Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Tale of a Spoon (Part 3)

"Eothen" Log (courtesy New Bedford Whaling Museum)
When last I wrote, I'd held out hope that the log book of the whaleship "Eothen," which Thomas Barry swore would vindicate him, would -- or would not -- do so. Alas, it does neither, although it does give us some wonderful insights into the daily routine of life aboard such ships.

The vast majority of the notations in the log focus on the weather, the sighting of other ships, and other routine matters. Thomas Barry did not write the log himself, but delegated the task to one Frederick Merrill, a thorough man but somewhat challenged when it came to spelling (he spells his own name "Merel"). He rarely gives details of any shipboard doings, though at a couple of points he finds them worthy of note. On 28 July he writes that "Tonight the first Esquimaux came aboard: men, women, and girls. They gave us whale bones and deer, seal, and bear skins." When it came to the vessel's task in bringing Schwatka and his men north, there is a similarly brief note: "Franklynn [sic] Arctic Search Party," which seems to have been meant as a header for the journal as a whole. Somewhat later, around September, are several stanzas from a whalemen's alphabet song, with lines such as "I is the iron on the staysail-boom fit / J is the Jib that neatly did sit / K is the kelson that lies in the hole / L is the lanyards that take a good hold." There are many other versions of this song -- here's a common one -- it may be worth noting that in the place of the traditional "G is for Gangway," the version recorded by Merrill has "G is for grog, that seldom came 'round."

There's an extensive notation of personal supplies, including an accounting of the tobacco used by Captain Barry -- but no enumeration of the stores meant for the Schwatka group. The log ends before the voyage does; it's likely that it was continued in a succeeding volume, which is not presently available. And there's nothing -- alas -- about spoons. As to the honesty of Barry, we have no further indication here, although it's interesting to note that, despite his claim of having sent the mended spoon to Sophia Cracroft, he apparently didn't. In her own personal copy of Gilder's Schwatka's Search, Sophia added a note on the page where this claim was made: "This is not a correct statement. Barry never sent me a spoon." According to her note, once she read of this claim in the Times, she contacted the firm of Morrison and Brown and "after some negotiation" obtained one spoon -- apparently the mended one -- through the help of Professor Nourse (whose name is familiar to us today as the editor of Hall's account of his second voyage). This doesn't seem to speak well in support of Barry's overall honesty, but without any further information, it's hard to say how this misunderstanding came about. I'm continuing to research the history of these spoons -- I have at hand some papers from the Schwatka family that may prove to be of assistance -- if I find anything more, there'll be a part four.

With special thanks to Peter Collins and Michael Lapides of the New Bedford Whaling Museum for their assistance in searching and scanning the logbook of the "Eothen."

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Last Man Searching

Circular Cairn at Erebus Bay (photo courtesy Tom Gross)
I saw the headline a few days after the discovery of HMS "Erebus" -- "Hay River Man Continues Search for Franklin's Grave" -- and at once I thought to myself, this guy must have something to do with Woodman. And so it proved to be: Tom Gross has walked the stones of King William Island with Dave for many years, part of several iterations of the legendary "Project Supunger" -- and even to this day, he's returned each year on his own to continue the search.

Finding Franklin's grave, after all, would be in some ways an even more iconic discovery than that of his ships. We know that he died on 11 June, 1847, at a point when the ships were still afloat, and all the resources that would have, up until his death, been at his command would have been employed in his interment. If the graves at Beechey showed extraordinary care -- custom-made coffins with metal nameplates, and carved headboards reminiscent of an English country churchyard -- surely Franklin's grave would have been even more substantial. And that's the kind of grave that Supunger described to Charles Francis Hall: a vault, about four feet in depth and longer than a man's body, all lined with smooth, closely-fitted stones. A large wooden pole was fixed in the ground nearby, though part of it had been chewed off by a polar bear; the grave itself had been breached by some animal, with the several body parts outside, and the skull and a leg bone inside.

Some -- including the present writer -- have suggested that Irving's grave, already found by Woodman, could be the remnant of this vault, but Gross disagrees. When I reached him by phone a couple of weeks ago, he explained that the Irving grave was, and had always been, a shallow one, made of just a few rough-shaped rocks; it was not even long enough for a body to lay straight. Franklin's tomb, on the other hand, must have been as strong and substantial as possible; Supunger's description of a fortified vault, four feet in depth and as long as as wide as a man, is just what one would expect.

But finding it is another matter. Woodman's earlier Project Supunger searches worked on the assumption that the pile of clothes, stoves and kettles, and other items was the one abandoned near Crozier's Landing. Tom Gross -- having searched there -- now believes this to be mistaken; he points out that there were at least two areas of large piles of abandoned goods, inclduing one on the shores of Erebus Bay. Large cook-stoves would make more sense there -- the ships may well have been just a short distance offshore, and reachable by open water (thus the boats); Gross believes the stoves may have been used to melt ice and heat water, perhaps for drinking purposes, perhaps to enable the men to wash and prepare for their journey.

There are difficulties with this view: Supunger seems to describe the place as much further north, near the tip of the island -- but, as Gross notes, he was only about seventeen at the time, and may have mistaken the long coast of Erebus bay for the northern coastline. Gross also doubts that Supunger had ever seen something like a white man's map.

A few years back Gross heard an interesting account from an Inuk in Gjoa Haven who described how his father told him about finding a "house of stone" a ways inland from Erebus Bay, one that answers in many respects to Supunger's description. This house was made with large, smooth stones, had a stone 'doorway,' and was built into the side of a natural ridge. It's possible that, despite the many searches closer along the coast, that somewhere a ways further inland this stone house still stands.

It's a possibility Tom is willing to stake his time and money on. And so, each summer, he returns to search again. I think we should all wish him luck.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Tale of of a Spoon (Part 2)

Picking up on our story: On his arrival in the Arctic in 1878, Frederick Schwatka  was unable to find any Netsilik who answered to Thomas F. Barry's description of the men who had brought him the Franklin spoon. The only Inuit who knew of this spoon declared that it had been given not to Barry, but to Captain Potter. Schwatka promptly dispatched his second-in-command, William Gilder, on a sledge journey to Repulse Bay to ask Potter himself, who declared that the spoon in question was missing, and that he suspected Barry had stolen it, later fabricating the story about Inuit witnesses. Many -- myself included -- have wondered why, since Barry was present at Repulse Bay when Gilder came to ask Potter about the spoon, they didn't confront him then. Apparently Barry wondered as well; when questioned by his employers on his return he gave the account above, denying categorically that he had stolen his spoon from Captain Potter.

This wasn't what got him into the most trouble, though. As part of his contract, he'd agreed to leave supplies and provisions at Depot Island near Camp Daly for Schwatka's return, but did not do so, an act of neglect which greatly irked Schwatka and his party, who were obliged to beg for supplies from another whaler in the vicinity. Barry tried to explain that, after giving additional supplies to Schwatka before his departure, and feeding two Inuit members of the party left in his care, there was very little bread left, and a much reduced amount of other provisions. He endeavored to reach his goal and leave these behind, but was unable due to adverse ice conditions; nevertheless he swore that he had not misappropriated them, and that the log of the "Eothen" would prove him right. That logbook, unfortunately, was still on the ship, which had returned to Hudson's Bay under another commander.

All this led to his condemnation and dismissal by his employers, and his storming out of the interview with the reporter from the Herald quoted above. His later fate is a mystery; although a man of the exact same name served as a tutor to several members of William Randolph Hearst's family in the 1880's, it's hard to imagine our choleric whaling captain was the same man. As to the logbook of the "Eothen," it's now at the New Bedford Whaling Museum; in an upcoming post, I'll tell whether this record vindicates Barry -- or not.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A tale of a Spoon (Part 1)

Everyone knows something about the expedition led by Frederick Schwatka to find reported documents left behind by Sir John Franklin's men. But few are aware that this expedition was, in fact, launched by a spoon -- or that the Inuit evidence given with this spoon pointed not to King William Island, but to another, much smaller island at the northwest tip of the Melville Peninsula. David Woodman gave these accounts a thorough examination in his second book, Strangers Among Us, but since then no one has followed up on the remarkable trail of clues that could -- just possibly -- lead to the remains of a band of Franklin survivors who almost -- almost -- got out.

The testimony was given to one Thomas F. Barry, at that time a second mate on a whaling ship wintering over near Repulse Bay (in one season) and Marble Island (on another), in 1872 and 1876, serving under Captain Edwin Potter. The Inuit told him of a cairn which was built atop a heavy stone, under which white men -- under the command of a stout man with three stripes on his sleeves -- had buried books and journal like the ones they'd seen him writing in. Barry, on both occasions, cross-examined the Inuit, in a manner that showed he was quite familiar with the pidgin version of Inuktitut commonly used with whalers. And, both times, he placed a chart in front of them and asked where they had seen these things -- and both groups of Inuit pointed to a spot near Cape Crozier on the coast of the Melville Peninsula were they'd seen a cairn, as well as to Cape Englefield and a spot just offshore from it where they said there was an island. They could not understand why this island was not on the white men's charts, but told that the party they had seen had perished there.

Barry's testimony, given to the American Geographical Society, was sent on to the Admirality for evaluation. Both Sir Francis Leopold McClintock and Dr. John Rae cast doubt on the tale, both because they didn't think the pidgin Inuktitut used by Barry was adequate to understand the Inuit accounts fully, and (in Rae's case) because he himself had built a cairn inland from Cape Crozier, and believed this was the one in Barry's story. Indeed, Charles Francis Hall had also visited the spot, though due to deep snow and a lack of tools it isn't clear whether he would have been able to get down to the large rocks the Inuit told of. Rae also declared that Cape Englefield an unlikely place for any Franklin survivors to have journeyed, it being “the last place that any one in distress would think of going to with the object of obtaining assistance and succor.”

But he hadn't thought about the island. Indicated on modern maps as "Crown Prince Frederik Island" (a result of its rediscovery in 1922 by Peter Freuchen) it's actually a good deal more hospitable than its neighboring cape; the U.S. Hydrographic Office describes it as "mostly quite low, composed of sand and small stones," and it could readily have been seen as an ideal site for some kind of camp. But why, after all, would a Franklin party aim for, let alone reach, such a distant destination when all the testimony we have suggests they tried heading south, either to the Fish River or perhaps Repulse Bay?

I can think of one potential answer: since Francis Crozier had spent considerable time among the Inuit at Igloolik while on Parry's second expedition (1821-23), perhaps he would have considered heading in that direction. A camp at Crown Prince Frederik Island might have been meant only as a way-station, before it became a final resting place. This island, so far as I know, has never been searched for any trace of Franklin.