Saturday, July 18, 2015

Credit where Credit is Due (Part 1)

Paddy Gibson and Inuit, Richardson Island, Coronation Gulf, Sept. 1930
We've heard a lot in the press lately about who deserves -- or doesn't deserve -- credit for the magnificent 2014 discovery of HMS "Erebus." However that debate plays out -- and journalist Paul Watson promises his story will be out next week -- there's another, deeper kind of credit that's not yet been part of the conversation, either in Canada or abroad -- that due to the nearly fifty expeditions prior to Parks Canada's entering the field in 2008.

The count of fifty opens with L.T. Burwash in the 1920's, and "Paddy" Gibson-- Louie Kamookak's grandfather -- in the 1930's. Both these men, who were already present as part of their daily employment -- Burwash for the Northwest Territories government, Gibson for the HBC -- took advantage of their proximity to search anew for remains of Franklin's men. Burwash's finds consisted mostly of fragments of rope and cloth, but Gibson found numerous human remains -- including the skeletons of at least four individuals in the Todd Islets, who might represent the very last survivors. Louie has taken people to this site repeatedly over the years; its proximity to Gjoa Haven would make archaeological work there easy to support -- but so far, Doug Stenton and his colleagues have stuck to Erebus Bay.

The list goes on with L.A. Learmonth, another HBC employee; like Rae, he was an Orkneyman, and had an ability to survive and thrive, supporting himself on long journeys, that became the stuff of legend; he located the remains of at least three individuals at "Tikeranayou," a site ten miles west of the purported location of Starvation Cove (itself another site that's never had proper archaeological study). Henry Larsen was next, in 1949 (not long after he became the first to traverse the Passage from West to East) to search the coast from Cape Felix southward; a skull he found there was later identified as Caucasian.

Searches, though more sporadic, continued through the 1950's, with Paul Fenimore Cooper walking King William in preparation for his book, Island of the Lost. In 1962, Robert Cundy led an expedition to the mouth of the Back River, hoping to locate a cairn in which Franklin's men might have deposited their last record -- but instead found only a note from the Geological Survey of Canada saying they'd checked already and found nothing.

In 1967, a military exercise, "Operation Franklin" -- the only government-sponsored search of its kind to that date -- searched multiple areas, though an old boot-heel and some wood (quite possibly from the "Erebus, "which they'd dived near without discovering) were the sole results.

And then, in the 1970's came the "Franklin Probe," the first co-ordinated search, led by Bob Pilot and Stu Hodgson (the latter then the Commissioner of the Northwest Territories) which traveled to Beechey Island, Cape Felix, the Boothia Peninsula, and Starvation Cove, leaving historical markers as they went (it's always helpful when, since you are the government, you don't have to bother about permits).

By the time Owen Beattie conducted his two searches of King William Island in 1981 and 1982, his was, in fact, the sixteenth search of the twentieth century. He, as had others before him, found bones (including several which had already been seen and described by Gibson, but unlike Gibson he didn't leave them, or rebury them with a salute. He took them back for study, opening the era of serious archaeological work on Franklin expedition remains.

In Part II, I'll trace the searches from 1982 into the 1990's, which by any measure were the most productive ones of the modern search era.


  1. It seems that each expedition builds upon the information gathered by its predecessor. No one enterprise is done in isolation, each one learns from the other. There is glory enough for all in this undertaking!
    When the divers were about to descend to the Erebus last fall, there was part of a video clip where they were discussing what they were about to do, and how truly special this moment was. They realised this whole business was larger than any one person. I appreciated their approach to the work!

  2. Well written Russell and Don.