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!


  1. Just a p.s. to this posting -- I have found that the NMM has photos and information on a number of relics brought back from Irving's grave -- most significantly, quite a few fragments of the blue officer's coat or jacket -- which you can see here, along with images of the sailcloth the body was wrapped in, and even the sledge-harness, which you can see is marked "T11" not "TII." The general index can be had here, and if you search for Schwatka you can bring up the rest of the items ...

  2. Russell, you posts this year have been outstanding! A lot to digest but well worth it.

  3. Russell, thank you for all you do regarding this fascinating yet tragic expedition and the mystery surrounding it. I really enjoyed reading Irving's letters to his sister and friend. It brought tears to my eyes; they just don't write letters like that anymore.

  4. Russell,

    Thanks for the link to the book of John Irving's letters. I had to pay the British Library to photocopy them!

    Irving wrote well, as did so many of the officers who sailed with Franklin.

    Here's a little puzzle for your readers. Did Irving have any contact during his years in Australia with John Gore, father of Graham Gore, or indeed with Graham Gore while he was 'down under'?

    I believe the Gores and the Irvings farmed only about 100 miles away.

    Thanks for all your great posts.


  5. Thanks all, for the kind words. I do someday mean to finish one of my longer-term projects, which is an edited volume of all the men's letter's sent back from Greenland, along with a selection of those undelivered letters sent by their friends and families to them.

    I would be surprised if the Gores and Irvings did not have some communication -- I'll look into it!

  6. Again, many thanks for sharing this.

    Two observations about Supunger's vault. 1) There is no mentioned of a casket of any kind. 2) The pole described is large enough that it does not sound like something that would have been salvaged from a lifeboat, though its cross section (4X4) is similar to some parts of McClintock's sledge.

    The pole and vault would have taken time and care to make and do not seem like the product of a retreating party.

    It sounds like Cyriax has answered my question about "Crozier's Landing" vs Victory Point.

  7. A superbly interesting series of posts Russell. There's no portrait of Lieutenant Irving but I found one of his brother Lewis:
    From reading the memoir it seems that the person Irving addresses as his 'sister Katie' is actually his sister-in-law, Lewis' wife.

  8. Very interesting. I do hope the siter is marked in some fashion so it can be preserved. However I must respectfully disagree with:

    "While I don't necessarily agree with every part of it, there's no arguing with the bulleted points."

    Well I guess I'm just a bit skeptical of Inuit accounts filtered through European expectations.

    As for the comments about whether or not starving men would have been able to build this grave? Well having seen Kolyma and Auschwitz I woudn't be quite so cavalier about what starving men could or could not do.

  9. I'm sure Dave Woodman has the GPS coordinates for this site, should someone wish to revisit it.

    As to the bulleted points: these aren't Inuit accounts filtered through European expectations -- it's a series of logical conclusions based both on Inuit accounts and the reports of multiple Franklin search expeditions. Had the Inuit known sooner of the immense cache of goods at Crozier's Landing, they surely would have gone to retrieve it, as surely as any of us would go after heaps of twenty-dollar bills dumped in our back yards. Wood and metal were more precious than gold in the pre-contact and early contact eras. That no Inuit arrived at this location until 1860 or later is very solid evidence that none of them knew about it before then.

  10. We will just have to disagree. I am far from convinced that the Inuit accounts are descriptions of Franklin ships to begin with. That is where the European expectations come in.

  11. I wouldn't disagree that European expectations, culture, mindset, etc. all play a role. But there was no other paired set of sailing vessels in the area of the Netsilingmiut or the Utjulingmiut Inuit during this period, so this part of the testimony seems to have no alternative explanation. Of course, beyond that, there are many areas where expectations and a certain romanticism come in -- Hall's idea that "Aglooka" must have been Crozier (or indeed that everyone the Inuit called "Aglooka" was in fact the same person) is one good example.

  12. It seems clear that whatever ships were seen by the Inuit, it was not near Victory Point. No one [even American/European explorers] would have resisted the temptation of taking as much as possible from the abandoned equipment, and as Russell said, wood was more precious than gold. On the other hand, the natives had probably few occasions to see ships, either abandoned or manned, thus they would very well remember one such encounter.
    Having discarded all other possibilities of paired sets of sailing vessels, I find it probable that they really saw the ships of Franklin. As for the final position, we have to take into account ice derivation or the possibility that the ships were remanned and piloted. But all this deviates from the main question, namely, whether the grave was Irving’s one or not. I tend to believe it was not. The medal is too weak an evidence, as any other object had already been stolen, and this one was probably found because it escaped to the Inuit’s attention. Three would be the suitable candidates, two of which are known to have reached Victory Point. If we assume the grave was constructed after the (first?) time the ships were deserted, then only two would justify the heavy work on the grave. And if it was some other officer, it would be very helpful to know the identities of those who died before April 25, 1848.

  13. What a wonderful photograph of the grave! Wow! That's so thrilling to see, and I'm so glad it still exists so intact!

  14. As a newcomer to this blog I hope this is not a stupid question but having just seen the C4 documentary, where did the Innuit testimony on the lone Innuit enetering a ship and being warned not to go to an encampment on shore originate from.

    Regards Paul