Tuesday, January 5, 2010

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.


  1. The grave suggests a burial around the time of the abandonment.

    If the grave was built by a return party then I would expect similar graves to have been found to the south of Irving's.