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.