Monday, December 9, 2013

The Boat

It's probably the best-known symbol of the failure of the Franklin expedition -- the whaleboat, loaded with all manner of material that added to its weight, drawn upon an enormous sledge with iron runners -- which some party of survivors dragged to their doom. McClintock described this "melancholy relic" in great detail:
"A large boat, measuring 28 ft. in extreme length, 7ft. 3 in. in breadth, 2 ft. 4 in. in depth. The markings on her stem were —" XXI. W. Con. N61., Apr. 184." It appears that the fore part of the stem has been cut away, probably to reduce weight, and part of the letters and figures removed. An oak sledge under the boat, 23 ft. 4 in. long, and 2 ft. wide; 6 paddles, about 60 fathoms of deep-sea lead line, ammunition, 4 cakes of navy chocolate, shoemaker's box with implements complete, small quantities of tobacco, a small pair of very stout shooting boots, a pair of very heavy iron-shod knee boots, carpet boots, sea boots and shoes—in all seven or eight pairs; two rolls of sheet lead, elm tingles for repairing the boat, nails of various sizes for boat, and sledge irons, three small axes, a broken saw, leather cover of a sextant case, a chaincable punch, silk handkerchiefs (black, white, and coloured), towels, sponge, tooth-brush, hair comb, a macintosh, gun cover (marked in paint "A.12"), twine, files, knives; a small worsted-work slipper, lined with calfskin, bound with red riband; a great quantity of clothing, and a wolfskin robe; part of a boat's sail of No. 8 canvas, whale-line rope with yellow mark, and white line with red mark; 24 iron stanchions, 9 inches high, for supporting a weather cloth round the boat; a stanchion for supporting a ridge pole at a height of 3 ft. 9 inches above the gunwale."
But that was far from all. Most poignant, perhaps, were the books -- those chosen from the shipboard library as worthy of hauling onwards -- and the silver plate, originally that of the officers, which had apparently been distributed to the sailors:
Five or six small books were found, all of them scriptural or devotional works, except the Vicar of Wakefield. One little book, Christian Melodies, bore an inscription upon the title-page from the donor to G. G. (Graham Gore). A small Bible contained numerous marginal notes, and whole passages underlined. Besides these books, the covers of a New Testament and Prayer-book were also found.
And, scattered amidst the rest, a flood of miscellaneous items:
"Amongst an amazing quantity of clothing there were seven or eight pairs of boots of various kinds—cloth winter boots, sea boots, heavy ankle boots, and strong shoes. I noted that there were silk handkerchiefs—black, white, and figured—towels, soap, sponge, tooth-brush, and hair-combs; Mackintosh gun-cover, marked outside with paint A 12, and lined with black cloth. Besides these articles we found twine, nails, saws, files, bristles, waxends, sail-makers' palms, powder, bullets, shot, cartridges, wads, leather cartridge-case, knives—clasp and dinner ones, needle and thread cases, slowmatch, several bayonet scabbards, cut down into knife sheaths, two rolls of sheet-lead, and, in short, a quantity of articles of one description and another truly astonishing in variety, and such as, for the most part, modern sledge travellers in these regions would consider a mere accumulation of dead weight, of little use, and very likely to break down the strength of the sledge crews. The only provisions we could find were tea and chocolate; of the former very little remained, but there were nearly 40 lbs. of the latter. These articles alone could never support life in such a climate, and we found neither biscuit nor meat of any kind. A portion of tobacco, and an empty pemmican tin, capable of containing 22 lbs. weight, were discovered. The tin was marked with an E; it had probably belonged to the 'Erebus.'" (italics mine)
The sheer quantity of material spoke of men, who, in their last necessity, had been unwilling to part with personal items or material that would be of little practical use on land. And then, as McClintock wrote,
"All these were after observations; there was that in the boat which transfixed us with awe. It was portions of two human skeletons. One was that of a slight young person, the other of a large, strongly-made middle-aged man. The former was found in the bow of the boat, but in too much disturbed a state to allow Hobson (McClintok's lieutenant, who'd found the boat first) to judge whether the sufferer had died there; large and powerful animals, probably wolves, had destroyed much of the skeleton, which may have been that of an officer ... the other skeleton was in a somewhat more perfect state, and was enveloped with clothes and furs; it lay across the boat, under the after-thwart."
In a footnote, McClintock notes that -- contrary to period engravings such as the one above -- "No part of the skull of either skeleton was found, with the exception of the lower jaw of each."

Today, the enigma of this boat -- why it was pointed back toward the ships and not to the Fish River, why it was so overloaded with useless materials, and who its last defenders had been -- is one of the most fascinating puzzles of the larger Franklin mystery. One can, though, thanks to the National Maritime Museum, search one's self and find nearly all of the relics described above.


  1. [corrected from above]

    As a result of research for my articles, "Scattered Memories and Frozen Bones" (skeleton east of Cape Herschel) and "An Arctic Execution" (Private Henry, Lady Franklin Bay Expedition), I have two comments: (1) McClintock was not a medical doctor, so for him to described the skeletal remains as belonging to "that of a slight young person, [and] the other of a large, strongly-made middle-aged man" could well be quite inaccurate. Even if a medical man was on the scene, I have my doubts as to whether or not he could have made such determinations. (2) It seems possible the skulls were removed from two dead men in order to smash into them and get at the brains - a source of food.

  2. Hi Russell. Object AAA2197 - The Glass Seal.
    Who did it belong too? I can no see the initials.
    Thanks Russ

  3. Hi Russell
    Object AAA2197 - The glass seal. Who did it belong to. I can not read he initials.
    Thanks. Russ

    1. Unknown. The initials on the seal are A and T but I believe these are just of Masonic significance, not a person's initials; in the middle is the word "KEEP."

  4. Glenn, I agree on both counts. As to stature, I'd think, McClintock would be reasonably accurate, but as to age I concur that he would be unqualified to judge. And yes, as to the skulls, it's is a distinct possibility -- see this post for a parallel example.

  5. It is interesting that appreciation about that the silver plate was distributed to the sailors. I wonder if that fact should be considered as a signal of mutiny. Perhaps the officers were so afraid of desertion that they accepted to drag with useless staff. Other theory is that they could have been thinking on trading with that things with the Inuit in future encounters.

  6. To DDD: It's a Masonic seal; I can't make out the letters either, though they may be "RKXM" -- I suspect it's a Masonic rank or acronym, not somebody's initials. According to a number of 19th-century sources, Sir John Franklin was a Freemason.

  7. Andrés, I don't think the distribution of silver plate was a sign of disorder -- rather, it indicates an orderly plan by the officers to preserve their silverware by giving it to the men in the place of their usual tinware. And yes, it's possible that this was done, in part, to enable any party who was able to contact Inuit to send, as it were, a message in silverware. Fuel for a further blog post!

  8. As usual, a very interesting article. I also believe that this boat constitutes one of the most interesting discoveries in the search for Franklin’s fate, but possibly not because of the items collected, but for the many questions that this discovery throws on the sequence of events during the retreatment to the Fish River.
    This boat quite certainly belonged to a party splitted from the main group, for whatever reasons, but possibly because they preferred to wait and die on the ships rather than succumb on the ice. The problem is that we don’t know how much time elapsed from the point where the survivors deserted the ships to the return of this party. I think that we can assume that, whoever they were, they had witnessed the disastrous retreatment and the terrible conditions under which many of their friends, colleagues and superiors sickened and perished. Had I been in that situation, I would have probably tried to get back to the ships, seen that there was no hope to be rescued: to die in a known environment can be a quite strong psychological support in desperate situations. This could also be some indication why so much impractical and useless stuff was never abandoned: this was their last tie with England, with their home and their past. To give it all up was certainly one very difficult decision, to give up the final and definitive link.

    There is another intriguing point concerning the discovery of the boat, namely, what Hobson and later McClintock may have observed and found but never wrote. We are all aware of the social effect that Dr. Rae’s information had on the British public, and if there were gruesome proofs or pieces of evidence supporting the 1854 reports, the explorers were certainly not interested in publicizing it. We may have some indirect evidence, as the absence of skulls, albeit this could have another explanation. Further, from the description is not entirely clear whether the boat was abandoned when the energy of the remaining survivors exhausted, or whether they all died in the vicinity of the boat. Did this party consist solely of this boat, or were there others? The main questions will always remain unanswered, unless some new and decisive evidence is found. Probably not even the ships, if they are ever found, will provide a full and satisfactory reconstruction of the events that led to the final disaster.

  9. One must not lose sight of both the archaeological and historical aspects of this boat site. The most significant of the former are that there were originally two boats and apparently campsites for quite a few men within a few hundred meters of the site (there are actually multiple sites stetched along the shore), and that the remains of at least 11 individuals have been forensically identified in modern times. From the Inuit testimony this was not only a major site, but was in their opinion, the FIRST POINT OF CONTACT with the living Franklin expedition, and what they believed was therefore the last campsite for looting as they retraced the kodluna's tragic last march in reverse (they never searched to the north of it until after learning of McClintock's finds on the NW shore - which much surprised them).

    I think, as I have written elsewhere, that these considerations call into doubt the prevailing assumptions (and they are no more than that) that:

    1. These bats were dragged from Victory Point and were therefore unnecessarily loaded (they could have been landed from the ships, post-1848, from just offshore.
    2. The direction the one boat was facing is significant (even McClintock questioned this).

    Thank you Russell as always for bringing this issue up, and for using the original account. Many other authors tend to conflate all of the finds recovered and add the medicine chest, "curtain rods" etc. to the list of boat contents to emphasize the "useless junk" idea. As a mariner myself I find little to criticize in the practical items (sail and boat repair and maintenance items mainly), think that there would be practical reasons to take identifiable and tradeable silver over anonymous and less attractive pewter, can personally attest to the need for multiple changes of footwear (including loose slipper-like in camp) in the arctic and, although not a great fan of the Vicar of Wakefield as literature, can see the utility of the books if only as fire-starter (two were only covers).



  10. Hi Russell, and as always thanks for bringing this most interesting aspect up for general discussion. Also thanks for using the original McClintock material, many writers try to emphasize the "useless junk" aspect of the theory by adding in finds from elsewhere like the medicine chest and "curtain rods".

    I personally find the most interesting aspects of this site come from post-McClintock work, both archaeologically and historically. Archaeologically recent work has confirmed that there were actually two boats nearby (as stated by Inuit) as well as other campsites along a stretch of a few hundred meters of beach and inland (so there is much more to this site than a simple single abandoned boat). Even more conclusive is that the remains of at least 11 individuals have been forensically identified, and that, again as the Inuit said, there was evidence of cannibalism here.

    Even more telling to my mind is the testimony that indicates that this site was the FIRST CONTACT site of living Franklin crew with the Inuit, who were of the opinion that this was the first place the expedition had touched in their land (they never searched to the north, and were surprised to learn of artifacts on the NW coast from the McClintock expedition). There is evidence, as I have written elsewhere at greater length, that they visited at least one ship in this vicinity which implies that the site is post-1848, and calls into question the usually unquestioned assumption that this boat was dragged the long distance from Victory Pt (it may simply have been landed ashore from the nearby ship).

    As a professional mariner myself I can find little to quibble with on most of the material in the boat - mainly sail and boat-maintenance items that would be needed (including the heavy sheet lead). I can, from painful personal experience, attest to the need for multiple footwear styles in the arctic, even to camp slippers (I used insulated booties) to relieve the pressure on frozen feet long confined in boots. Silverware, as you state, had two practical advantages over anonymous sailor pewter - it was often marked with identifiable owner crests which would (and did) alert those who found it to its source, and it was more useful in trade. If they survived (we must always remember that expedition members didn't know that they were doomed, as we do) it could also be "bought back" or simply recovered to pay for expenses in civilization (food, transport home etc.). Although not a great fan of the literary merits of the Vicar of Wakefield, even the books served practical purposes as firestarter (two were only covers), and offered paper for last notes or instructions.

    As always there is ample room for speculation concerning the "boat place" which helps keep the discussion alive.



  11. Thanks Russell for this excellent post. Before reading "The Voyage of the Fox in the Arctic Seas" I was particularly interested to learn what McClintock had to say regarding the skeletons in the boat, and in particular, whether or not there was any mention of the skulls. I remembered reading that the skulls were missing (maybe in one of the books in my library? maybe on this blog?) and wanted to confirm what McClintock decided to publish about this important detail.

    The version of the book that I have- the 2012 edition- describes the state of the skeletons in chapter 15, pp 235, but contains no mention of the presence or condition of the skulls or jawbones. There were no footnotes in the edition. I also scoured the book's endnotes and appendix but found nothing further about these crucial details, which had considerable ramifications in regards to offering possible support for Dr. Rae's account. I would imagine this was a very difficult decision for McClintock to make: I'm curious, would you mind sharing which edition of McClintock's writings (or other possible source) contain the footnote regarding the skulls and jawbones?

    I also wanted to comment on McClintock's observations of the skeletons themselves and Glenn's mention that McClintock was not a doctor, nor was it likely that one was in his party in order to make distinctions on the stature of the individuals- especially without the skulls- but thought I would suggest this may have been determined by the size and shape of whatever clothing remained, which would in fact provide insight as to the height and build of the deceased.


  12. Hi Greg, many thanks for your comment, and my apologies for this belated reply. As to the mention of the absence of the crania from the skeletons in the boat, this is present in the original edition from John Murray, published in 1859; I suspect that your 2012 printing is based on the "popular edition" of 1908, which seems to omit the reference. Thanks for catching this! As to the deduction of age from the remains of clothing, that certainly seems plausible; I wouldn't entirely discount McClintock's opinion.

  13. Remember Beechey Island how they found winter gloves set in the sun to dry and other artifacts that indicated the camps had been deserted in a headlong rush? What if the ship/s had been locked in ice at this location for such a long time they actually moved desks and formal dinnerware ashore- then when the ice suddenly broke the crews hastily remained the ships and abandoned the last crew who were too weak to move the last overloaded boat?

  14. The tea and chocolate make perfect sense. They had some hard ground to heave (probably coming from Terror Bay in a failed attempt at heading north is my guess), and would have needed something warm to wet their wissels. Maybe what they didn't expect to encounter was that Erebus Bay was ice locked, so a sledge party continued on, and met with some kind of misfortune out on the ice. I think it's compelling they only found 1 empty can of pemmican, almost like the sledge party meant to return but never did, for some reason. Maybe that's there source of Adam Beck's massacre story?