Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Irving's grave found -- by Woodman!

Readers of this blog will be delighted, I am sure, to learn that I've just received a long and very informative letter from Dave Woodman, who has been following our discussion with some interest.  Included with his letter is a photograph, shown at left, of a stone construction he found on King William Island which he is fairly confident is the same as the grave described by Schwatka, Klutshak, and Gilder.  I very much agree -- and having not seen the photo before, am delighted to find that, as I had thought, a grave of such substance would still be visible today (easy for me to say, of course, as I did not have to slog over the frozen northwest coast of King William Island to find it!).  Woodman identified this structure during "Project Supunger," his 1994 effort to locate the "vault" described by Supunger -- there being two separate accounts by him, one of which seems to describe an adjacent burial which Hall, as well as his translator Tookoolito, believed might contain buried records.  This vault was not found, but as the photo shows, the structure he discovered near the crews' landing place corresponds remarkably well.  Woodman's own key to this photo is as follows:
Comparison of Irving’s grave drawing (Klutschak) with grave found near Crozier’s Landing by “Project Supunger” 1994 (Woodman). A & B – Head and “pillow” stones, C – Side stone with tapering end pointing towards head, D – Large “foot” covering stone still in place
Woodman agrees that a grave of these dimensions could never have been constructed by exhausted men.  In his scenario, though, the 1848 abandonment is far briefer, and the return to the ships far sooner:
You mention that you doubt that a grave of  “such size and form would have been well beyond the powers of any group of stragglers returning to the ships.” Actually the fact that Irving was buried here is one of the main pillars of my contention that a return to the ships did occur in 1848 (otherwise they wouldn’t have been manned in Erebus Bay in 1849 when the Inuit met them), but my assessment is that 105 men didn’t get very far and were back in the ships within a month after finding that they managed only 3 miles a day or so. This is a far different scenario than that the weakened survivors were from the southern “death camps” (which in my scheme are two years in the future). Most of the 105 would have walked both ways (only 1 grave in Seal Bay, then 2 in “Two grave bay” that are probably from this first march) and there would have been plenty of manpower available to build the grave that we found.
This certainly addresses this question.  Woodman's key deductive points, if readers will excuse a Sherlockian rehearsal, are these:
  • The Inuit were never near Victory Point, or Crozier's landing point a couple of miles to the south, until long after all the men had perished.  The Inuit themselves stated that they learned of this site from the Kabloonas; this could not have been sooner than 1859.  The evidence for this is that there was such a large amount of material still present when the first Inuit, such as Supunger and his uncle, arrived -- and that seems very strong evidence indeed.
  • The Inuit describe witnessing the sinking of one of Franklin's vessels.  Since the Inuit had not been aware of the site of the original abandonment, this must have occurred a considerable distance further south along the coast, and later.
  • The Inuit describe the one ship which did not sink as having been manned and piloted, and this is very likely the same ship that was later found anchored somewhere along the far northwest coast of the Adelaide Peninsula (O'Reilly Island, Kirkwall Island etc.).  In order for this to have occurred, there must have been a return to the ships when there were still enough healthy men to pilot it.
  • For all the same reasons, the Bayne account, because it includes Inuit witnesses, can't have taken place near Victory Point or Crozier's Landing.
At Dave's invitation, I'm making his entire letter to me available here, which goes into much greater detail about his argument.  While I don't necessarily agree with every part of it, there's no arguing with the bulleted points.  If we suppose that the officers of the Expedition were not insane, their brains not addled by lead, it's entirely sensible to suppose that they would quickly realize the futility of having all the men travel over land to safety.  A return to the ships, or at least a return by some to a "sick camp" near Crozier's landing point, where fresh supplies could be obtained from the ships, makes sense.  Then, if we imagine that the ice freed them in the summer of 1848 (or 49), it makes sense that they would be re-manned, as they were the best hope of escape.  We can then suppose that they were trapped again, and one of the vessels crushed, off either Erebus Bay or Terror Bay, or both -- the graves there suggest a probable repeat of the sick camp / graves made ashore scenario.  Finally, the remaining ship is once more piloted, probably by a "skeleton" crew of a few hardy sailors, and makes it into Queen Maud Gulf, but no further; a small group apparently left this ship but did not make it out.

Meanwhile, those still at the last 'sick camp' on King William Island sent out one last group of men on foot in search of help, and this is the party the Inuit met met at Washington Bay, and which is responsible for the bodies, with only a prefunctory or no burial, scattered along the southern coast of KWI, ending at the Todd Islets.

My thanks to Dave for sharing his thoughts on this -- and I look forward to comments from everyone else!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Sketch of the life of John Irving

In researching for this blog the manner in which the bones believed to be Irving's were returned, I was delighted to find that the little memoir of his life, published in Edinburgh after his funeral, had been scanned and made available here by Harvard University Libraries. While there is no portrait -- I am unsure as to whether Irving was ever photographed -- there is a frontispiece featuring a lovely reproduction of Irving's maths medal. It's been cleaned up, and the engraved name is quite clear -- certainly, given its size and significance, it's not unreasonable to assume that it was laid within the tomb as a memorial. If you click on the image above, you can see it in much better detail.

I would encourage everyone unfamiliar with this delightful little book to take advantage of the online version. It gives a good many of Irving's letters home in full, and reproduces a sketch he made of the "Erebus" and "Terror" at their final port of call in Greenland. The final letter, enclosed with this sketch, concludes with this poignant reflection:
We are going to have a school for the men, and our Captain reads prayers in Sundays. We are exempt from many of the temptations of the world, and I hope we shall have grace to find that it has been good for us to have been separated from the world, and that God has been with us in all our wanderings. May we submit ourselves to His pleasure in all things.

Irving's Grave, Part III

Let's recalibrate our discussion here, and assume for the moment that it was John Irving in that grave. If so, I would say it's most likely that he died not long after being mentioned in the Victory Point Record -- the evidence for this being simply that a tomb of such size and form would have been well beyond the powers of any group of stragglers returning to the ships. Some have hypothesized that he either led a return party to this ships (Greely), or else that he deliberately remained behind with the sick, and perished among them (Markham). But no matter whose remains were in this grave, there is still one witness from whom we yet have to hear: William H. Gilder, Schwatka's second-in-command. Gilder's account was also published, and is readily available via Project Gutenberg; here are the relevant passages.

He begins by recalling the events of the 27th:
The next day we stayed at Cape Jane Franklin to make a preliminary search of the vicinity. Lieutenant Schwatka and I went up Collinson Inlet, but saw no traces of white men. Henry and Frank, who had been sent up the coast, were more fortunate. About a mile and a half above camp they came upon the camp made by Captain Crozier, with his entire command from the two ships, after abandoning the vessels. There were several cooking stoves, with their accompanying copper kettles, besides clothing, blankets, canvas, iron and brass implements, and an open grave, wherein was found a quantity of blue cloth, part of which seemed to have been a heavy overcoat, and a part probably wrapped around the body. There was also a large quantity of canvas in and around the grave, with coarse stitching through it and the cloth, as though the body had been incased as if for burial at sea. Several gilt buttons were found among the rotting cloth and mould in the bottom of the grave, and a lens, apparently the object-glass of a marine telescope. Upon one of the stones at the foot of the grave Henry found a medal, which was thickly covered with grime, and was so much the color of the clay stone on which it rested as to nearly escape detection. It proved to be a silver medal, two and a half inches in diameter, with a bass-relief portrait of George IV.
So far, so good -- his account corroborates those of Schwatka and Klutschak. But then Gilder adds a detail unique to his account; apparently, some time after the visit by Supunger and his uncle, another Inuk and his son had visited the site:
An old Netchillik, named Ockarnawole, stated that five years ago he and his son, who was also present in the igloo, made an excursion along the north-western coast of King William Land. Between Victory Point and Cape Felix they found some things in a small cask near the salt water. In a monument that he did not take down, he found between the stones five jack-knives and a pair of scissors, also a small flat piece of tin, now lost; saw no graves at this place, but found what, from his description of the way the handle was put on, was either an adze or a pickaxe. A little north of this place found a tent place and three tin cups. About Victory Point found a grave, with a skeleton, clothes, and a jack-knife with one blade broken. Saw no books. In a little bay on the north side of Collinson Inlet saw a quantity of clothes. There was plenty of snow on the ground at the time they were there. Viewing this statement in the light of our subsequent search upon this ground, I am inclined to believe that the grave they found was not at Victory Point, but was Irving's grave, about three miles below there. We saw no evidence of any grave at Victory Point, though we made a particularly extended search around that entire section of the country. The little bay spoken of is also probably the little bay where Lieutenant Irving's grave was discovered. There is a little bay on the north side of Collinson Inlet, but Lieutenant Schwatka and I visited it several times without finding any traces of clothing or any other evidences of white men having been there; and from what we saw at other places it seems almost impossible that there could have been much there as late as five years ago without some indications remaining. The vicinity of places where boats had been destroyed, or camps where clothing was found, were invariably indicated by pieces of cloth among the rocks, at greater or less intervals, for a long distance--sometimes as far as one or two miles on either side, and it would be almost impossible to escape seeing the principal point when led to it by such gradually cumulative evidence.
Here is much interesting new detail: the grave thought to be Irving's was visited a second time. Ockarnawole did not take down the "monument" -- but this appears to be another cairn, perhaps that in which Schwatka found Hobson's note copying out the Victory Point record. He did, however, visit a grave -- correctly surmised by Gilder to be Irving's -- and picked up a jack-knife, quite possibly the same old rusty "clasp knife" found and discarded by Supunger. Most significantly, Gilder places the grave more precisely -- "three miles below Victory Point" at a "little bay." Consulting a modern map (see above), this would seem to place it squarely in the midst of Cape Jane Franklin, which is exactly where Gould puts it (those consulting his map should note that Gould calls the entire inlet "Back Bay," whereas the modern map places the name on the coast and names the inlet "Cllinson Inlet").

Whoever was buried in it, then, I think we can say several things about this grave three miles south of Victory Point:

1) It is adjacent to an expedition camp, which apparently was occupied by some portion of the crew of the "Terror," as well as a considerable amount of material abandoned soon after the crews left the ships. The sledge-harnesses present pose a question -- were they left behind early on, or are they a sign that a group from that ship did in fact return to the vicinity at some later point?

2) It was visited twice by Inuit at some point long after there were living survivors -- first by Supunger and his uncle in the 1860's, who got most of the good stuff (wooden oars, and the wooden pole fastened into the ground), and who opened up the tomb in search of plunder. Secondly, much later, in the early 1870's, by Ockarnawole and his son, who cleaned up some additional material, missing some things due to snow cover.

3) The person buried in the grave was very likely an officer; a great deal of effort would have been required to construct it. He was buried in a dress uniform, and sewn inside canvas as if for burial at sea. Irving's maths medal was -- apparently with purpose -- left there, but was missed by the Inuit. The medal had been there for a long time, as it had left a mark on the rock where it had lain.

So what can we make of this evidence? Does it suggest a return to the vicinity of the ships? If this group was able to reach one of the ships, and resupply, could its members have been well enough to undertake the making of this substantial tomb? Or does the evidence point to an earlier memorial, around the time of abandonment? I'd note also that Schwatka and his men found a similar, though much less ambitiously-scaled burial, a few miles further south, the skull in which was also identified as that of a "white man." Schwatka did not, for whatever reason, bring those bones back with him, and no other human remains beyond that point received anything resembling this kind of formal, labor-intensive burial.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Irving's Grave, Part II

The descriptions of the site and nature of the grave supposed by Schwatka to be that of Lieutenant John Irving, and the stone vault found by the Inuk hunter Hall called "Supunger" show some remarkable similarities. Both were located near the site of a collapsed tent; near both were found a number of portable stoves and other equipment; in both graves parts of the skeleton were scattered about, and the skull was not at the "head" of the tomb. Yet is has generally been assumed that Supunger's find -- often described as a "vault" -- was an excavation below ground level, whereas Irving's was above ground. The difficulty of digging to any depth in the unyielding frozen scree of King William Island, however, suggests an above-ground construction. What, then, of the large flat stones so vividly described by Supunger?

They are there -- in the form of a sketch (shown above) as well as a description by Heinrich Klutshak, who worked as the surveyor/artist on Schwatka's expedition. His sketch, much more so than the relatively primitive one in Schwatka's account, shows these very slabs, and this is corroborated by his description:
"On the 27th, Franz Melms and I were walking along the coast toward Victory Point, where Sir James Ross had erected a stone cairn. Near the waterline Melms found a strip of canvas (such as is used for hauling a sledge) with the marking T.II. While he was making a more through inspection of the area, I spotted a cairn and near it a human skull. It was a grave made of flat slabs of sandstone, like a grave-vault built above ground. It had once been covered but had obviously been subjected to a search. The skull (indisputably that of a white man) lay outside, with other human bones. Inside the grave a luxuriant growth of moss was flourishing on some remnants of blue cloth which, judging by the buttons and the fine texture, had once belonged to an English officer's uniform. A silk handkerchief in a remarkably good state of preservation lay at the head end, and above it on a rock a silver medal measuring 2 1/2 - 2 3/4 inches in diameter lay exposed. The fact that this medal had escaped the eyes of the Inuit I can only ascribe to the fact that it had either been hidden by snow, or that the natives' loot was already quite considerable."
"Flat slabs" -- "like a grave-vault built above ground" -- "it had once been covered" -- all these correspond perfectly with Supunger's description. His conjecture about the reason the medal was missed is also remarkably acute; when asked by Hall why Supunger had not taken more of the stoves or kettles (Oot-koo-seeks) near the site, the reply was that "he & uncle had as much of other things as they could carry & these Oot-koo- seeks were very heavy."

The precise location of this grave is perhaps the final question. Unfortunately, Klutschak does not give a precise spot, though clearly it was near the water-line not far south of Victory Point. Supunger placed his finds "by the coast above Back's Bay, not far from Victory Point," which is entirely consistent. Gould's map shows it at the far western tip of Cape Jane Franklin, just north of Back's Bay and south of Victory Point; Barr's note in his edition of Klutshak's narrative places it "two miles north of Cape Jane Franklin."

The other features of the spot are also, perhaps, worth noting. Supunger and his uncle found a large wooden pole in the ground just beside this vault or grave. It had been chewed off a few feet above ground by a polar bear, but as wood was so enormously valuable they took a great deal of time and effort to dig it out of its foundation. Supunger described it in great detail:
"The part in the ground was square. Next to the ground was a big ball & above this to within a foot or so of the top the stick was round. The top part was about 3 or 4 inches square. No part of it was painted - all natural wood color."
To many who have read this account, it sounds as though it must have been a flag-pole, perhaps crafted on board ship by one of the expedition's carpenters. And whose grave would be most likely to have a flag-pole erected beside it?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Grave of Lieutenant Irving?

Without a doubt, one of the most poignant discoveries of the American Franklin Searching Expedition led by Frederick Schwatka was that of the grave of Lieutenant John Irving. Unlike other burials made farther down the coast of King William Island, Irving's grave had been constructed with considerable care and labor, with a ring of stones which, at one point, may have been covered over to make a complete sepulcher of stone. The remains were identified on account of a medallion, awarded to Irving for his achievement in maths, which was found lying nearby. Schwatka, moved by this memorial, did something only done once before -- he decided to collect the remains and send them back to England for burial. This was in fact done, and apparently the identification of the body was fully accepted; the remains were buried at Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh, in an elaborate ceremony presided over by Irving's brother, who by then had risen to the rank of Major General.

And yet supposing this was this Irving's skeleton, one wonders: how could this be his grave? Its site, quite close to that of Ross's cairn at Victory Point, poses a difficult puzzle; since Irving is mentioned in the Victory Point note as having found Ross's cairn, we can safely presume he was fit enough to be sent on such a mission. And yet here, a stone's throw distant, lies his grave? Did Irving meet with some sudden end, so soon after the Victory Point record that the main body of the expedition had not yet moved on? It's often surmised that Irving must have for some reason been sent back later to the ships, and that this explains the gap in time. Yet a grave such as his, with its heavy stones, would almost certainly have been beyond the means of a small party of men some time after the abandonment to construct; with scurvy and exhaustion rampant, the graves the later survivors managed -- when they managed them at all -- consisted of laying out the body and covering it with a few shovels of gravel. The men who built this monument must have been fit, and the time ample, for such a substantial undertaking.

And even then, the scale of the burial seems significant. Irving, as an officer, would certainly have received a formal burial of some kind, but the heavy construction of this tomb suggests that the body was that of a very senior commander. Elsewhere in this blog, I've passed along the "Supunger" tale, in which an Inuk hunter, quite near Victory Point, discovered a stone tomb, partially filled with water. The tomb was covered with heavy slabs of stone, but Supunger and his uncle managed -- with considerable effort -- to pry one off. Inside they found part of a skeleton, along with a few rusted relics, among them a clasp knife. Other parts of the body were strewn outside, and by this, along with claw-marks at the grave's edge, Supunger deduced that a polar bear must have broken into the grave. Might not this same grave, its roof removed and its edges eroded by a decade of frost, ice, and water, be the same one later found by Schwatka and assumed to be Iriving's?

The identification by the medallion is certainly a weak one. In the case of Le Vesconte, an examination of the skull showed a tooth with a gold plug that evidently corresponded with dental work that officer was known to have had. There's no indication that Irving's bones received any such examination; they were simply delivered to his family. And indeed the math medal, according to the accounts of Schwatka and his men, was lying on the edge of the grave. It might have been left there by anyone; indeed, if we assume that this is the grave of a more senior officer, it might have been left there by Irving as a tribute to a dead friend.

I'm providing links to the complete texts of the Supunger story, as well as to that of Schwatka -- perhaps a fresh look at the evidence is in order. Many who have read Supunger's tale have come to believe that the grave could only have been that of Sir John Franklin himself -- if indeed this tomb was the same as that found by Schwatka, it could well be that Franklin's bones have, in fact, already been returned to Britain -- but simply buried in the wrong grave!