Monday, December 20, 2010

Trafalgar Chronicle 2010

Following our notice of NIMROD, there's one other annual publication that's often a treasure trove for Franklinites and other Arctic aficionados -- the Trafalgar Chronicle, Year Book of the 1805 club. Although its main focus is on all matters involving the British Naval campaign against Napoleon, along with Naval memorials and Nelsoniana in general, the "TrafChron," as it's known around here, has often included material on Franklin, since he was present at the battle of Trafalgar and is thus considered a campaigner, albeit one who was far better known for his later career. Under the able editorship of Dr Huw Lewis-Jones, there have been a number of recent articles of interest, most prominent among them that on Lieutenant Henry Le Vescomte, which appeared in the 2009 number.

This year's issue sees a number of scholars whose names will be familiar to Arctic history buffs, among them Dr Lewis-Jones himself, along with Glyn Williams, Andrew Lambert, E.C. Coleman, and myself. And, although my article is the only one that deals specifically with Franklin, these other contributions will surely be of value to anyone with an interest in Naval affairs of this period. Lewis-Jones offers a remarkably vivid and engaging account of the career of Lord Nelson's star of the Order of the Bath and the role of such relics in the cult of naval history; Williams has an account of Patrick O'Brian's early novels, set prior to the Napoleonic era; Coleman contributes an account of the career of George Vancouver; and Lambert an essay on the Royal Navy's White Sea Campaign of 1854. My own contribution, "Some Unresolved Aspects of the Franklin Expedition," is based on the talk I gave on that subject at last year's Shackleton Autumn School in Athy, Ireland. In it, I give an overview of a variety of still-unresolved questions about the final fate of Franklin's last expedition, with notes on recent discoveries, including that of Robert McClure's HMS Investigator just this past summer.

The astute reader will also discover two other articles with Arctic connections: James Davey's piece on the career of Sir James Saumarez, who was a key mentor to and supporter of Sir John Ross, and Barry Smith's "Gone Aloft: Some Maritime Memorials at Kensal Green Cemetery," a delightful guide that would have been of great use when, last October, I visited the cemetery with Dr Lewis-Jones, Kari Herbert, and Kenn Harper; it clears up the issue of the legal care of each plot, the shape and extent of the catacombs, as well as the actual location of each of the deceased, including that of Lady Jane Franklin in Catacomb B, 12059, Vault 61, Compartment 1. Even the "Notes on Contributors" provides matter of interest, not the least by mentioning E.C. Coleman's recent book, The Grail Chronicles, in which he claims to have discovered the Holy Grail in Lincoln Cathedral. As with every number of the TrafChron, it's an annual that no historian worth his or her salt will want to be without.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

New issue of NIMROD

Although I wasn't able to attend the Shackleton Autumn School in Athy, this past October, I'm delighted to report that the latest issue of NIMROD, the school's journal, is now available. Editor Seamus Taaffe has brought together a fine and representative array of papers, most of which are drawn from talks given at last year's meeting.

In addition to an excellent overview of the school's many highlights over the past 10 years by my good friend Joe O'Farrell, this issue offers some impressive examples of the kinds of high-quality, wide-ranging papers presented at last year's meeting. It would be false modesty not to mention an essay on which well-known Arctic author Kenn Harper and I collaborated; it details the remarkable history of very early Arctic films -- all made in or before 1920 -- featuring Arctic scenes and Inuit people, particularly Nancy Columbia. Kenn was able to present a few clips from these rare films at last year's meeting, while others were shown in a programme arranged by Dr Huw Lewis-Jones and myself; this article gives the remarkable backstory to how these films -- including 1911's "Way of the Eskimo," the first Inuit-written, Inuit-cast dramatic film in history -- were produced. The essay is richly illustrated with stills, adverts, and on-set snapshots, many of them never before published, from Kenn's extensive collection.

Another highlight for me is Michael H. Rosove's "The Great Books of Shackletonia"; as was his talk last year, it too is richly illustrated with covers and title pages of the books he describes, many of them extraordinarily rare. Bob Headland also contributes a fine piece on "Historic Huts of the Antarctic from the Heroic Age," and Jim McAdam gives his account of Shackleton and Fur Sealing on the Falkland Islands. Three informative book reviews by Paul Davies, Kevin Kenny, and Robert Stephenson round out the volume, which is well-printed on good, heavy-weight stock and stoutly bound. At just €12 each, it's an extraordinary value; copies may be ordered online here.

Next up: the new issue of the Trafalgar Chronicle, also just published, offers a trove of articles, many of them looking to the Franklin expedition. Watch this space for a full account.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Talk on James Fitzjames at Durning LIbrary

On Monday, 17th January, the Victorian-era splendor of the Durning Library will host a talk by William Battersby on the life and career of James Fitzjames, based on his research for his recent book James Fitzjames: Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition. For those who may not be familiar with this remarkable venue, it's in the borough of Lambeth and readily accessible from central London; the address, for Google and GPS users is 167, Kennington Lane, London, SE11 4HF, a brief walk from the Kennington tube station on the Northern line.

Mr Battersby's talk is hosted by the Friends of the Durning Library; it begins at 7:15 p.m.; according to the description on his blog page, "The Friends will provide light refreshments and there is no admission charge, although a £2.00 donation is suggested." Among the many other aspects of this fascinating subject, Mr Battersby promises to touch on "the intriguing links between Kennington and James Fitzjames himself." It's certainly an event which I would very much want to attend, were I to be anywhere in the greater London area on that evening; for those who are unfamiliar with Mr Battersby's book on Fitzjames, I recommend it highly -- there's much within that has never been guessed at by earlier Franklin researchers.

[Photo of the Durning Library by Derek Harper]

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Franklin Curiosities: Ron Toelke

A few months ago, in one of my installments on Franklin Curiosities, I mentioned the small toy replica tins of Goldner's Patent Provisions crafted by Ron Toelke. Since then, I was very pleased to be able to get back in touch with Ron, and learn about some of his more recent artistic creations. Among the most remarkable of these, without doubt, are the portraits in his series A Sorrower on the Sea of Doubt. Based upon the famous Franklin daguerreotypes taken by Beard and his assistants in 1845, these portraits each incorporate Toelke's hand-cut portrait of the sitter on metallic paper, along with four lines from the poem, Lady Franklin's Appeal to the North, first published in the New York Times on October 18, 1851. Each portrait is framed on tombstone-shaped marbled paper, surmounted with an image of the Arctic Medal with the north star at its peak. The cover glass of each portrait is treated with a special finish that crystallizes into its own unique icy pattern. Although I have not seen one of these works in person, they're certainly among the most striking contemporary versions of the portraits of Franklin's men that I know. The collection takes its name, "Sorrower on the Sea of Doubt," from the last line of the poem.
Toelke's many other projects are no less commendable; he has another toy set, Battleships of the World, which are wonderfully crafted of wood, paper, and paint. He is also at work on a set of Arctic playing cards, which will be based in part on similar souvenir decks produced in the 1850's, with illustrations taken from the books and illustrated papers of the day. To my mind, this is just the sort of artistic endeavor which brings together the fascination with the old with a new sense of what craft and care can produce; no Franklin collection would be complete without something of his work.

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Echoes in the Ice" at Canada Science and Technology Museum

Canada's Science and Technology Museum is hosting an exhibition, "Echoes in the Ice: History, Mystery, and Frozen Corpses," which runs from now through March 20, 2011. This exhibition had its origins in a series of collages by artist and filmmaker Rik van Glintenkamp, illustrating various aspects of the search for the North Pole and the Northwest Passage. The idea was to combine these images with an array of original relics of Franklin's last expedition, educational videos, and the evidence for cannibalism. The resulting show offers an impressive array of set-pieces -- my favorite is a replica of John Hartnell's original grave-board on Beechey Island with a full-size image of his exhumed corpse -- along with a judicious selection of actual artifacts. A boot-heel, modified with nails, was once worn by one of Franklin's men, who -- never supplied for overland travel -- had to improvise their footgear and garments from materials on board their ships. Other artifacts include tins of Goldner's provisions and a barrel lid on loan from the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, along with period instruments such as sextants and maritime compasses. Texts and photos from the 1993 excavation of the site known as Ng-Lj2 were prepared with assistance from Margaret Bertulli and Anne Keenleyside, two of the lead archaeologists on that survey. Photos of skeletal remains, many of them showing the cut-marks made by men in their last, desperate moments, complete the grim picture.

As the press release describes it,
"The stories are told using images, audio-visual presentations, and artifacts. With the mandate to observe everything from “flea to whale,” the Franklin Expedition relied on the scientific and technological instruments of the day during their search for the Passage. Instruments and objects dating from the same period as the Franklin Expedition are on display, including navigation tools, and a brass-bound mahogany case containing a set of surgical instruments used for post-mortem dissections."
It's certainly an exhibit that will hold enormous interest for anyone who has been following the continuing story of our effort to understand the final days of this ill-fated expedition.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Arctic Box Bait-and-Switch?

News that the box unearthed from under the Gibson memorial in Gjoa Haven did not contain any Franklin records came as no surprise to those of us who have been following the story -- least of all to Kenn Harper, whose research clearly showed that all that had ever been buried there was an Amundsen record and photograph. But these, too were missing, as was the white marble slab which was supposed to have been incorporated into the monument. This puzzled us all, until I read this post on Ken McGoogan's blog, in which he recounts his conversation with Louie Kamookak, Gibson's grandson. According to this posting, the Amundsen record, as well as the marble block, had been removed from the cairn a few years after their deposit by another party of HBC employees, and had been deposited in the Yellowknife archives.

I was stunned to think this was possible, and this morning searched the online archives of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre; prior to the establishment of the territory of Nunavut in 1999, this is where all such artifacts would have been deposited). And, although I didn't find a listing for the Neumayer photo, the marble slab (or at least a photo of it) is indeed there. Its description, complete with a spelling error, makes its identity clear: "White marble plaque place by Amundsen in 1903 at Gjoa Haven. The plaque is 1/2 mile east of the settlement. Amundsen left many records under this."

That the stone could have ended up at PWNHC would not, in other circumstances, be a surprise; they have many such artifacts, including the original grave-boards of the Franklin crewmen buried at Beechey Island (the ones on Beechey are replicas with bronze nameplates). But that the Government of Nunavut, the Porter family, and a bevy of lawyers would have taken the time, the trouble, and the expense to dig up a box whose contents were not only known, but safely on deposit in a government archive, boggles the imagination. The official press release states that "despite the fact that the box did not contain the objects originally thought to be inside, this was an important project to undertake given the potential significance of these items and their importance to the local community." Well, if that makes sense, I've got some "Franklin" records buried in my back yard that I'd love to have the government help me re-landscape.

No public word yet on how or why this non-story ever got the funding and attention it did -- and my experience tells me not to hold my breath.

UPDATE: Kenn Harper has pointed out that the photo at PWNHC appears to be from the 1940's, prior to either the stone or the record having been moved to the Gibson monument -- so there's no clear confirmation as of yet whether they have either of the actual physical items.

UPDATE II: I have just had confirmation from the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre that they do hold items "related" to the Gjoa Haven find -- they won't be specific, though they confirm they have "a photograph" and a "small bit" of the marble slab, saying these items are now part of the Archives of Nunavut, and under its jurisdiction.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Grylls' Route

After a good deal of jiggering around with the route-tracing page on Bear Grylls' site, I managed to get a close-up view of his journey as he passed by the NE corner of King William Island. As you can see in the comparison shot here, he passed almost exactly through the area I'd initially thought, nipping the NE corner of Qikiqtarjuaq Island. It would seem to me that the locality of the "uncharted" islet on which these graves and other remains were found must have been in the immediate vicinity of Cape Sabine, or else possibly near the unnamed bay to the north of Cape Edgeworth. Still no word from Mr. Grylls, but let's hope he continues uploading photos to his page here -- maybe we'll see something of what he has described on his blog.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

New Franklin Find Claimed

In a story first noted on William Battersby's blog, adventurer and television presenter "Bear" Grylls has claimed a new Franklin find off the coast of King William Island in Nunavut. The exact location of the find has not been disclosed, although it appears to be somewhere off the northeast coast of the island. In Grylls' account, on the northern side of a tiny islet they dubbed "Jonesy Island" after their engineer, they found signs of three large fires "on the side of the island abutting Wellington straight [sic]" which they surmised to be signal fires lit to attract rescuers; they also found "part of a mast" blown up on shore, whale-bone pins, stone tent circles, and "human remains buried in western looking graves."

Since their initial description is rather vague (they even describe the area as "uncharted" though that's clearly not true), I can't say for certain whether this specific site is, in fact, previously known. That Franklin survivors would burn scarce wood as a signal seems a bit farfetched, unless they actually believed a ship to be nearby, and if indeed the site dates to the Franklin era, any grave would be "western style" since Inuit of this period did not build permanent graves of any kind. The tent circles could be Inuit; an expert eye would be needed to tell, and probably a closer site survey; bone pins suggest pre-contact Inuit, and that the site was in use well before the arrival of any Europeans.

On modern charts, the description seems to match the area of the Tennent Islands, the largest of which is Qikiqtarjuaq (not to be confused with the island of the same name off Baffin Island). And there is, in fact, an Inuit account of Franklin materials from this area; the Inuk Hall knew as See-pung-er (the same who was among the first to obtain materials from near Point Victory) said that "he had also seen a monument about the height of a tall man at another point between Port Parry and Cape Sabine." Hall asked him if he had torn down this cairn, and See-pung-er answered "only enough to find something within." This something, Hall was disheartened to hear, was a tightly-sealed tin canister which was "full of such stuff as the paper on which Hall had been writing," and since it was "good for nothing to Innuits" it had been given to the children, or thrown away. See-pung-er went on to say that he and his uncle had camped near the site, wrapping themselves in blankets they found in a pile of white men's clothing; he further mentioned that a "kob-lu-na's skeleton" lay nearby.

So the new "discovery" sounds to me very much like the same site, or one closely related to that seen by Grylls and his party. It's possible that some of the surface artifacts were unrelated to Franklin's men, but the description of the graves certainly sounds telling; they also saw a small scrap of blue cloth, which could be connected to the pile of clothing, or one of the graves. The site should certainly be visited by trained archaeologists, as there has not, in modern times, been any effort to retrace Franklin men's footsteps in the northeast area of King William Island, though it is fairly clear that some of them must have fled there, or paused in their flight elsewhere.

This story has since broken into the public press, with an article in The Independent on Sunday which gives Grylls' account in a way similar to when it was first posted on his own blog; the persons consulted by the reporter seemed to feel this was new news -- but in fact, as in so many cases, it's most likely a site already visited by Inuit early on after Franklin's men perished, and documented in Hall's notebooks.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Alleged Franklin Records in Gjoa Haven

This is a guest column written by Kenn Harper at the invitation of Russell Potter.

Tomorrow Walter Porter, an Inuk in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, promises to excavate the logbooks of the lost Franklin expedition from beneath a cairn in his community where, he says, his grandfather buried them over four decades ago. It would, of course, be a fantastic discovery and, like most, perhaps all, students of the Franklin saga, I wish his promise would be realized. But I expect that it won’t be. Here’s why.

In 1958 Eric Mitchell, a Hudson’s Bay trader, dug up records left by Amundsen in Gjoa Haven in 1905. They were, according to Mitchell’s own reminiscences, buried just under the white marble slab that Amundsen had used for his magnetic observations. Paddy Gibson, an earlier HBC trader, had previously unearthed them in 1927, looked at them, made copies, and reburied them in the same spot. Gibson wrapped the records in some old newspapers of the day, before reburying them. He mentions it in an article he wrote in 1940 (“Amundsen in King William Land,” The Beaver, Outfit 271, June 1940, 32-38).

Coincidentally, William (“Paddy”) Gibson was the grandfather of Louie Kamookak of Gjoa Haven, a researcher with a long-standing interest in the Franklin mystery and who doubts that the records that Porter will unearth have anything to do with Franklin.

Eric Mitchell was assisted in his excavation by George Washington Porter, an Inuk. The records were in a rusty tin canister. [Gibson described it as an iron box.] Mitchell took the records out and photographed them. He remembers that the records included a photograph of Dr. Georg V. Neumayer who had taught Amundsen about magnetism. In Norwegian and English there was a message saying to report any finding of this cairn message. But there was also a record in English only, saying that the box and its contents should remain where it was found.

In fact, it seems that the focal point of what Mitchell and Porter found was the photograph of Neumayer and that the rest of the contents of the metal container comprised the message that Amundsen had originally left. In 1940 Paddy Gibson wrote, “In a few moments the iron box was unearthed, and later the photograph carefully removed and exposed to view. It was an old-fashioned photograph of a dignified old gentleman with long silvery locks, bearing the following endorsement in English: ‘With best wishes for success exploring the North Magnetic Pole. To my friend Roald Amundsen, Thursday, 3rd Febr’y, 1902. Georg V. Neumayer.’ On the back of the photograph Captain Amundsen had written in Norwegian the following (the translation is from his own narrative): ‘In deep gratitude and respectful remembrance I deposit this photograph on Neumayer Peninsula. Gjoa Expedition, 8 August 1905. Roald Amundsen.’ A footnote in English requested the finder to leave the box on the spot.”

Mitchell’s reminiscences continued. Paddy Gibson died in a plane crash near Coppermine in 1942. The HBC determined to erect a monument to him in Gjoa Haven. They eventually sent up a plaque that they wanted put on a cairn. The plaque had apparently been in Gjoa Haven for some years but the cairn never erected, perhaps because there was no white man in charge of the post at Gjoa Haven. Mitchell was posted at Spence Bay. Gjoa Haven was run by George Washington Porter, an Inuk, as an outpost of Spence Bay and under Mitchell’s direction. The HBC sent Mitchell a rough plan of what they wanted the cairn to look like.

In the winter – I don’t know which winter - Mitchell travelled by dog sled from Spence Bay to Gjoa Haven and called in at the DEW-Line site at Mount Matheson to get cement for the cairn. But, because it was winter, no cairn could be built at that time. So Mitchell entrusted the instructions for the cairn and the cement and the plaque to Porter, with instructions to build the cairn in the coming summer, and rebury the record that he and Porter had earlier dug up. Mitchell told Porter to make the marble slab under which he and Porter had found the records an integral part of the cairn.

Before Mitchell left, he and Porter put the records in an envelope, then wrapped it in two pages of the Nautical Almanac for that day (the day that winter when they prepared the records for the subsequent burial by Porter). Eric had the Nautical Almanac because he was an avid student of navigation. They also wrapped them in an Edmonton newspaper. Then they took the package to Porter’s wife, Martha, and got her to sew the lot in "rubberized cloth." [Walter Porter, in the recent news report, calls this wax-treated canvas.] Then Eric put it all back in the canister or metal box. They got a wooden ammunition box (the kind of box that HBC shipped ammunition in) and filled half that box with tallow and then placed the cannister in that tallow "bed" in the box, then filled the remainder of the box with tallow, thereby enclosing the cannister in tallow before putting on the wooden lid.

Mitchell left all this with Porter. That summer Porter built the cairn. Mitchell was not there when the cairn was built so he is uncertain as to whether the records were buried and then the cairn built on top of them, or if the records are an integral part of the cairn. But he is certain that Porter, as a loyal HBC employee, followed his instructions and conducted the burial. (To anyone familiar with the company and its relationship with native employees of the time, anything else would be unthinkable.)

All of this is consistent with the elements of Walter Porter’s story - the burial of the records without any white man present. One can imagine George Washington Porter perhaps gathering a few family members together as he prepared to conduct this important task of burying the records that had been entrusted to him by Eric. I don't know how much Porter knew of Amundsen and Franklin, but probably the younger generation who were his helpers and witnesses for this solemn and important task had little understanding of whose records they were. They would have known only that they were important and that the task that Porter had been asked to perform was an important one. Over the years, as the search for Franklin's records and ships became an important subject in Gjoa Haven, this story took on a life of its own. Amundsen becomes Franklin. Or more simply, the buried papers become Franklin's papers.

Walter Porter also refers to a role played by the Roman Catholic priest, Father Henry. He claims that Father Henry had somehow acquired the records and given them to his grandfather. I don't know where Father Henry fits into this, nor can I explain the part about the Inuk who allegedly gave the records to the priest. Perhaps that is complete fiction. It wouldn't be the first time that Inuit embellished a story with fiction after the fact, and then ended up believing it. By the way, George Washington Porter, according to Mitchell, was Catholic; his wife Martha was Anglican.

I expect that when the alleged Franklin records are unearthed tomorrow, they will prove to be what Mitchell and Porter unearthed in 1958. They should contain a photograph of Neumayer, the focus of Amundsen’s original deposit. They may contain some ancillary papers. And they should be found inside a metal canister or box, wrapped as Mitchell described, embedded in tallow in an old ammunition case.

If, on the other hand, they turn out to be Franklin records, then I will be surprised but I will also be as happy as Walter Porter.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Buried Franklin Records to be Uncovered?

Here's a curious story, which I've known about for over a year, and is finally going public: in the midst of the Inuit hamlet of Gjoa Haven, under a memorial to "Paddy" Gibson, some believe there is a cache which contains lost records of the Franklin Expedition, perhaps even Franklin's diary itself! So now at last I am free to speak of it.

Gjoa resident Walter Porter, whose grandfather helped bury the records, is convinced that they are Franklin's. His own father kept the fact secret until not long before his death, when he confided in his son the details of the burial of the records. The news story today at says that the cache is to be opened on Saturday, September 4th, so Franklin buffs the world 'round will not have long to wait!

But I myself do not believe these are likely to be Franklin records. For one, had any records of Franklin's been found by Paddy Gibson, he would likely have done what the Porter family hopes to do now: announce the news to the world, and receive the public interest and gratitude such a revelation would almost certainly elicit. No, I believe these are much more likely records of Amundsen's, who was known to have left several chaches in the area, one of which was found by Gibson, buried by him and then uncovered and reburied in the 1950s under the Gibson memorial. Nevertheless, whichever they are, there will of course be considerable historical interest in their recovery, and rightly so.

Having talked very extensively with Walter Porter, I know that, although he is anxious to have these records uncovered, he emphasizes that his interest is not in personal fame, but in bringing attention to the community of Gjoa Haven, and the situation of the Inuit in general. He repeatedly expressed to me his hope that this discovery would benefit the hamlet of Gjoa Haven, perhaps by drawing additional tourists, perhaps through the establishment of some kind of permanent museum. In a town where more than 1,000 mostly young residents must find their way through life when there are only a couple of dozen year-round jobs, it's an understandable desire. At the same time, though the agreement mentioned in the article specifies that the documents be returned to Gjoa Haven, it also appears to stipulate that they remain the property of the Porter family -- this seems quite a remarkable agreement, as any records found would seem to be more fittingly regarded as national property.

Curiously, the legal correspondence about this excavation -- some of which I have seen -- was prepared by an Inuk lawyer whose name is Lillian Aglukark. Her surname, as fate would have it, is the same Inuktitut name which the Inuit used to refer to the mysterious last leader of the Franklin survivors -- a name which Charles Francis Hall spelled as "Aglooka."

There is only one way to find out what really lies beneath these stones -- and on Saturday, though I am doubtful, there is no one who would be more surprised and delighted were these to turn out to be some of the long-lost records of the final Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin.

[photo courtesy of Walter Porter]

Monday, August 30, 2010

No Franklin ships this year

As the Canadian Press put it in their article today, "Arctic Ship Searchers Come Up Cold this year." It's not the news we had all hoped to hear, but it's not entirely discouraging either. I have always felt that a large part of the difficulty in finding traces of Franklin's ships is that the area is, simply put, too vast to be searched without a significant, concerted effort over a period of time. Compared to the total area in which the ships may possibly be found, only a tiny percentage has ever before been systematically searched; by adding (by all accounts) a significant area to that total, this years's expedition increased the likelihood of success next year. According to the article, the team searched "150 square kilometres of sea floor under the waters near O'Reilly Island on the east side of Queen Maud Gulf." Some of this area, of course, had already been covered by Dave Woodman's earlier magnetometer searches, although that search may possibly have missed non-metallic targets, so in any case the news represents a meaningful step forward. I hold out great hope for next year's survey, and that the Canadian government and Parks Canada will redouble their efforts - and that they may find at least some trace of one of those long-lost vessels.

Friday, August 27, 2010

New Franklin Drama

The history of Sir John Franklin on stage and screen is a lengthy one, and goes all the way back to Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens's stage-play, The Frozen Deep, in 1857. I now hear that there's to be a new, more experimentally-minded Franklin drama put on in Chicago at The Building Stage. Entitled "The Franklin Expidition" (not sure whether this is a typographical error or a sign of the pernicious influence of Inglourious Basterds) it's billed as a "completely unique original production," one which "rather than telling the story of any single expedition ... uses the character of Franklin to get at the heart of exploring, embracing the risk of vulnerability and the unknown, and the universal challenge of connecting our everyday actions with our deepest desires." Well, I'm not sure what exactly this means, but I'm certain it will be worth seeing if you live in or near the Chicago area. I'll keep everyone updated as more details on the production emerge; tickets go on sale September 1st.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Track of CCGS Laurier

[UPDATED AUG 29] As noted in a response to an earlier post, the CCGS Laurier's online track shows a route rather different than expected (thanks again to Dave Woodman for alerting me to this possibility). Using, one can get almost hourly updates on the vessel's current location, which shows that, rather than remaining in Queen Maud gulf, it ascended the eastern coast of King William Island as far as Matty Island. Some have inferred from this that the searchers are following up on latter-day Inuit accounts, collected by Dorothy Eber, of one of Franklin's ships being in this area, but although that's possible, I'm not sure how much we can infer from this ship's tracking data. For one, the searchers have the use of two launches, the Gannet and the Kinglett, which could enable them to conduct surveys independently of the Laurier. For two, the Laurier, a multi-purpose vessel with many tasks, may well be moving in response to other needs and obligations -- servicing navigational beacons, search and rescue, and so forth.

The August 19th update from Parks Canada is consistent with this; it indicates that
With the two Canadian Hydrographic survey launches, Gannet and Kinglett readied prior to arrival, the marine search began immediately with a side-scan sonar deployed from each launch. The side-scan sonar is towed from the stern of the launch vessel, offering an acoustic image of the sea floor. During surveys with the side-scan sonar, our team will systematically cover as much of the targeted area as possible.
It's a little frustrating that the update doesn't mention the exact location of the "targeted area," but it's clear that it's in Queen Maud Gulf, as they mention consulting ice charts of that area. I'm relieved to learn that this is indeed the area of their work, and that they're focusing on covering as wide of an area as possible in the available time; I'm certain that's the right approach. After all, readers will recall that, in the search for RMS Titanic, Bob Ballard's team and a rival French outfit were trolling the ocean back and forth in just such a manner; thanks to good luck (and perhaps some historical tips, or intuition), Ballard was the first to locate her.

As of August 29th, the Laurier seems to be retracing its route, which -- if indeed the launches did manage some means of operating independently -- could mean that it is returning to pick them up. Only time will tell.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Investigator Doc Available Online

For those who may have missed its first airing, you can now get CPAC's new doc on the re-discovery of HMS Investigator on demand here. It's an interesting show, though it seemed to me to have quite a bit of filler (at least from the point of view of someone interested in the discovery of the ship itself); I could have done without the shots of Inuit playing golf (at one of only two golf courses north of the Arctic Circle!) or talking about how much good an oil pipeline would do for the local economy. Nevertheless, the central part of the program is quite gripping, and well-done; you really get the sense of the scene in Mercy Bay, and there's some remarkable new footage from the ROV camera. There's also an excellent segment on the ground search, the cache, and the graves which offers more insight and detail than has appeared in press coverage so far. If you are looking, as was I, for the meat rather than the potatoes, I recommend you skip forward to around 34:38 -- that's when the really interesting stuff begins!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Update from Franklin survey

There is now an update page from Parks Canada giving some more current information on this year's search for the ships of Sir John Franklin. According to the information there, the search area at present is indeed in the area near the Royal Geographical Society Islands; as of the last date in this posting (August 15th), the CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier was located between the RGS Islands and Jenny Lind Island. I'm hopeful that upcoming responses to public questions sent via Twitter may give us some more current information; I will post a link here as soon as there is any news.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

CPAC Documentary on HMS Investigator

The world of new-media "insta-documentaries" is getting more and more "insta" by the minute -- the Parks Canada Twitter Feed now announces a documentary of the rediscovery of HMS Investigator is soon going to be broadcast -- you can see the trailer here -- and will air on August 22nd, 25th, and 28th. From the tone of the trailer, a leading note will be the sovereignty issues related to the ship's discovery ...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

HMS Investigator's Copper Sheathing

The most significant aspect of the recently discovered remains of HMS Investigator is not where the ship was located, nor is it the graves found onshore nearby. Rather, it's the copper sheathing of her hull, so brilliantly visible in the most recently released video, a frame of which I've placed here for reference. Thanks to the low oxygen content of the frigid waters of Mercy Bay, the copper is not completely tarnished; indeed, underwater currents seem to have almost polished parts of it. The individual nails, as well as the Roman numerals used to mark off the draught of the ship during loading, are plainly visible. And, while some parts of the sheathing have been shredded or torn off entirely, in other areas it is nearly intact. This is significant for two reasons: 1) It shows that the ship was not heaved up by the ice in such a manner that the copper was readily accessible for any length of time, or the Inuit would surely have recovered more of it; and 2) We can conjecture, therefore, that less copper was recovered from this vessel than was earlier believed, which makes it more likely that copper found to the south and east near the Adelaide Peninsula came from some other source.

Could that mean the "Erebus" and "Terror"? Possibly, although evidence has recently surfaced which seems to indicate that neither vessel was given copper sheathing (see my earlier blog post here). Nevertheless, many of the ship's boats would have had it, and copper in other forms could have been recovered from the wrecks. Since the theory that the Investigator herself drifted to the area where Franklin's ships were abandoned is now disproved, the copper found there takes on potentially new significance. Of course, the copper could have been acquired by trade, but some bits of it, recovered by Hall, still bore the Royal Navy's "broad arrow" mark. It seems unlikely that this copper would have been traded such a distance without being cut up or reworked. I'm in the process of trying to get some images of Hall's copper; the Smithsonian has recently begun photographing artifacts from his collection, such as this lovely copper arrowhead. If any of it bears additional markings, it may well be possible to trace it further, and now that we can discount the Investigator as its source, it may be much more significant.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Thoughts on McClure and HMS Investigator

In October of 2009, I was wandering among the tilted and neglected gravestones of London's Kensal Green Cemetery, in very good Arctic company -- my companions were Huw Lewis-Jones, Kari Herbert, and Kenn Harper. We had already found the graves of Sir John Ross and Sophia Cracroft, but time was growing short: darkness was about to fall, and the cemetery would soon be closed. The one further grave we sought was that of Vice Admiral Sir Robert John Le Mesurier McClure, the man officially credited as the first to traverse the Northwest Passage, and the last commander of HMS Investigator.

Was this crooked path between toppled stones "avenue 5"? Whose grave was this? Or this? We criss-crossed the twisted matrix of graves, passing by a placard which read:

It was hardly encouraging. And then, just at the last moment, I looked more closely at a sarcophagus-sized slab of pink granite, its edges encroached on every side by insolent grass. I rubbed at it with the toe of my shoe, and pieced out "THE NORTH WEST PASS..." Here it was.

Huw took some time to clear the stone, pushing back the grass and dirt with the help of a pair of borrowed gloves. One might imagine that the grave of the man officially recognized as having achieved the greatest dream of British navigators of the nineteenth century would have received more care -- but, as I found later, every grave at Kensal Green is the private property of the family of the deceased, and receives only such specific care as the family may provide. This grave, surely, ought to have received something more.

I thought about this grave when I heard of the re-discovery of McClure's ship, HMS Investigator, in Mercy Bay. A more remote place in the Arctic Archipelago is hard to imagine, and the sheer endurance of McClure and his men in the face of winter after winter of diminishing prospects is astonishing. That there were only three graves found on the nearby shore, and not thirty, is an enormous testament to McClure's leadership. In April of 1853, at a point well beyond that at which any rational man would have abandoned all hope, the men of the Investigator saw a speck on the horizon. Was it some kind of animal? No, it was a man! And, once it drew nearer, it was a man who spoke. As George Malcolm Thomson describes it,

He called : 'I am Lieutenant Pim, of the Resolute. Captain Kellett is in her at Dealy Island' (a hundred and sixty miles to the east). McClure and the lieutenant rushed forward and grasped his hand. In an instant, the scene on the ship was transformed. The invalids leapt from their hammocks. The artificers dropped their tools. The deck was crowded with wildly excited men.
It is difficult to fully comprehend the joyous ebullition of McClure's men -- and astonishing to think that it is this same deck, once crowded with overjoyed sailors, which we are seeing for the first time in 156 years. She now lies at the bottom of the crystal cold waters of Mercy Bay, almost precisely where she was upon that fateful day.

So, while I am a little annoyed by the very highly choreographed array of press releases, net-friendly videos, and hyperbolic tones of the coverage of this event, I am at the same time very deeply moved, and feel called upon to remember the courage of those men. Although Canada was, as yet, some years in the future, the spirit of that emergent nation was clearly manifest in the cheers that went up from that vessel on that day.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

HMS Investigator Found

The BBC News website has posted a story announcing that HMS Investigator has been found by the Parks Canada team. Of course, it was no great mystery where the Investigator was, but there were a few speculations as to its condition. Some had even argued that the Investigator might, like HMS Resolute, have drifted east and been the source of reported sightings of the Erebus and Terror, or that the mast seen by the men of the Anderson expedition was hers. These theories, at least, can be laid to rest.

According to the Parks Canada team, the ship is upright and in remarkably good shape; according to Canadian Environment Minister Jim Prentice, "You can make out all the planking on the deck, the details on the hull, all of the detail of the timber." Hopefully, it will not be too long before some of this imagery is shared with the public, particularly the Canadian public who have provided the funding and resources used to locate the vessel. No word yet on the copper sheathing. The only other detail is that the archaeologists have relocated the three graves (why do Arctic graves always seem to come in threes?) of members of the expedition who died of scurvy. Apparently inquiries are being made as to the disposition of these human remains, but the plan for Investigator herself is to leave the ship undisturbed.

Friday, July 23, 2010

BBC Coverage of Franklin Search

The trickle of news stories about this summer's Franklin search continues, this time with a refreshingly well-informed and in-depth piece from the BBC News website. While the article gives some account of the overall plans, the focus is on the search for the remains of HMS Investigator. We learn now that the team will be headed by Parks Canada archaeologist Ryan Burns, assisted by Jonathan Moore and Thierry Boyer. According to this story, the team headed by Harris will head up to Mercy Bay via Twin Otter, where, with the assistance of an unnamed Inuvialuit guide, they will begin their search. It's not quite clear when they will arrive, but I was interested to see that this same team, after its work at Mercy Bay is completed, will by flown to the icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and will participate in the search for the "Erebus" and "Terror." This is encouraging, as it suggests to me that both parties will have sea and land search capability. I'll keep readers of this blog posted as I hear of any new developments.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

German coverage of 2010 Franklin Search

In the 1850's, the search for Sir John Franklin captured the attention of all of Europe, with headlines in every language. McClintock's narrative was translated into French and German within a few months of its publication, and international interest in further searches remained strong.

Now, with a renewed search this summer, the Franklin story is once again attracting attention in the EU, particularly in Germany. German interest has always been strong, spurred by the immense success of Sten Nadolny's novel Die Entdeckung der Langsamkeit (English: The Discovery of Slowness) in 1983. A week or so ago, I heard from Gerd Braune, a journalist in Ottawa, that he was preparing a piece on the new Franklin search for several German-language papers. He asked for, and I gave him, permission to use a photo I'd taken of the Franklin expedition graves on Beechey Island.

Just yesterday, he sent me copies of the resulting article. It's available here at, and you can also see .pdfs of the large, illustrated versions in the Luxemburger Wort as well as Die Rheinpfalz. The articles are informative and well-written (I don't read or speak German, but my daughter has been studying the language for some time, and was able to translate them for me), and contain a few additional details -- my personal favorite comes at the end, where perennial Franklin pointman Louie Kamookak muses laughingly that, if the ships are found based on his information, he may henceforth be known as "Sir Kamookak."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

More on this summer's Franklin search

The CBC has just come out with a report giving some fresh details of this summer's search for the "Erebus" and "Terror," the ships of Sir John Franklin's last expedition. According to this article, the searchers have secured three weeks' use of the CCGS Sir Wilfred Laurier this August. Strangely, Robert Grenier's name is not mentioned, but Ryan Harris, described as a "senior marine archaeologist" is quoted describing the mission, and the inevitable Louie Kamookak is also set to be on board. The search is to concentrate on the "waters southwest of King William Island," a description which could take in any area on the western coasts of the Adelaide Peninsula, or in eastern Queen Maud Gulf. The exact method or area of search are not described, though presumably the hope is to locate some initial targets, and use side-scan sonar operated from the vessel to obtain more detailed imagery. It's not clear whether, as Grenier has in the past done and called for, associated land-based parties will be looking for other physical artifacts.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Expanded 2010 search for Arctic Ships

Thanks to Kenn Harper (who sent me a link to the story) and Randy Boswell, whose reporting on this issue has always been a great source of updates on the Franklin search, I can report that Parks Canada -- in addition to the continued search for the "Erebus" and "Terror" under the direction of Robert Grenier -- is also planning a summer search for the remains of Robert McClure's HMS Investigator in Mercy Bay.

This story, reported via the CanWest news service, and available at the site of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, indicates that Marc-Andre Bernier, who like Grenier is an underwater archaeologist with Parks Canada, is hoping to use side-scan sonar to locate the remains of the Investigator in Mercy Bay; there will also be archaeological excavations along the bay's edge, near the site where McClure cached supplies in 1853.

The project will not, according to Bernier, have any impact upon the search for Franklin's ships, which is still planned for "late August." Although the article doesn't say so, I expect that this is because the search for McClure's ship will be conducted from atop the bay ice, drilling and dropping sonar booms, whereas the Franklin search is apparently still counting on open water to conduct its search from aboard a research vessel.

Certainly, it would be of great value to be able to get some visual images of the Investigator, if for no other reason to ascertain the state of the copper sheathing of its hull. This sheathing had already been significantly damaged by the ice before abandonment (McClure reported that it was hanging in ribbons from the sides), but also because there was said to have been significant recovery of this copper by the Inuit. If indeed a substantial proportion of the copper is missing, this would confirm that Inuit did come into possession of this prized resource, and might correlate with the finds of copper in the region, some pieces of which bore the "broad arrow" of the Royal Navy. I'll certainly pass along anything further I can learn about this exciting development.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Halkett Boat

One of the lesser-known aspects of both the Franklin Expedition of 1845 and those who searched for it in the ensuing decade and a half was their use of the Halkett inflatable boat. Just today, I saw that the current featured article on the Wikipedia is a quite thorough and informative one about the Halkett Boat, and wanted to bring it to the attention of everyone here.

The Halkett boat was the brain-child of Peter Halkett, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. It was singular not only for its use of waterproofed rubberized cloth to make an easily portable inflatable boat, but for design features which rendered it especially valuable for use on expeditions where both land and water travel might be rendered necessary by conditions such as drifting ice, open leads in the water, or difficult portages. He even developed a version of the boat which could be disassembled and worn as clothing -- this is the type shown here. The sail doubled as an umbrella, and the oars as walking sticks; the boat itself could be disassembled and "worn" as waterproof clothing by two men.

The design earned early praise from Sir John Richardson, who was likely the one who recommended it for Franklin's use. The design had only just been finalized, with Halkett having tested it on the Thames in 1844. The boat brought by Franklin was not, technically speaking, an officially-supplied item, but Halkett was eager to hear how it might perform in the Arctic, and Franklin was willing to give it a try.

Remarkably, there is a body of Inuit testimony which confirms the use of a Halkett boat; their description of it is accurate enough that there can be little doubt they saw one in use:
"[Aglooka had with him] a boat that had places on the sides that would hold wind ... with hollow places in the sides for wind (air) to hold it up when in the water ... There were sticks or holes for this boat, to keep it open (spread) when needed. This small boat was wrapped or rolled up in a bundle or pack, and carried on the shoulder of one of his men" (qtd. in Woodman, Unravelling the Franklin Mystery, p.309).
Unfortunately, since John Rae's and James Anderson's parties were also equipped with Halkett boats, and Rae was also known as "Aglooka," it's very difficult to determine with certainty whether or not this Inuit account refers to Franklin's men. It's widely assumed that some of those who crossed Simpson's strait did so in a Halkett boat, though accounts of an overturned whaleboat on the mainland side suggest this is not the only viable explanation.

But for more on this remarkable invention, I can only recommend the Wikipedia entry, which is far more detailed and better illustrated than anything I have seen in printed sources.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Baldwin: Hero or Villain?

Evelyn Briggs Baldwin is surely one of the least well-known of Polar explorers, and according to some historians, his obscurity is richly deserved. To them, he is a man whose poor judgment was pivotal in the failure of two major Polar expeditions: that of Walter Wellman's in 1898, as well as in the richly-supplied but poorly planned Baldwin-Ziegler expedition of 1901, which he commanded. And yet there is at least some evidence that this blame may be misplaced, and that Baldwin's seeming failures were, in fact, evidence of a wise and hard-earned sense of caution.

Baldwin got his start working as a meteorologist with Robert Peary in Greenland in 1893-4. He apparently caught the Arctic bug, and in 1896 published a weighty tome, The Search for the North Pole. Or, Life in the Great White World. On the title page of this book, which was sold by subscription, he listed himself as a "Member of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, Member of the National Geographic Society, Non-resident member of the Geographical Club of Philadelphia," and "formerly Assistant Observer, United States Weather Bureau." It was a slender portfolio, but his enthusiasm was enormous; the book opened with a ferocious defense of the value of Polar exploration, and continued through accounts of every explorer from the Vikings to Franklin to Peary. Some of the funds thus earned apparently helped him undertake a personal voyage to Spitzbergen in 1897, but his real test came when he was engaged by Walter Wellman as second-in-command of the magnate's first Polar attempt (and his only by land) in 1897. There, he led an advance party through truly horrific ice conditions in order to establish depots and a forward camp, while Wellman stayed back at the expedition's comfortable headquarters, known as "Harmsworth House." After enormous hardships, Baldwin succeeded in establishing the forward camp, and left two men there to await the arrival of the full expedition the following spring.

William Mills, in his reference work Exploring Polar Frontiers, blames Baldwin for leaving the men with inadequate supplies, and says that "Wellman himself was horrified" when they arrived to find one of the men dead and the survivor sleeping next to his corpse. Yet as my good friend P.J. Capelotti notes in his book By Airship to the North Pole, Wellman's orders to Baldwin were numerous, contradictory, and in some cases impossible; it was these orders, and not Baldwin's efforts to follow them, that were most to blame. Wellman ignored Baldwin's letters expressing concerns about supplies and conditions; he possessed an optimism as vast as his experience was limited, and complained that Baldwin was "too prone to look on the dark side of things." Neither man, in any case, knew that one of the two left in the camp, Bentzen -- a veteran of Nansen's voyage on the Fram -- had slipped into delirium not long into the winter, forcing the other man, Bjoervig, to care for him for eight weeks before the sufferer finally died. Capelotti has published Baldwin's detailed journal of this expedition, and it's hard to read more than a few pages of it without being overcome by a desire to go back in time and give Wellman a sound thrashing.

Mills seems to think that rumors surrounding the earlier incident would have followed Baldwin to his next expedition, and the only one he was to command. The Baldwin-Ziegler expedition of 1901 had the finest equipment money could buy, and supplies that were lavish when compared to those to which Peary or other polar veterans were accustomed. Not one but three ships were placed at its command, and its base station -- fixed up in the shadow of the Duke of Abruzzi's earlier camp -- boasted solid wood-frame buildings unparalleled since the days of Greely's Fort Conger. Here again, Baldwin had the task of establishing forward camps, and by all accounts did so capably. Mills harshly blames Baldwin's decision to avoid the added weight of tents and sleeping bags for the forward team, as several members suffered from frostbite -- but this was only after they had become lost and disoriented. When the heavily-laden resupply ship failed to reach the base camp, Baldwin did as he'd been told and released a series of message balloons, none of which was found until years later. Receiving no response, and concerned over the dwindling supplies of coal, Baldwin decided to retreat back to safety. His unexpected appearance in Tromsø without results infuriated Ziegler and cost him his command -- but it may well have saved the lives of many of his men.

In later years, Baldwin never tired of telling his accounts; as Capelotti notes, he was a meticulous record-keeper, and his papers are a goldmine of information. Late in life, he set about petitioning the U.S. government for some recognition and financial support in return for his service, but never received either; at the age of 71 in 1933, he was struck and killed by a passing motorist in Washington, DC. A copy of his book -- long ago de-accessioned by a local library, and missing its spine and back cover -- was given to me by a student, and I had to confess that, when I first browsed through it, I had no idea who Baldwin was.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lords Franklin

Over the (now) more than hundred and sixty years since his disappearance, the fame of Sir John Franklin shows little sign of diminishing; in just the past year we've had a new biography, as well as yet another novel (by my count, the seventeenth) based on his life. And setting written texts aside, one of the most enduring sources of interest in Franklin's fate surely derives from the ballad known as "Lord Franklin" or "Lady Franklin's Lament." It was hearing the late Michael O Domhnaill's version of this song some twenty years ago that began my own Franklin fascination, and as time has passed I have accumulated other recordings of this plaintive ballad, a habit accelerated by the digital age. At last count I have more than forty different versions in my music library, and I'm certain that my collection is very far from complete.

The history of the ballad itself and its variants would make a long story, but suffice it to say that about 90% of the versions I know are based on Martin Carthy's 1966 version, released on his Second Album LP. Carthy shortened the lyrics to five well-rounded stanzas, and his slight variation of the source melody (an Irish air known as "The Croppy Boy" or Cailín Óg a Stór) has been universally carried forward. What follows is my own personal account of what I think are the best (and worst) versions, with a few comments on the more notable variations -- I hope that, should this ballad be one of your favorites, I might help you find further versions to enjoy, and avoid the (relatively few) awful ones.

As I say, Michael O Domhnaill's version, with his reedy yet potent voice, was the first I heard, and it remains my personal favorite. The well-known version by Pentagle is also a classic, and John Renbourn's guitar work on the tune is second to none. Another outstanding traditional version is John Walsh's from his album Aon Dó Trí (that's one two three in Irish); another by Take Two (the moniker of two Shropshire lads name of Dave Rolfe and Kevin Arnold) is also memorable. Special mention for over-use of echo should go to Sinéad O Connor's otherwise lovely recording, although rumor has it that an echo-free version is floating around the ether somewhere.

Rockier, or poppier versions also abound; that by the Glasgow-based Pearlfishers is the prize among these, though capable covers by the Tramps, Carmina, or Connie Dover are also appealing. For those who, at the other end of the spectrum, feel that anything more than a raspy a capella is too fancy, the Revels' version on their Homeward Bound CD is to my mind the best of the foke'sull school. I would warn, though, against the traditional version offered by "The Seamen's Institute" -- the tuneless warble of the unnamed singer on their version sounds rather like Sterling Holloway (the voice of Disney's Winnie the Pooh) after a night of excessive mead-guzzling.

One might well ask why a ballad which -- at least in part, and in some versions entirely -- is sung from Lady Franklin's point of view, why there have not been more versions by women. The gender imbalance has been greatly rectified in the digital age, with at least ten new recordings in the past decade. I'm personally fond of Jo Freya's version, with its pennywhistle and concertina accompaniment; Louise Killen's version, from her "Stars in the Morning" album, is also quite enchanting. The vocal treatment by the "Roots Quartet," alas, is far less felicitous; not only is the melody transposed into a modal version, but it's festooned with tinny harmonies that are reminiscent of a Roches outtake.

Lastly, there are a few instrumental-only versions, of which that recorded by Giuseppe Leopizzi and Roselina Guzzo is particularly rich and resonant. The melody has also been appropriated for other songs, among them Bob Dylan's "Bob Dylan's Dream" and David Wilcox's haunting "Jamie's Secret," which transposes the tale of Franklin's loss to the loss of a friend in the North Cascades of Washington State.

I'd be interested to hear from anyone who feels a favorite version has been slighted, or who disagrees with any of my calls!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

NW Passage at Museum of Ontario Archaeology

The many readers of this blog whose interest in Sir John Franklin's last expedition began with, or was stirred by, the work of David C. Woodman, will want to mark April 10th on their calendars. That's the day that the Museum of Ontario Archaeology is hosting the latest event in its Underwater Heritage Program, at which Dave will be the featured speaker.  The day is also packed with talks by other notable figures, among them the archaeologist John McDonald and Commander John Crever CFN (ret.), both of whom will speak to the conditions faced by Franklin on his final voyage.  The highlight, though, will certainly be Dave's evening presentation, "In Search of Terror: Shipwreck Hunting in the Arctic," at which he'll share some of his remarkable experiences from his many Franklin searches, illustrated by seldom-seen photos from his personal collection.

You can get a downloadable flyer with all the details in .pdf format; the Museum advises that the number of tickets is limited, and reservations recommended; they can be reached at (519) 473-1360 or via e-mail at  I'd urge anyone in the area to attend this event; the museum is in London, Ontario, about a four-hour drive from my old hometown of Cleveland, and only 2 hours from Detroit, Toronto, Buffalo, and other major cities.  I'm certain it will be the Franklin event of the year.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Update on ProCom's Northern Search

Many thanks to Michael Wing for sending along an update on ProCom Marine's application for a survey to test their remote sensing equipment. Readers of this blog will recall that such testing was given as reason for their presence in Larsen Sound off the northwest coast of King William Island last summer, at a time when there were intimations that an unauthorized search for Franklin's ships might have been contemplated.

As CBC news notes, "ProCom's latest proposal does not mention Franklin's ships, but the company ran into trouble with the Nunavut government when it tried to look for the lost ships last fall without the necessary permits." Personally, I do wish that they had been simple and direct, if indeed a search for these ships was contemplated, as the apparent response from the Nunavut Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth -- asking them to relocate such tests elsewhere -- would negate their value in terms of the Franklin search. Such searches risk becoming a sort of local political football (or should I say, hockey puck) if they cannot state their real reason for being. While I have the very highest degree of respect for the Inuit of this region, having met and spent some time among them, I can't see how throwing hurdle after hurdle in the way of searchers benefits anyone. Some sort of partnership and cooperation between the communities in Taloyoak and Gjoa Haven and ProCom or other searchers seems very much to the mutual advantage of both, and I very earnestly hope that this will prove to be the ultimate solution.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Voyage of the Karluk

Every so often, I have the good fortune to stumble along an online article or reference that really takes advantage of the Internet as a medium. This was exactly the case with the new Wikipedia entry on the Voyage of the Karluk. A few months ago, I noticed that there was an "at work" tag on the article, and that some energetic person known to me only as Brianboulton (I assume that this is his real name, but it hardly matters) was doing the heavy lifting of taking a lowly "stub" article through to "Feature Article," Wikipedia's highest rating. The author clearly knew a thing or two about the sea and ships, and took advantage of the fact that many of the sources made available via Google Books, such as Bob Bartlett's own account of the Karluk, were out of copyright. More impressively, he was able to get illustrations as well as footnotes from this same source, while at the same time dextrously citing more recent books, and carefully footnoting along the way. It's the kind of burst of energy that refreshes one's faith in the largely anonymous, "crowdsourcing" model of such reference works.

As someone who has contributed to Wikipedia and other online reference projects (such as Citizendium), I crossed my fingers that this entry would pass through, and survive, the Scylla of copyright nigglers and the Charybdis of endless editorial tweaking -- and lo! -- it did. So, while the actual HMCS "Karluk" went down to an icy grave, the article sails boldly through its subject, providing a balanced and informative reference entry where before there was only a dark corner with a few half-hearted scraps mingling with rumors and undocumented sources. It's now a feature article, and may someday soon be right there on the Mainpage! Check it out, and if you have a mind, it's not hard to find am unoccupied corner of that vastest and most perilous region of all -- free online reference works -- where you can ply your pen.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Wamsley Lecture on Isaac Hayes at the Explorer's Club

I feel certain that readers of this blog will be interested to learn that my good friend Doug Wamsley will be lecturing on the Arctic explorer Isaac Israel Hayes at the New York Explorer's Club this February 22nd. Hayes was for many years a neglected figure, despite the fact that his career -- which stretched from the Second Grinnell Expedition under Dr. Elisha Kent Kane through to the pictorial Arctic voyages of the American Painter William Bradford in the 1870's -- was one of the most remarkable of his era. Now, thanks to Doug, that neglect is no more: his book Polar Hayes: the Life and Contributions of Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes (American Philosophical Society Press) gives a comprehensive look at Hayes's career, including his notable service in charge of the largest field hospital of the Civil War, which treated many of the injured from the Battle of Gettysburg.

Wamsley's talk will bring into vivid focus the life of a remarkable but often forgotten explorer, writer, politician and humanitarian who epitomized the rugged and restless spirit of adventure and individualism of nineteenth-century America. Tickets to this extraordinary event are $20 ($5 for students), and reservations are highly recommended; call 212-628-8383, Fax 212-628-4449, or email

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Irving's grave found -- by Woodman!

Readers of this blog will be delighted, I am sure, to learn that I've just received a long and very informative letter from Dave Woodman, who has been following our discussion with some interest.  Included with his letter is a photograph, shown at left, of a stone construction he found on King William Island which he is fairly confident is the same as the grave described by Schwatka, Klutshak, and Gilder.  I very much agree -- and having not seen the photo before, am delighted to find that, as I had thought, a grave of such substance would still be visible today (easy for me to say, of course, as I did not have to slog over the frozen northwest coast of King William Island to find it!).  Woodman identified this structure during "Project Supunger," his 1994 effort to locate the "vault" described by Supunger -- there being two separate accounts by him, one of which seems to describe an adjacent burial which Hall, as well as his translator Tookoolito, believed might contain buried records.  This vault was not found, but as the photo shows, the structure he discovered near the crews' landing place corresponds remarkably well.  Woodman's own key to this photo is as follows:
Comparison of Irving’s grave drawing (Klutschak) with grave found near Crozier’s Landing by “Project Supunger” 1994 (Woodman). A & B – Head and “pillow” stones, C – Side stone with tapering end pointing towards head, D – Large “foot” covering stone still in place
Woodman agrees that a grave of these dimensions could never have been constructed by exhausted men.  In his scenario, though, the 1848 abandonment is far briefer, and the return to the ships far sooner:
You mention that you doubt that a grave of  “such size and form would have been well beyond the powers of any group of stragglers returning to the ships.” Actually the fact that Irving was buried here is one of the main pillars of my contention that a return to the ships did occur in 1848 (otherwise they wouldn’t have been manned in Erebus Bay in 1849 when the Inuit met them), but my assessment is that 105 men didn’t get very far and were back in the ships within a month after finding that they managed only 3 miles a day or so. This is a far different scenario than that the weakened survivors were from the southern “death camps” (which in my scheme are two years in the future). Most of the 105 would have walked both ways (only 1 grave in Seal Bay, then 2 in “Two grave bay” that are probably from this first march) and there would have been plenty of manpower available to build the grave that we found.
This certainly addresses this question.  Woodman's key deductive points, if readers will excuse a Sherlockian rehearsal, are these:
  • The Inuit were never near Victory Point, or Crozier's landing point a couple of miles to the south, until long after all the men had perished.  The Inuit themselves stated that they learned of this site from the Kabloonas; this could not have been sooner than 1859.  The evidence for this is that there was such a large amount of material still present when the first Inuit, such as Supunger and his uncle, arrived -- and that seems very strong evidence indeed.
  • The Inuit describe witnessing the sinking of one of Franklin's vessels.  Since the Inuit had not been aware of the site of the original abandonment, this must have occurred a considerable distance further south along the coast, and later.
  • The Inuit describe the one ship which did not sink as having been manned and piloted, and this is very likely the same ship that was later found anchored somewhere along the far northwest coast of the Adelaide Peninsula (O'Reilly Island, Kirkwall Island etc.).  In order for this to have occurred, there must have been a return to the ships when there were still enough healthy men to pilot it.
  • For all the same reasons, the Bayne account, because it includes Inuit witnesses, can't have taken place near Victory Point or Crozier's Landing.
At Dave's invitation, I'm making his entire letter to me available here, which goes into much greater detail about his argument.  While I don't necessarily agree with every part of it, there's no arguing with the bulleted points.  If we suppose that the officers of the Expedition were not insane, their brains not addled by lead, it's entirely sensible to suppose that they would quickly realize the futility of having all the men travel over land to safety.  A return to the ships, or at least a return by some to a "sick camp" near Crozier's landing point, where fresh supplies could be obtained from the ships, makes sense.  Then, if we imagine that the ice freed them in the summer of 1848 (or 49), it makes sense that they would be re-manned, as they were the best hope of escape.  We can then suppose that they were trapped again, and one of the vessels crushed, off either Erebus Bay or Terror Bay, or both -- the graves there suggest a probable repeat of the sick camp / graves made ashore scenario.  Finally, the remaining ship is once more piloted, probably by a "skeleton" crew of a few hardy sailors, and makes it into Queen Maud Gulf, but no further; a small group apparently left this ship but did not make it out.

Meanwhile, those still at the last 'sick camp' on King William Island sent out one last group of men on foot in search of help, and this is the party the Inuit met met at Washington Bay, and which is responsible for the bodies, with only a prefunctory or no burial, scattered along the southern coast of KWI, ending at the Todd Islets.

My thanks to Dave for sharing his thoughts on this -- and I look forward to comments from everyone else!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Sketch of the life of John Irving

In researching for this blog the manner in which the bones believed to be Irving's were returned, I was delighted to find that the little memoir of his life, published in Edinburgh after his funeral, had been scanned and made available here by Harvard University Libraries. While there is no portrait -- I am unsure as to whether Irving was ever photographed -- there is a frontispiece featuring a lovely reproduction of Irving's maths medal. It's been cleaned up, and the engraved name is quite clear -- certainly, given its size and significance, it's not unreasonable to assume that it was laid within the tomb as a memorial. If you click on the image above, you can see it in much better detail.

I would encourage everyone unfamiliar with this delightful little book to take advantage of the online version. It gives a good many of Irving's letters home in full, and reproduces a sketch he made of the "Erebus" and "Terror" at their final port of call in Greenland. The final letter, enclosed with this sketch, concludes with this poignant reflection:
We are going to have a school for the men, and our Captain reads prayers in Sundays. We are exempt from many of the temptations of the world, and I hope we shall have grace to find that it has been good for us to have been separated from the world, and that God has been with us in all our wanderings. May we submit ourselves to His pleasure in all things.

Irving's Grave, Part III

Let's recalibrate our discussion here, and assume for the moment that it was John Irving in that grave. If so, I would say it's most likely that he died not long after being mentioned in the Victory Point Record -- the evidence for this being simply that a tomb of such size and form would have been well beyond the powers of any group of stragglers returning to the ships. Some have hypothesized that he either led a return party to this ships (Greely), or else that he deliberately remained behind with the sick, and perished among them (Markham). But no matter whose remains were in this grave, there is still one witness from whom we yet have to hear: William H. Gilder, Schwatka's second-in-command. Gilder's account was also published, and is readily available via Project Gutenberg; here are the relevant passages.

He begins by recalling the events of the 27th:
The next day we stayed at Cape Jane Franklin to make a preliminary search of the vicinity. Lieutenant Schwatka and I went up Collinson Inlet, but saw no traces of white men. Henry and Frank, who had been sent up the coast, were more fortunate. About a mile and a half above camp they came upon the camp made by Captain Crozier, with his entire command from the two ships, after abandoning the vessels. There were several cooking stoves, with their accompanying copper kettles, besides clothing, blankets, canvas, iron and brass implements, and an open grave, wherein was found a quantity of blue cloth, part of which seemed to have been a heavy overcoat, and a part probably wrapped around the body. There was also a large quantity of canvas in and around the grave, with coarse stitching through it and the cloth, as though the body had been incased as if for burial at sea. Several gilt buttons were found among the rotting cloth and mould in the bottom of the grave, and a lens, apparently the object-glass of a marine telescope. Upon one of the stones at the foot of the grave Henry found a medal, which was thickly covered with grime, and was so much the color of the clay stone on which it rested as to nearly escape detection. It proved to be a silver medal, two and a half inches in diameter, with a bass-relief portrait of George IV.
So far, so good -- his account corroborates those of Schwatka and Klutschak. But then Gilder adds a detail unique to his account; apparently, some time after the visit by Supunger and his uncle, another Inuk and his son had visited the site:
An old Netchillik, named Ockarnawole, stated that five years ago he and his son, who was also present in the igloo, made an excursion along the north-western coast of King William Land. Between Victory Point and Cape Felix they found some things in a small cask near the salt water. In a monument that he did not take down, he found between the stones five jack-knives and a pair of scissors, also a small flat piece of tin, now lost; saw no graves at this place, but found what, from his description of the way the handle was put on, was either an adze or a pickaxe. A little north of this place found a tent place and three tin cups. About Victory Point found a grave, with a skeleton, clothes, and a jack-knife with one blade broken. Saw no books. In a little bay on the north side of Collinson Inlet saw a quantity of clothes. There was plenty of snow on the ground at the time they were there. Viewing this statement in the light of our subsequent search upon this ground, I am inclined to believe that the grave they found was not at Victory Point, but was Irving's grave, about three miles below there. We saw no evidence of any grave at Victory Point, though we made a particularly extended search around that entire section of the country. The little bay spoken of is also probably the little bay where Lieutenant Irving's grave was discovered. There is a little bay on the north side of Collinson Inlet, but Lieutenant Schwatka and I visited it several times without finding any traces of clothing or any other evidences of white men having been there; and from what we saw at other places it seems almost impossible that there could have been much there as late as five years ago without some indications remaining. The vicinity of places where boats had been destroyed, or camps where clothing was found, were invariably indicated by pieces of cloth among the rocks, at greater or less intervals, for a long distance--sometimes as far as one or two miles on either side, and it would be almost impossible to escape seeing the principal point when led to it by such gradually cumulative evidence.
Here is much interesting new detail: the grave thought to be Irving's was visited a second time. Ockarnawole did not take down the "monument" -- but this appears to be another cairn, perhaps that in which Schwatka found Hobson's note copying out the Victory Point record. He did, however, visit a grave -- correctly surmised by Gilder to be Irving's -- and picked up a jack-knife, quite possibly the same old rusty "clasp knife" found and discarded by Supunger. Most significantly, Gilder places the grave more precisely -- "three miles below Victory Point" at a "little bay." Consulting a modern map (see above), this would seem to place it squarely in the midst of Cape Jane Franklin, which is exactly where Gould puts it (those consulting his map should note that Gould calls the entire inlet "Back Bay," whereas the modern map places the name on the coast and names the inlet "Cllinson Inlet").

Whoever was buried in it, then, I think we can say several things about this grave three miles south of Victory Point:

1) It is adjacent to an expedition camp, which apparently was occupied by some portion of the crew of the "Terror," as well as a considerable amount of material abandoned soon after the crews left the ships. The sledge-harnesses present pose a question -- were they left behind early on, or are they a sign that a group from that ship did in fact return to the vicinity at some later point?

2) It was visited twice by Inuit at some point long after there were living survivors -- first by Supunger and his uncle in the 1860's, who got most of the good stuff (wooden oars, and the wooden pole fastened into the ground), and who opened up the tomb in search of plunder. Secondly, much later, in the early 1870's, by Ockarnawole and his son, who cleaned up some additional material, missing some things due to snow cover.

3) The person buried in the grave was very likely an officer; a great deal of effort would have been required to construct it. He was buried in a dress uniform, and sewn inside canvas as if for burial at sea. Irving's maths medal was -- apparently with purpose -- left there, but was missed by the Inuit. The medal had been there for a long time, as it had left a mark on the rock where it had lain.

So what can we make of this evidence? Does it suggest a return to the vicinity of the ships? If this group was able to reach one of the ships, and resupply, could its members have been well enough to undertake the making of this substantial tomb? Or does the evidence point to an earlier memorial, around the time of abandonment? I'd note also that Schwatka and his men found a similar, though much less ambitiously-scaled burial, a few miles further south, the skull in which was also identified as that of a "white man." Schwatka did not, for whatever reason, bring those bones back with him, and no other human remains beyond that point received anything resembling this kind of formal, labor-intensive burial.