Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The "Other" Franklin Record

The original Franklin record left near "Victory Point" on King William Island in 1848 is quite well-known, and has been discussed at length here and elsewhere. Far less common is any mention at all of the other official Admiralty form, very similar in every respect (save the fateful addendum in the margins) to its brother. Both records were filled out by James Fitzjames aboard HMS Erebus, and both repeated the same mistakes (the longitude given for Beechey Island is too far to the east by several miles, and the year of the ships' wintering there is misstated as 1846-47 rather than 1845-46). The other record was recovered at what became known as "Gore Point," the tip of the peninsula that forms the western side of Collinson Inlet. The location is consistent with the idea of Gore and Des Voeux having commanded a party sent out to survey the western coast of King William Island, with the presumed goal of reaching Simpson's cairn on the shores of Washington Bay; such a party would have skirted the coast, taking advantage of the still land-fast new ice for smooth travel. On the Gore Point record, the only significant difference is that the phrase "All Well" was not underlined.

So, at first glance, this second record adds little to our understanding. And yet, having been deposited just 8 miles -- possibly one day's march -- south of the VP record, it strongly suggests that Gore had been instructed to leave a record frequently, perhaps daily, on his southward trek. One might reasonably expect, then, several other such records were left along the coast, and might yet be recovered. The most important of these, of course, would have been at Simpson's cairn, but since by the time McClintock reached it, it had been opened, this record will probably never be recovered (the attractive part of it, from the Inuit point of view, would have been the metal cylinder, which could be re-purposed for all manner of useful things). But would certainly be worth looking for the others -- a surviving record would be far more significant than, say, a toothbrush.

It is tantalizing to think of Gore's possible achievement of the long-sought dream of linking the eastern and western surveys of the Northwest Passage -- it seems hard to imagine he would have missed his goal. We know that he returned alive to the ships, as his promotion to Commander must surely have taken place on the death of Franklin, at which time Fitzjames would have been acting Captain of the Erebus, and Gore presumably promoted to acting Commander. The idea that he would have been promoted for finding Simpson's cairn, however, has less to recommend it; such field promotions were exceedingly rare in the Navy outside of battle situations.  And, alas, since Firzjames refers to him in the VP record as the "late" Commander Gore, he must have died at some point between his return to the ships and the depositing of the 1848 record.

So was a Passage then undiscovered? Not necessarily, since as they passed along their weary and ultimately fatal retreat, Franklin's men encountered the Inuit at Washington Bay, and the presence of human remains further along the southward-tending and southern coast indicates that they must all have reached and passed the location of Simpson's cairn. In so doing, they indeed 'forged the last link with their lives.'

[With thanks to Garth Walpole for tracking down Cyriax's article on the KWI records]


  1. Writing plainly (and without a hint of malice), the significance of WHAT was discovered and WHEN has always been tied to observers' viewpoints from past and present.

    Through my many years of studying polar history - and in particular British Arctic history and the 1850-54 expedition of HMS "Investigator" - I have come to take a broader view regarding the "discovery" of the North-West Passage. At the heart of this view is the fact that there are several "passages".

  2. Glenn, I agree with you wholeheartedly! I would only add that whoever reached Simpson's cairn at Cape Herschel did at least chart one passage. If one defines a discovery as bringing the news home, or defines making the passage as traversing it (and then must it be all on board ship, or partly on foot on more than one ship), then there are different answers of course. I think there are plenty of laurels to go around to honor Franklin's men alongside M'Clure, Rae, and Amundsen, without diminishing the accomplishments of any of them!

  3. You bring out an excellent point, Russell - there are indeed plenty of laurels to go around when it comes to Franklin's expedition and those who searched for he and his men.

  4. Thank you Russell for shining some light on this vital yet seldom mentioned part of the Franklin story.

    I am curious to know which record was found first: the Gore Point record or the Victory Point record? From what I understand, it was Hobson's team that first found the VP record, and his route of exploration was from North to South down the West coast of KWI while McClintock traveled down the East coast. Logistically it would make sense for the Victory Point record to have been found first, and given the gravity of it, the discovery of the other record may have been somewhat of a moot point. That said, was it Hobson/McClintock that found this note, or was it discovered by someone else later on?

  5. I'm away from home and my library, but I'm certain Hobson found both notes.

  6. "...a surviving record would be far more significant than, say, a toothbrush."

    Good point. Franklin searchers had some reason to believe that notes might be buried 10ft North of a cairn. (I'm not sure where this idea originated).

    Today it would be much easier to search for such a note using a metal detector. It should be possible to detect either a metal cylinder or the nails used in a wooden box.

    During the 2012 search, Doug Stenton used a metal detector at the Erebus Bay site and I think that is how they found a button.

    The 2012 search area seemed to be limited by the location of the CCGS Sir Wilfred Laurier whose primary mission was to chart a passage along the West side of King William Island. Perhaps they will be heading somewhere else this year since they finished the survey last year.

  7. I've just been checking up on this in my copy of "The Voyage of the 'Fox' in the Arctic Seas". It seems that Hobson discovered the Victory Point note whilst travelling south, and left details of it for McClintock at Cape Herschel. He then discovered the Gore Point note whilst returning northwards, and left details of it for McClintock at Victory Point.

  8. The Gore Point record was given to Lady Franklin, and eventually became part of the collections at SPRI -- I believe that this record is that for the Gore Point document.

  9. Thank you very much Russell! But there isn't any known picture of itm is there? At least as far asI know.

  10. Thanks for a very interesting article on the Gore point record.
    As Andrés, I am also interested if there is some reproduction of this record available. It is a pity that any piece of paper left by members of Franklin expedition is thoroughly analysed and discussed, and this important message is usually described only as "almost identical"... :-)

  11. I think as AI facial recognition technology gets more popular to process old pictures, we'll see more identifications like this. They're already using it to ID unknown subjects in American civil war photos https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/facial-recognition-software-helping-identify-unknown-figures-civil-war-photographs-180970863/