Monday, May 16, 2016

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Lachlan Taylor Burwash

One could say that he was the first of the "modern" era of Franklin searchers, but Lachlan Taylor Burwash was at the same time very much rooted in the past. Born in 1873 in Corbourg, Ontario, he was the scion of a long line of eminent Burwashes; named after his grandfather, he grew up under the watchful eye of his father, Nathanael, who was dean of theology and eventually president of Victoria University, which later moved from Cobourg to Toronto. Young Lachlan apparently had a more worldly bent, earning a degree in mining engineering at the University of Toronto -- a prescient specialty, which he soon put to use in administrative work in the Yukon territory during its gold-rush days. When World War I broke out, Burwash enlisted, although he was already forty-one years of age, and rose to the rank of Major (references to him during and this period frequently name him simply as "Major Burwash"). At war's end, he spent some time in London, making the acquaintance of Rupert Thomas Gould, a gifted horologist and bibliophile. It was at Burwash's request that Gould made his famous map, one which catalogued and gave the coordinates for every discovery of evidence related to the Franklin expedition.

It's not quite clear which was the chicken and which the egg, but Burwash soon secured a position with the government of the Northwest Territories -- ostensibly to do geological and practical surveys of the Arctic, but with a broad mandate that would enable him to pursue his Franklin fascination along the way. Posted at King William Island for a season, he solicited stories from local Inuit, and was rewarded with hitherto-unrecounted tale of a cache of crates near Matty Island. Two witnesses, Enukshakak and Nowya, recounted finding a stack of twenty-two wooden crates in an area northeast of Matty Island. The crates contained food, including tins, some of which they said were painted red (only the Goldner's tins supplies to Franklin were known to be so). And, although the story has been dismissed by some as simply referring to crates thrown overboard in the vicinity by Amundsen, which amount to twenty-five in number. Still, as Dave Woodman has pointed out, crates don't stack themselves, and those jettisoned by Amundsen were mostly of pemmican, not the flour ("white man's snow") or red tins reported by Enukshakak and Nowya. Most intriguingly of all, these same two witnesses spoke of a wrecked ship not far from their find, three-quarters of a mile offshore.

Burwash was of course tremendously excited by this story. Over the course of the next several years, he made a number of attempts to visit the site and confirm the testimony. And yet, to his everlasting frustration, snow and ice cover repeatedly prevented him from being able to do so. He searched in other areas as well, including the site of Ross's North Magnetic Pole, and the northwest coast of King William Island (with Dick Finnie, a previous 'searcher of the month'). He retired to his childhood home in Cobourg in the mid-1930's, lecturing on his Arctic researches and writing for a variety of newspapers and magazines. Lachlan Taylor Burwash died in 1940, but his findings still hold potential. Several times, through the 1960's, pilots reported seeing signs of a wreck near Matty Island, and the site has never had a thorough archaeological study. With HMS "Terror" still unlocated, it remains a tantalizing possibility.

14 comments:

  1. It boggles the mind.....or at least my mind, that if the Terror is to be found near Matty Island and the abandoned crates were from the Terror and not Amundsen's jettisoned cargo, it really changes the story of what the expedition was doing! If they returned to the ships, did one go down the western shore (Erebus) and the other (Terror) go down the eastern shore? And of course, if they were stuck near Matty Island, would they have gone southward toward the Fish River or east and overland?
    There is so much to this story to find!!!

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    1. It's tantalizing. If the ship there was/is "Terror," my suspicion would be that it came there from the north, not the south as Burwash theorized. If indeed it was, then we'd expect to find some evidence of a significant presence on the ground nearby as well -- it would certainly be worth investigating!

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  2. In my mind I envisioned any possible ship would have come from the north. If the ships were separated, and ended up having to walk overland, maybe different ship's companies with different numbers help account for the different numbers of crewman sighted by the Inuit? And if they were that far to the east (as compared to the Erebus) would that help back up Woodman's theory of long term survivors heading east?
    Didn't I read somewhere (I wish the mind kept track of such things) of some cairns found on the eastern shore of KWI? One had a pocketknife in it?
    If the Terror did sail that way, it will raise, once again, the old argument about who should receive credit for finding the NW Passage.

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  3. Well done. I had some of his personal photos. They were/are terrific.

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    1. Thanks, Bjarne! I have seen one of the mimeographed editions of his early narratives, with original prints pasted in, and I would agree with you about his photos.

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  4. Imagine flying so far, in such a remote area, in a 1920s aircraft!

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  5. I read somewhere that not only were the crates stacked, they were covered with turf and stones.

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    1. Randall, that's interesting to hear -- would love to see that reference if you could track it down. The only version I know is the one reprinted in Woodman, where they describe the cache thusly: "As described by them this cache covered an area twenty feet long and five feet broad and was taller than they were (more than five feet). The cache consisted of wooden cases which contained materials unknown to them, all of which were enclosed in tin canisters, some of which were painted red ... They said that on the outside of the pile of the boxes the wood appeared old but the parts sheltered from the weather were still quite new. "

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  6. If those crates were from the Franklin expedition, it is clear these guys did accomplished so much more than the usual reconstruction indicates.
    If the crews returned to the ships did one ship go down the east side (Terror and this cache?) and the Erebus down the west?
    But of course, if one had a cache of food, why did they starve? If the Inuit saw the Erebus crew had a dog, and they found cans of food on board, why did they starve?
    All of these things are certainly suggestive that there is so much more to this story. All the most reason to keep looking, keep searching.....and hopefully keep politics out of it!

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    1. One has to assume that such a cache would have been left behind deliberately, perhaps by the crew of on ship thinking that it could be of benefit to another, or cached for themselves should they be forced to retreat. The site certainly deserves a closer look, I agree!

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  7. This part of the story has always been of particular interest to me. I highly doubt the wreck spotted near the site is that of Terror, as Inuit testimony claims one of the ships sank in deep water, and if the discovery of Erebus and its reinforcement of the accuracy of the Inuit testimony is any indication, Terror will likely be found somewhere in Victoria straight. I'm more inclined to believe, as Woodman has speculated, that the wreck near Matty island was one of Erebus' or Terror's smaller boats, which may have been used to shuttle those very crates from one of the larger vessels which had grounded nearby, just as Amundsen would years later.

    The sinking of this vessel could also attribute to some of the loss of life documented in the margins of the Victory point note. That, though, is entirely speculative and poses the question as to why it wouldn't have been mentioned in the "All Well" portion of the message. As we know now, all was far from well when Gore deposited the note. The ships were beset and at least 3 crewmen were dead.

    After exiting Peel sound, it would make sense for Franklin's ice-masters, Reid and Blanky, to have recognized the more favorable conditions on the eastern route, and steer the expedition that way.

    Why this is of particular interest to me is that it would clarify the fact that Franklin didn't simply blunder into the ice to the west after his exit from Peel sound, but took the time to explore the uncharted area of his map and rule out a passage to the east of King William island (or land, as it was thought at the time) due to the shoals and reefs that were impossible for his larger vessels with their deep draughts to navigate.

    Despite this, the same situation could have taken place after the besetment to the west following a retreat to the Northeast with the intention of going South after having surveyed the coast. Without discovery of any records, it may never be possible to know for sure: if this story could be archaeologically confirmed, however, it would prove that at least one of the expedition's larger ships went that way.

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  8. If the ships were stuck in ice NW of KWI, and the location of Crozier's landing is considered, it makes the location of this Matty Island cache all the more intriguing. Was it a "dumping" of ballast (as Amundsen had done)? Was it deliberate to supply further explorations in that direction? And if deliberate, why didn't the survivors head in that direction?
    It seems to me that the survivors struggled along the southern shore of KWI and then turned toward the Fish River. But if starving, why not go toward known supplies?
    When Gore left his note with the "All Well" perhaps, apart from the Beechy Island deaths, all was well. But I wonder if multiple parties were dispatched? We know of Gore's but perhaps another one was sent out toward the Matty Island location? If stuck in ice it would make sense to see what was down either coastline south of Cape Felix.
    Wish I had answers rather than questions.

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  9. I'd like to see an up to date version of Gould's map, but as far as I know, there isn't one. With modern technologies, it should be possible to create an online version with far more information on individual sites including hyperlink references to sources of information. Maybe an interesting retirement project for somebody.

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    1. I agree, an updated interactive version of Gold's map would be an excellent resource!

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