Saturday, February 19, 2011

Franklin's Arctic Voyageurs

Although best known for his final, fatal voyage of 1845, Sir John Franklin's initial fame rested upon the near-disaster of his expedition to the Polar Sea in 1819-1822. It was this journey, which ended in starvation, cannibalism, and murder, which earned Franklin the lasting sobriquet "the man who ate his boots," proving once again that, when it comes to Arctic exploration, risk is everything.

Not that the Royal Navy was opposed to outsourcing some of that risk -- indeed, they did so quite readily -- and, since they were sticklers for paperwork, we have the contracts to show it. My thanks to Laurent Veilleux for sending along links to these contracts, which have been preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale du Québec. They are part of the documentation for Franklin's third Polar expedition, not his disastrous second -- I had to do a double-take at first, since one of the more notable names here is that of Solomon Bélanger, a man who, considering that he saved Franklin's life on one occasion, and suffered being berated by his employer on another, might understandably have been reluctant to sign up for another tour. The pay was good, though -- and why not? -- and this time, Franklin guided his men through their voyage without major loss of life.

As it happens, Bélanger was to survive Franklin by nearly 16 years; he died in the parish of St. Jacques de l'Archigan, Québec, in April of 1863, having traversed the route to the Polar Sea twice, though without any memorials having been erected to his name.


  1. Dr. Potter,

    I just finished Dan Simmons' The Terror, and upon quick research, I found this site, and mention of your book and travels. Very interesting stuff. Your blog posts are succinct and informative. Congratulations on your successes with this subject!

    --Steven E. Belanger (possible relation to Solomon?)

  2. M. Belanger, many thanks for your kind words! Were you to be related to Solomon, that would surely be an honour.

  3. Solomon Bélanger, dit “Le Gros” is certainly a very interesting character.

    According to Lanoue and Courteau (“Une nouvelle Acadie: Saint-Jacques de l'Achigan, 1772-1947”) , after retiring from the voyageur life, he became an HBC agent in St-Jacques de l’Achigan and started a very profitable business of “Ceintures Flechées” aka “Assomption or Achigan Sashes”, supplying the raw material to weavers and coordinating the distribution of the finished goods.

    What’s more interesting is that, according to the online HBC archives, he WAS recognized for his participation to the Arctic exploration. I don’t have a copy of Poulsom’s to verify if this is correct, but if I understand right, he signed a certificate of acceptance for an Arctic Medal on November 12, 1859, along with Peter Warren Dease, John Corrigall, Richard Turner and George Sinclair. I don’t have the details on this award, but if true, this shows that he was not completely forgotten by his contemporaries.

  4. The medal roll for the Arctic Medal 1818-1855 (ADM 171/9)has him as "died" and there is nothing to indicate the medal was ever issued.

    However, Poulsom & Myres' "British Polar Exploration and Research" (2009, p. 114) states that "a Solomon Bellanger also appears in the Company's Medal Roll for both 1824 and 1825 for an unknown period of the Arctic Land Expedition under John Franklin 1825-27. As there is a receipt in the Company's records signed by Solomon Belanger (one 'l')for the medal presented to him by Sir George Simpson for the expedition under Sir John Franklin in 1821 - "having accompanied that Expedition as far as the Arctic Sea" - he clearly did not die!"..."he evidently received one from amongst those issued through the Company for the later expedition."

  5. Glenn, thanks so much for clearing this up! I wonder whether there may be any descendants, and whether this medal might be preserved ...

  6. Bonjour Mr. Stein,

    Fascinating stuff. Thank you very much for taking time to look it up.