Sunday, September 19, 2010

New Franklin Find Claimed

In a story first noted on William Battersby's blog, adventurer and television presenter "Bear" Grylls has claimed a new Franklin find off the coast of King William Island in Nunavut. The exact location of the find has not been disclosed, although it appears to be somewhere off the northeast coast of the island. In Grylls' account, on the northern side of a tiny islet they dubbed "Jonesy Island" after their engineer, they found signs of three large fires "on the side of the island abutting Wellington straight [sic]" which they surmised to be signal fires lit to attract rescuers; they also found "part of a mast" blown up on shore, whale-bone pins, stone tent circles, and "human remains buried in western looking graves."

Since their initial description is rather vague (they even describe the area as "uncharted" though that's clearly not true), I can't say for certain whether this specific site is, in fact, previously known. That Franklin survivors would burn scarce wood as a signal seems a bit farfetched, unless they actually believed a ship to be nearby, and if indeed the site dates to the Franklin era, any grave would be "western style" since Inuit of this period did not build permanent graves of any kind. The tent circles could be Inuit; an expert eye would be needed to tell, and probably a closer site survey; bone pins suggest pre-contact Inuit, and that the site was in use well before the arrival of any Europeans.

On modern charts, the description seems to match the area of the Tennent Islands, the largest of which is Qikiqtarjuaq (not to be confused with the island of the same name off Baffin Island). And there is, in fact, an Inuit account of Franklin materials from this area; the Inuk Hall knew as See-pung-er (the same who was among the first to obtain materials from near Point Victory) said that "he had also seen a monument about the height of a tall man at another point between Port Parry and Cape Sabine." Hall asked him if he had torn down this cairn, and See-pung-er answered "only enough to find something within." This something, Hall was disheartened to hear, was a tightly-sealed tin canister which was "full of such stuff as the paper on which Hall had been writing," and since it was "good for nothing to Innuits" it had been given to the children, or thrown away. See-pung-er went on to say that he and his uncle had camped near the site, wrapping themselves in blankets they found in a pile of white men's clothing; he further mentioned that a "kob-lu-na's skeleton" lay nearby.

So the new "discovery" sounds to me very much like the same site, or one closely related to that seen by Grylls and his party. It's possible that some of the surface artifacts were unrelated to Franklin's men, but the description of the graves certainly sounds telling; they also saw a small scrap of blue cloth, which could be connected to the pile of clothing, or one of the graves. The site should certainly be visited by trained archaeologists, as there has not, in modern times, been any effort to retrace Franklin men's footsteps in the northeast area of King William Island, though it is fairly clear that some of them must have fled there, or paused in their flight elsewhere.

This story has since broken into the public press, with an article in The Independent on Sunday which gives Grylls' account in a way similar to when it was first posted on his own blog; the persons consulted by the reporter seemed to feel this was new news -- but in fact, as in so many cases, it's most likely a site already visited by Inuit early on after Franklin's men perished, and documented in Hall's notebooks.


  1. Now the story has been picked up in the Nunatsiaq News. Not much new information, though.

  2. Thanks, Russell! This is intriguing to say the least.

    On William's blog, you mention Cambridge's Professor Peter Wadham having found some evidence during an expedition to KWI (in the 1990s-?) that at least one party of Franklin survivors having headed north up the east coast of KWI. This perhaps, as you wrote, ties into Hall's Inuit accounts and the current discovery or re-discovery of the Grylls NWP charity effort.

    Could you explain more about what Professor Wadham and his team found on KWI?

  3. Peter Wadhams' finds were actually on Prince of Wales Island, along a possible escape route back up Peel Sound. In 1994 he found remains of a whaleboat near Back Bay which were very similar to the whaleboat found by McClintock on King William Island.

    It was due to the confusingly vague account that first surfaced on Grylls' blog pages that I'd initially thought his find, too, was on Prince of Wales Island. So at the moment, I don't know of any connection between the two, other than that they both may possibly be evidence of other groups of Franklin survivors.

  4. Thanks for the clarification, Russell. We'll all have to wait Gyrll's people or Parks Canada to specify the location. In any event I hope Parks Canada sends a team to the site next summer if possible.

  5. The sheer size of the north, the breadth of the water passages, and the distances travelled by the Inuit every year, by explorers like Rae and by expeditions hauling literally tons of gear, and the utter desolation of the region never ceases to amaze me. Discoveries like this and maps like the one you link to bring that to light every time for me.

  6. Jonesy Is. is at 69.34N -95.875W. See-pung-er was not good at reading maps. When Maj. Burwash found a second cairn near Crozier's Landing, a few stones were missing from the top and any message it had once contained was gone. This is just how See-pung-er had left it. I think See-pung-er mistook Cape Sabine on the map for Cape Felix, and Port Perry for Collinson Inlet.