"When I had reached it, I saw a shining skin nailed on, with writing in the English language, which I did not understand, because it was not my work, only this I recognized, '3d September 1846,' for which I was immediately thankful. I pulled it out of the ground that I might take it with me. As I was going home over a hill I slipped down the snow over the hill, because the snow had ice, and with that I lost the shining mark or writing that I had found, and would not go up again because I had no instrument with which I could climb up the hard ice, only I brought the wood home as a testimony in my favour, but its writing I lost, and on this wood which I had found I wrote my name, because I, Adam, wished to keep it."Ross, who had observed Beck's actions through his telescope, noted the event in his own pocket-diary: "Adam Beck found a piece of wood on the . . . north land on which was a piece of tin with September 1846 on it but did not bring the tin" (see image above). The date was intriguing -- had the ice not broken up until September of 1846? Had the ships returned briefly to Beechey after circumnavigating Cornwallis Island? The date is only nine days before the date given in the Victory Point record as that on which the ships were first beset off King William Island, which seems a very brief interval for all the progress they made, even imagining Peel Sound to be entirely ice-free. The evidence signs on Beechey -- abandoned equipment, a pair of mittens left out to dry -- suggested a hasty departure, but the sign-post would have taken some time to make.
Beck himself is a sad figure; after relaying -- imperfectly -- a story told to him at Cape York of the killing of a group of white men and the burning of their ship by Inuit, he was vilified as a liar. Ross nevertheless had enormous confidence in him, and did not blame him for honestly passing along a story not his own. Nevertheless, he was widely ridiculed, and found difficulty obtaining work; ten years later, by curious chance, he was found by Charles Francis Hall, who pitied this "wreck of a man" as he poured forth his tale.
Why did the expedition, which apparently failed to leave a paper note in a cannister as expected, leave instead a painted sign on a bluff some distance from their camp? William Battersby has noted two significant clues: 1) James Fitzjames was known to have a habit of erecting sign-posts somewhat capriciously; and 2) The expedition, charged with making magnetic observations, was expected to make especially detailed ones on select "Term Dates" on which multiple measurements were to be made at locations around the globe. One of these was August 29th, 1846, and so it would be entirely reasonable that the expedition would on or near that date have dropped anchor and set up one or more magnetic observatories on land. Might this have been the reason for the late date on the signpost?
It's terribly tempting to imagine the other words in English which preceded the date, or even that Beck's "shining skin" might someday be recovered. For now, it's simply one more clue, albeit a little-known one, as to the activities and whereabouts of Franklin's ships on the eve of their final imprisonment in the ice.