Monday, May 23, 2016

HMS Resolute and her Desks

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016
t's widely-known that the "Resolute Desk," currently being used in the Oval Office by President Obama, was crafted from the timbers of the Franklin search ship HMS Resolute. The ship had become, by a strange twist of fate, a symbol of the "special relationship" between the US and the UK; having drifted from where she was abandoned deep in the Arctic archipelago, she was found by a whaling captain and piloted back to port in the United States. Restored to her former glory with funding from the US Congress, she was sailed back to Britain under the command of Henry Hartstene, and presented to Queen Victoria as a gift from the nation. The presentation ceremony, made while Resolute was anchored near the Queen's summer residence at Osborne House on the Isle of Man, was the subject of a famous engraving by William "Crimean" Simpson, a noted war illustrator, and both plain and colored versions -- such as this one at the Library of Congress -- were sold to the public.

US Government official photograph / public domain

It had been hoped by many at the time -- including Lady Franklin -- that the ship might once more be dispatched to the Arctic, but it was not to be. Which was why, when the vessel was being broken up in 1879, the Queen decided to have a series of desks made from her timbers. The large "partner's desk" in the Oval Office, originally used by Rurtherford B. Hayes, is by far the best-known, but the others -- three in number -- are no less significant in their own right.

The Queen had two desks made for herself. One, a modest writing-table or side-table, has a brass plaque similar (but not identical to) the one on the partner's desk; the other, a folding desk, was made for use aboard the Royal Yacht. Both, it now seems, are in Portsmouth, though not on display; the folding desk, indeed, is stored rather plainly, in a crate with a loose plastic cover. Confusion over the similar plaques -- along with the fact that the original plans, now at the National Maritime Museum, were departed from -- apparently led some sources, the Wikipedia among them, to incorrectly state that Her Majesty had also had a partner's size desk made for herself, but that was never the case.

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

The largest of the other three, a ladies' writing desk, was presented to the widow of Henry Grinnell, the whaling magnate who had leant so much of his time and resources to the search for Franklin; it currently resides at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Like many such desks of this period, it has two large compartments and a series of smaller ones built into its top; one may note that the door of one features a crowned lion, a
New Bedford Whaling Museum
heraldic device of the British monarchy, while the other shows a fouled anchor, the symbol of the Royal Navy.

The president's Resolute Desk has played a role in many dramas -- including the film National Treasure: Book of Secrets -- and, assuming the next resident of the White House decides to keep it, it will likely be a part of many more. For those of us who won't have a chance to see it there, there are at least five exact replicas at various presidential libraries -- Kennedy's, Reagan's, Noxon's, Carter's, and Clinton's -- or, if cost is no object, you can order your own replica for a mere $9,495.00 (marked down from $12,000). Of course, it won't be made with oak from the Resolute ... but it would still be certain to impress your friends!

Friday, May 20, 2016

How many?

As a fact-checker, one of the most common things I've had to check in articles about the Franklin expedition are numbers. 128 men? Yes, but only if you exclude those who sailed from Greenhithe but were invalided out and sent home, and you don't count Franklin himself. Dozens of search expeditions? Well, thanks to W. Gillies Ross, we can say that three dozen is a roughly accurate figure, if we limit ourselves to the era up to and including McClintock's search aboard the Fox. But one of the trickiest figures to settle is the number of years we should count Franklin's expedition as missing, which is tied up with the question of what "missing" means. As the author of an upcoming book whose title refers to a "165-Year Search," of course I have some views on the subject.

When Franklin sailed, almost exactly 171 years ago (May 19, 1845), his ships were provisioned for three years of full rations (early press accounts later tended to exaggerate this figure, in part to stave off public concern). Neither he nor the Admiralty expected any immediate news, and given the vagaries of cairns and messages in tin cylinders, it was certainly possible that word -- even of success -- might be considerably delayed. Franklin's sailing orders suggested that, if he made the passage, he might consider calling at the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) to give his crews some R&R, but even had he done so, word of his arrival there would have taken weeks or months to reach London. So it's hardly right to date the Franklin "mystery" to 1845, since there was nothing mysterious about the lack of contact then, or in the succeeding three years. This brings us to 1848, when the first large-scale search sent by the Admirality, that of James Clark Ross, was dispatched. They found no traces of Franklin or his ships, which in one sense is the first note of concern -- but that was not publicly known until he returned to England in 1849. That's the year that I date the "mystery" to, and why -- going from that moment to the discovery of HMS Erebus in 2014 -- I chose the 165 years of my title. There's an argument to be made for 166 years(if one uses either the three-year provision measure, or the date of Ross's initial sailing) or even 167, if one starts counting in 1847, when the very first expedition sent to look for Franklin, that of Richardson & Rae, was dispatched. It's completely wrong, though, to refer as did Macleans in 2014, to a "169-year-old mystery," using the 1845 date, at which time there was no "mystery" at all.

The other number that still vexes, despite Gil Ross's fine work, is the number of search expeditions since the finding of the Victory Point record. Part of it is the question of what qualifies; should we count Allen Young's voyage, even though he never reached the intended search area? Or what about Charles Francis Hall's first foray, which left him stranded on Baffin Island, hundreds of miles from his goal? These questions get even trickier in the twentieth century, when many who sought out Franklin sites were more like pilgrims than searchers, and often were simply making a side-trip from a journey made for other purposes. In my book, I've counted every search that managed to reach its planned search area, even if it was a side-trip, or (as sometimes happens due to weather and ice conditions) it was cut short. By these criteria, the "modern" era -- starting with Rasmussen in 1921 --  gives us fifty-three Franklin searches prior to the first Parks Canada search in 2008. It's a surprising number to some, since relatively few of these searches garnered much publicity. Many know of the exhumations on Beechey in the mid-1980's, but few are aware of Owen Beattie's two earlier exepditions to King William Island; others may know something of searchers such as Dave Woodman or Barry Ranford, but not realize how many times they returned to search again.

And even with that, the number is impossible to absolutely fix. Some searchers have proven nearly impossible to identify or trace, such as the mysterious "Coleman and Holmberg of California," mentioned in William C. Wonders's account as having searched King William Island in 1965, while others, such as John Goldi's 1975 trek, are so incompletely documented that one wonders whether they ought to be counted or not. I've come up with a solution for that, though -- I just say "more than fifty." Which, when added to the 36 in Gil Ross's account, along with Hall and Schwatka, and the seven Parks searches gives us "more than ninety" searches in all. At least for now.

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.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Armchair Explorers

Image via Wikimedia Commons
In my upcoming book Finding Franklin, I put it this way: "There’s every possibility that the next vital discovery relating to the fate of Franklin’s men will be made by a lone searcher equipped only with a laptop, in the comfort of his or her own study at home." It's an age of information, and in almost every sense -- maps, satellite images, digitized books and manuscripts, photo archives -- there's a greater wealth of material available to the 'armchair explorer' today than at any previous time in history. The Franklin relics at the National Maritime Museum, the narratives of the Franklin search expeditions, and digital maps showing traditional Inuit place names, all are now at anyone's fingertips who wants them. Most intriguingly, since we now know that HMS "Erebus" lies in water shallow enough that it can be seen from the surface, the idea of using satellite imagery to help find "Terror," or perhaps even smaller Franklin sites on land, seems far less improbable than it once did. There's a good deal of satellite imagery out there publicly (though the best resolution isn't free), and even Google Earth, despite its limited definition in the North, offers a way to put various finds together into a custom-made mapping system.

But although one's armchair is a fine and private place, it's not without its perils, as the cautionary tale of a Canadian teenager who claimed to have discovered a lost Mayan city reveals. The searcher, fifteen-year-old William Gadoury of Qu├ębec, had been using star constellations to find correspondences with the placement of cities, and according to press reports, found one star without a known city that matched. With some help from the Canadian Space Agency, he obtained some fairly detailed telemetry of the site, and found a promising square shape that he believed was an ancient city covered with undergrowth. Alas, according to the experts who have since weighed in, it's more likely to be a fallow field, or perhaps a marijuana plantation, though there's still some talk of taking a team to visit the site just to see if it holds any surprises.

This apparently 'false positive' shows the limits of such technology. What's really needed, in addition to visual telemetry, is a system such as LIDAR which is capable of penetrating surface cover and creating detailed imagery of physical terrain. Such a system was used by archaeologist Sarah H. Parcak this year to search for possible Viking settlements in maritime Canada, leading to a much-vaunted claim of having found several. Work on the ground, though, has yet to yield unambiguous results, and the radiocarbon dates from the sites explored gives a range from 800 to 1300 A.D., which doesn't necessarily confirm -- although neither does it exclude -- the finds being Viking-related. The site supposedly had evidence of 'turf walls,' along with bits of "bog iron" that suggested the possibility of smelting activity, but no items of definitive human manufacture.

Which brings up one of the limits of the armchair/satellite method -- it can indeed locate potentially promising spots, but can't definitively identify anything without work on the ground, which still requires the expense and time of proper archaeological investigation. Still, with very large data sets such as LANDSAT now freely available, it's certainly a valuable way to sort out the promising from the unpromising, a particularly worthwhile endeavor in the Arctic, where the shortness of the search season makes every day count.

And it's not only with on-site archaeological work where armchair searchers can make significant contributions. New images of Franklin's officers, new interpretations of surviving documents, and new understandings of the equipment supplied to Franklin, have all been discovered and developed by dedicated amateurs. What's more, since this work is undertaken in a collective spirit and regularly shared -- via sites such as the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook group -- it has enabled multiple minds to focus on a single question, often yielding fresh interpretations that would be much harder, if not impossible, for any lone individual to discern. And this is the other way in which such groups can make a difference: even once something is discovered, its significance still takes time to understand, a process that can be greatly accelerated when people with many different areas of interest and expertise are part of the crowd.