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?


  1. I'd add that, in his afterword to William Barr's edition of Klutschak's narrative, Owen Beattle singles out the sketch and description of Irving;s grave for special praise, but adds: "Our own search of the area failed to locate the site of Irving's grave and, as Schwatka had removed the skeleton, we were not surprised that no additional materials were found, though the camp site occupied by the Franklin expedition crews immediately after abandoning their ships is still clearly identifiable."

  2. Russell,

    What a cracking start to the New Year!

    These two descriptions certainly do seem to correlate. I think you are right to challenge the identification of the person buried in this grave with Lt. John Irving purely on the basis of the medal, especially given that we know he was not just alive, but fit as well, at the time the Victory Point was written.

    The 'coarsly stitched canvas' the body was apparently wrapped in sounds like the material of a hammock. I believe sewing the body into a hammock was traditional for a burial at sea, and it suggests that whoever this person was died on a ship considered to be at sea. That would not apply to Irving. (Presumably the deaths at Beechey island counted as burials on land as the ships were 'in harbour').

    The 'pole' sounds to me more like part of a cross raised over a burial than a flag-pole. Perhaps in imitation of the stone crosses which you see in English churchyards. I base this on the description of the foundation of it, in the ground, being square with a 'ball' next to the ground and then a round shaft rising up from it. I've seen many crosses like that but I've never see a flagpole with a ball on it. Surely a flagpole would be made from a round-section ship's spar?

    Here's another thought. Looking through my trusty 'Woodman' I wonder if this grave might be the one near Victory Point described by Peter Bayne (p229 ff)? His testimony referred to 'one man [who] died on the ships and was brought ashore ... [who was] not buried in the ground like the others, but in an opening in the rock, and his body covered over with something that 'after a while was all same stone'. Perhaps the sand which Su-pung-er found inside the grave could be accounted for it there was an attempt to seal this 'tomb' by filling it with water and sand, hoping it would freeze solid?

    It's funny that no-one has really questioned the identification of the person buried here with Irving until now. Russell, you do seem to be aggregating evidence to suggest that this might have been Franklin's grave? One possible confirmation might come if a physical anthropologist could examine the remains buried in Irving's tomb in Edinburgh. It might be possible to make a rough guess at the age of the deceased at the time of death . Irving was 33 in 1848, whereas Franklin died in 1847 aged 61.

    Interesting speculations (but no more).


  3. Happy New Year to all,as William has said what a cracking post to start the New Year.
    It's got me thinking to what if and it's a big if.that this could be the grave of Commander Gore,he was after all 3rd in Command after Sir John Franklin's death in June of 47,and maybe they had buried him near to where he had left the message at Victory point of 28th of May 47.
    There are a lot of if's i know,but it's not inconceviable.

  4. William, and Bill, many thanks for your astute comments.

    Gore would certainly be a leading candidate, if indeed the grave is not Irving's. The conjecture of a shipboard death seems reasonable; perhaps the body had been prepared for burial in the traditional "at sea" manner, and the abandonment hastened matters. The fact that the grave is adjacent to what must have been the expedition's first camp on land suggests someone who died around this time.

    The Bayne suggestion is a wonderful one -- the description matches reasonably well -- except that the actual burial could not have been witnessed by Inuit. Supunger and his uncle, it seems clear from his account, were among the very first to visit the site, and they learned about it from the Kabloonas; the Inuit never normally visited the NW extreme of KWI.

    The pole could have been a cross, but if so it was a quite a large one. The chewed-off part was also recovered by Supunger, and he showed Hall that two parts together would have been about four feet in height. If there were a cross-piece, one wonders where it would have gone, given that the site had been undisturbed by man until Supunger's visit. Still, it's quite conceiveable; Schwatka himself had a wooden cross made and attached to the cairn at Erebus Bay.

    Such a substantial memorial, in any case, still suggests that the person buried within was of special significance, I think.

    I would hesitate to suggest exhuming any bones, though, on the basis of our very interesting discussion here -- however, given the disparities in the location of this grave (Barr puts it two miles further north than it's shown on Gould's map), and its substantial size, perhaps it could yet be relocated today, and further remains recovered.

  5. Russell,

    Great post and certainly a terrific start to the new decade!

    This is why I was wondering if any kind of examination of Irving's remains had ever taken place. It appears as if the remains were accepted as being his based on the presence of an officer's uniform and the medal.

    From the Victory Point document, we know that the ships were north of Cape Felix in May 1847. This would (seem) to make Cape Felix a more likely location for Franklin's grave if he were buried ashore.

    Schwatka said. "The reader must remember that nearly all Arctic graves are built upon the surface being side walled with large stones collected in the vicinity.... (this sounds like Seepunger's vault)

    "Just outside the broken down walls of the grave, we came upon the skull. The larger bones were scattered over a wide area; the smaller more perishable ones having been completely lost...." -page 82, The Long Arctic Search, Schwatka (edited by Stackpole)

    The Victory Point record implies that Lt. Irving was alive. What is strange about the record is the discussion about finding the note in a cairn "supposed to have been built by Sir James Ross." It seems like they weren't sure of where Victory Point is and just how did they come to assume the cairn had not been built by Ross? Perhaps it was and Ross' position was off or theirs was? Otherwise the cairn was built by Gore's party or conceivably the Inuit.

    The discussion of these details doesn't fit with the major statements about deaths, dates and position given in the Victory Point Record. Perhaps this is a glimpse of some larger issue that we do not know about or maybe it was just what was on Fitzjames' and Crozier's minds.

    Schwatka gives the location as being 4 miles south of Victory Point. "This spot was about 4 miles south of Victory Point and at the same time it was found I believed it to be a new discovery not seen by McClintock who located his cairn at Victory Point." -page 83

    Bill's idea about burying Commander Gore at this location makes sense because it is nearer to the ships position when they were deserted and Gore's party is presumed to have surveyed the last link in the passage which is about where the grave is located.

    The simplest solution is that the grave is Irving's. On the other hand it's like we're trying to make a picture by connecting only a few scattered dots.