the Erebus and Terror, it suggests that the ice break-up in 1846 was very late indeed, and that indeed they enjoyed only six days of clear sailing before becoming beset.

  11. Hi Russell,

    Another fascinating post and some very astute comments, too.

    Just a small point first about the handwriting on the Notes. As far as I know, only three of these Notes have been recovered. The first was a routine report thrown overboard on 29th June, 1845 off Greenland, and the other two were the two notes deposited by Gore's party on King William Island in 1847, one of which was reused to become the Victory Point note. I stand to be corrected but I believe all three notes were originally completed by Fitzjames. The difference is that the first one was signed by Franklin, whereas the later two were not strictly signed by anyone, Fitzjames instead writing 'Sir John Franklin commanding the Expedition' in the space for the Commander's signature. That makes me think that Franklin was probably incapacitated by then, but of course it's anyone's guess.

    Now, Chris Valade's comment set me thinking about a line of enquiry I've been pursuing for a little while using google earth. I think the Note is pretty ambiguous over whether the voyage North to 77N took place in 1845 or 1846. I hope my 'netiquette' is right on this one, but I'll post my thoughts on my own blog because I think it's a bit too long to be a comment on yours, and I also don't want to hijack your blog. Hope that's OK.

    Google earth I think makes it a lot easier to analyse these voyages in high latitudes where the projections on most published maps tend to distort. I should think it's possible to put all the points and tracks associated with the Expedition on and share them - but I don't know how. I wonder if some clever geographer / geek could tell us how?

    Thanks for all your thoughts

    Happy Easter, all!


  12. Hello William -- wonderful to hear from you in this conversation. You may well be right about the report thrown overboard; I have never seen an exact copy. The other note on KWI is discussed in detail in Cyriax's essay on the last two notes and is, as you say, nearly identical with the Victory Point note; the adding of "Sir John Franklin Commanding" in place of the commander's signature is indeed a bit ominous.

    It's not inconceivable that the circumnavigation of Cornwallis took place in the second season, although if Adam Beck's date-post (mentioned above) is credited then it must have been the first season.

    That's a great point about Google Earth. I'll look forward very much to your posting on your blog.

    all best,


  13. p.s. that should be 9 days -- from the 3rd to the 12th of September 1846 -- in my earlier post.

  14. Have to say I'm really enjoying this discussion! Russell, I defer to your expertise on these matters. Just one thing I’ll add to the mix. I’m sure there were others, but the three expeditions that I’m aware of, where iced in ships have been deserted were the: Advance, May 20, 1855; Resolute, May 1854 (?); and indeed even the Erebus and Terror, April 22, 1848. To me, this would suggest that there might be some indications early in the spring as to their likely success or lack of, for the coming season.


    P.S. A possible explanation for the date on the date-post – perhaps the date was the date the expedition arrived in Erebus Bay, not departed. Instead of reading “3d Septmber 1846”, it should have read, “1845”. Maybe Fitzjames put up the date-post!

  15. pps. I downloaded Google Earth about a week ago and there are quite a few Franklin expedition markers already there.

  16. Hi folks,

    Re: Mike's comments

    1) The point about abandonment in the spring I think is this. It was not driven by sophisticated weather forecasting but by supplies. For the Franklin Expedition it would have been obvious, once the ships were not freed in the summer of 1847, that they would never sail out of trouble because by autumn/fall 1848 at the latest they would be out of supplies. But by autumn/fall it would be too late to do anything that season. The maths is difficult because we do not know how many mouths there were to feed at each point, and how successful they had been in supplementing their stored rations with fresh food. So walking back in the spring of 1848, as soon as it became possible to move, and hunting / trading for food along the way, was the only option.

    2) About the date-post. Fitzjames had a strong and whimsical sense of humour. Some of his comments and jokes are still funny today, which is not always the case with 19th century humour! When he was on the Euphrates Expedition 1834-1837, he was responsible for a stretch of road which the Expedition was using in northern Syria, and he amused his comrades by putting up an imitation of an English country 'finger-post' with the words "The Road to India" on it. It's rather like those signposts you sometimes see at Airpots with "Berlin, 6,229 miles" on them. So maybe he really DID put these signs up too...

    3) Re: Beck. Perhaps what Beck saw on the sign was "3rd September, 1845", which would tie in exactly with the date suggested by Sherard Osborne for the Term Date at nearby Cape Riley. I'd suggest there are already two misreadings in what Beck reported: 1) "3d" for "3rd" and 2) "Septmber" for "September". Not blaming him in the least - he was not familiar with writing in English - but in that case we perhaps shouldn't attach too much to the "5" vs. "6" issue - they look quite similar in 19th century script anyway. If that 1845 date is true, then that makes this massive voyage North in 1845 seem rather less likely to me.

    4) Google Earth. I've put some markers on it but I'm not sure whether they can be publicly viewed. If we could get accurate positions publicly loaded and shared I think it would be really helpful. Just check out on Google Earth how far EAST of "to the west of Cornwallis Island" is from Beechey Island and you'll see why I wonder whether they really went back to Beechey from that far west.

    I'll be very interested in what else you know about Beck, Russell - I suspect he is yet another misunderstood source in all this.



  17. Judging from contemporary writings (for example, Franklin's Journey to the Shores of the Arctic Ocean, "3d" was a normal abbreviation for "third".