Saturday, November 14, 2009

Solving the Franklin Mystery

In an earlier post, I said I'd return to a detailed account of Grenier's approach, and say where and why I think he ought to look -- so here goes. For one, I would actually say that finding the remains of Franklin's ships, while a laudable goal which surely fires the imagination -- wouldn't be my first priority. When you have only a small window of funding and opportunity, I think you should go for the search method most likely to yield definitive results, and that would be a search on land. When you think of it, of all the known Franklin sites on land, only one -- NgLj-2 on King William Island -- has been examined with modern archaeological and forensic tools. A similar examination is long overdue for the Todd Islets site, which is certainly where at last one group of survivors met their end, and the location of which is well-known, especially to Louie Kamookak, whose grandfather reburied the remains there, and who is on Grenier's team. A visit to the area of "Starvation Cove" might also be worthwhile, as there are several indications that a box of records or papers was brought this far. All of the remains there have sunk into the coastal silt, which may make them harder to locate, but should also have preserved them. Similar sites at Ogle Point, Grant Point, Cape Herschel, and on Montreal Island, have not been examined in modern times. Small "away teams" could reconnoiter these sites, most of which are near enough to Gjoa Haven that getting people and supplies there would be relatively inexpensive, while Grenier's ship-bound team monitors its sonar scans.

For, as tempting as it is to imagine that side-scan sonar will reveal one of the ships, the area to be searched is so vast that it would take many years to search it all effectively. Dave Woodman tried to limit the search area with a magnetic survey, hoping that the ships' engines would be detectable -- but his targets turned out to be natural features. Nevertheless, the areas he has surveyed offer at least a negative map, of places where it wouldn't be necessary to search again. I suppose this is why Grenier is so focussed on the Royal Geographical Society Islands, as one or both ships must surely have passed near them -- but this area is far from where Inuit testimony placed the re-manned ship (which would be near Grant Point or O'Reilly Island, as shown on this map) -- so I should imagine that all he'd find there would be bits of debris brought along by ice and currents from the ship which sank close to the coast of King William Island.

Some, such as Andrew Lambert, regard the Inuit testimony as too convoluted, too mangled up in its sources, too damaged by errors in transmission, to be of much use. Yet when you look at this testimony, there are certain features that, I feel, make some stories more credible than others. There are accounts of the abandoned ship on the ice from numerous witnesses; the story was told to Hall by several persons; it was told again to Schwatka, and indeed it was told again to Rasmussen a generation later, with much of the same detail. I think it's probably the most credible single account we have, and there's good reason to trust it. It comes from the Ootjoolingmiut, the very band whose original territory lay closest to the site. The most dramatic version is that given by Schwatka, and I will close by quoting it in full. This is the ship that I think could yet be found -- if only Grenier would look for it:

Colonel Gilder and I [interviewed] old Ikinnilik-Puhtoorak, the head man of this tribe, with Joe Ebierbing as our interpreter. The old man, then about sixty years old, had an intelligent, open face, and all his answers were given without hesitation, in a straightforward manner which carried the conviction of truth. In response to our questions he stated that he had seen white men before in this country. Almost impatiently we waited Joe's interpretation of the old man's statements. His next remarks electrified us.

"A long time ago, said Puhtoorak, "when I was a small boy living with my people just below the bad rapids near the mouth of the Great Fish River, we saw a wooden boat with white men going down the river. The white men shook hands with the Innuits and the latter rubbed their hands down their breasts, a sign of welcome."

There were ten men in the boat, and the commander's name as near as he could remember it was Tooahdeahhrak (probably Lieut. Back on his first exploration of the river).

Continuing his story, Puhtoorak told Ebierbing that the next time he saw a white man it was a dead one in a large ship about eight miles off Grant Point. The body was in a bunk inside the ship in the back part. The ship had four big sticks, one pointing out and the other three standing up. On the mainland, near Smith Point and Grant Point on the Adelaide peninsula, an Esquimaux party which he accompanied saw the tracks of white men and judged they were hunting for deer. At this time the tracks indicated there were four white men but afterwards the tracks showed only three. He saw the ship in the spring before the spring snow falls and the tracks in the fresh spring snow when the young reindeer come of the same year. He never saw the white men. He thinks that the white men lived in this ship until the fall and then moved onto the mainland.

Puhtoorak told how the Esquimaux, not understanding how to get into the ship, cut through one side. When summer came and the ice melted the ship righted herself but the hole in her side being below the water line she sank as the water poured in. After the ship sank, they found a small boat on the mainland. When he went on board the ship he saw a pile of dirt on one side of the cabin door showing that some white man had recently swept out the cabin. He found on board the ship four red tin cans filled with meat and many that had been opened. The meat was full of fat. The natives went all through the ship and found also many empty casks. The found iron chains and anchors on deck, and spoons, knives, forks, tin plates, china plates, etc.

When the ship finally sank her masts stuck out of the water and many things floated on shore which the natives picked up. He also saw books on board the ship but the natives did not take them. He afterwards saw some that had washed ashore. He never saw any stone monument or cairn on the mainland near where the ship sank. There was one small boat hanging from the davits which the natives cut down. Some of the ship's sails were set.


  1. OK, I'm curious. How can a few eskimos literally cut a hole into the hull of either the Erebus or Terror, when both ships were reinforced to withstand tons of ice pressure. What tool would they have used?

  2. I suspect that what they did was simply to enlarge an existing opening, such as a blocked-up gunport. It may well be that whatever they did was actually unconnected with the ship's sinking the next season; the ship may have had structural damage that was not a factor so long as it was borne up by coastal ice, but once that ice thawed was sufficient to sink her. The interesting aspect of this tale is that it became, over time, a sort of joke told on the Inuit by the Inuit, a bit of self-deprecating humor. The details about the vessel -- one boat still in the davits, three masts, anchor chains, food in red tins -- are what give it the greatest credibility. No other ship would have matched these descriptions.

  3. It is very frustrating to sit here and know that those sites exist and yet nothing is being done about them. Funding for field work is a major hurdle. Perhaps organizations such as National Geographic could provide the funding for specialists from Canada's universities to properly investigate these sites.

    Starvation Cove might best be searched by using metal detectors. Given the remote nature of the area most metal there likely came from Franklin crewmen. An area with high concentrations of metal fragments would probably coincide with some kind of Franklin site.

    With respect to the Utjulik ship. How could the Inuit have made a hole in 10 inches of Oak? Probably by using the tools on board the ship (such as an adze) to pry up the planks.

    What about testimony regarding the other ship? Was there anything intriguing in Hall's notes that didn't make it into DCW's book?

  4. I agree about metal detectors -- or perhaps some sort of ground-penetrating radar -- being used at Starvation Cove. There is surely more to be learned there.

    As to the Utjulik ship, see above -- it's not clear to me that whatever the Inuit did to gain access to the ship actually led to its sinking; it may indeed have been a hatch cover or some other such thing that they pried aside; it's hard to say. When a vessel has been exposed to the drying air for too long, it can become "walt" --that is, the planking dries, shrinks,and separates. This happened to Sir Hugh Willoughby's vessel in the Arctic, and led to its sinking as a crew attempted to pilot it back home.

    Lastly, as to the Hall evidence -- I think Dave has been very thorough. Nevertheless, we could really benefit from an edition of *all* of Hall's notes from his second expedition, including all the field notebooks in which the Inuit testimony was first recorded. It's a long-term project, but surely worth doing ...