Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Mystery of the Shining Skin

In the summer of 1850, a small flotilla of ships searching for any trace of Sir John Franklin converged at Beechey Island. News of the discovery of the expedition's winter camp spread throughout every ship, including Sir John Ross's yacht the "Mary." Ross had with him his "Esquimaux interpreter" Adam Beck, and Beck took part in the extensive searches for any possible record left behind. Up on a bluff on the northern end of Beechey, Beck saw something sticking up out of the snow, and hurried to the spot. To quote his own description:
"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.


  1. Russell, do you know of any concerted effort to locate and recover the "shining skin"?


  2. Hi Mike,

    None so far as I know. Aside from Beattie's exhumations in the 1980's, I don't know of any archaeological work at Beechey in the past few decades, which is a shame. Not only the "shining skin," but quite possibly a never-found buried record (I refuse to believe that Franklin actually neglected to bury one) and smaller traces of all kinds -- it's amazing what one can learn from a grommet or an ivory button. I hope that someday such a wide-scale examination of this area will be done.

  3. Very well, then I won't put my winter clothing away just yet. When should we all rendezvous in Resolute?

    As to the location - you quote Ross as saying, "Adam Beck found a piece of wood on the . . . north land on which was a piece of tin..."

    From the little that I know, most of the exploration in that area has been on Beechey Island near the graves. From Ross' quote it seems to me that he might be referring to an area on Devon Island, which would be the "north land" in Erebus Bay.

    Have to start packing....


    P.S. I agree with you completely!!! Franklin left a note there, it just hasn't been found... yet!

  4. Congratulations on bringing such an obscure snippet of information to public notice.

    It reminds me of a passage from Edward Belcher's "The last of the Arctic voyages":

    "On the 2nd the weather proved fine; a party was despatched to rebuild Mount Britannia beacon afresh, and to look around on the ice. This beacon was surmounted by a blue and yellow flag, and adorned with many preserved meat tins, flattened out, and hung in such positions (with their tinned surfaces outwards) as might afford a glimmering ray, from these heliotropes, to the southern travellers."

    I think the purpose in that case was as a navigational marker for sledge parties - just one more possibility.


  5. In his testimony to the Navy, Sir John Ross said that the post and sign were found near a cairn on the north east side of "Union Bay", which I think is now called Erebus and Terror Bay. This would be near the wintering coordinates found on the Victory Point Record.

  6. It would be remarkable if even the best-made of observations at that time would have produced an exact result -- not just these coordinates, but others taken by everyone from Dease and Simpson to Rae to McClintock are often off slightly, at least in longitude, and are sometimes quite a bit off! Still this is suggestive that perhaps a closer look is warranted.