Thursday, March 31, 2016

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Paul Fenimore Cooper

It may come as a surprise to many to learn that a descendent of James Fenimore Cooper -- his great-grandson Paul Fenimore Cooper -- made significant contributions to the search for remains of the Franklin expedition. It's appropriate, in a way, that this scion of an author known for his writing about the western wilderness in centuries past should find himself drawn to the tale of a lost Arctic navigator and his men.

Cooper was born in 1899, and grew up in relative privilege, attending  the prestigious Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut, then Yale University and Trinity College, Cambridge. He showed an interest in writing early on, and served for a time as the editor of Yale's campus humor magazine, the Yale Record. His primary career was as a physicist, but he regularly returned to his literary pursuits; his best-remembered book is probably the children's tale Tal: His Marvelous Adventures with Noom-Zor-Noom, which has been reprinted as recently as 2001. But it was with his long out-of-print account of the Franklin mystery, Island of the Lost, published in 1961, that he made his most significant contribution to the literature of the Franklin search.

In the book, Cooper offers a comprehensive history of the island, which he refers to by its Inuktitut name, Kikerktak (Qikiqtaq in modern orthography). He begins in glacial time, and tells of the arrival of the earliest pre-Inuit Dorset people as well as their more modern followers. He then gives an account of all of those expeditions -- George Back, James Clark Ross, and Dease and Simpson -- whose journeys took them to, or at least, near, its shores. Cooper then gives a succinct account of the arrival of Franklin's ships; while he was well aware of the 'standard reconstruction' (his correspondence with R.J. Cyriax, now at the Canadian Museum of History, was voluminous), he believed that the 1848 abandonment served a dual purpose -- to get to a place where there was game (the mouth of the Back River) and thence to dispatch a smaller party, using lightened ship's boats, to ascend the river and send rescue. His reconstruction also includes the re-manning of one ship, which he places, in accordance with Inuit testimony, off O'Reilly Island.

The latter part of the book gives a good account of those searches that reached as far as King William, and here Cooper was ahead of his time. Unlike Cyriax, who discounted Inuit testimony, Cooper trusts their information, and his book shows careful reading of Hall's and Schwatka's accounts. A brief final coda looks at "King William Island Today," though one has to read between the lines to realize that the last few pages are in fact based on Cooper's own two visits to the island in the early 1950's.

A fuller account of his visit was made within the friendly pages of the punningly-titled Arctic Circular, the relevant volume of which is freely available online. Cooper was accompanied by his wife and his son, Paul Jr.; on their flight to Gjoa Haven they had the pilot fly low over O'Reilly Island, hoping to spot a ship from the air (a hope which, as we've found with the discovery of H.M.S. Erebus in only ten meters of water in 2014, was not unjustified). They then headed up to the northwestern coast of the island, re-locating and occupying a camp left there by L.T. Burwash and Dick Finnie. With them they also brought Father Henry, a well-known missionary then stationed at Gjoa Haven.

On one of these trips, Cooper picked up or otherwise acquired an artifact at Franklin Point that has since grown considerably in significance. It was a plank, its edges smoothed somewhat by weathering, with a large nail or spike protruding sharply through one side. At the time, he wasn't quite sure what to make of it (he never described its discovery in detail) but he did have the good sense to entrust it to the National Museum. It has now been identified by Dr. Karen Ryan of the Canadian Museum of History as almost certainly a piece of deck-planking from one of Franklin's ships. The artifact will be on public display for the first time in 2017, as part of the Museum's upcoming Franklin exhibit; it would also be a lovely turn if someone would -- as did the Arctic Press with Cyriax's book -- undertake to reprint Island of the Lost. It's still a quite good introduction to the Franklin mystery, and one that ought to be on the shelves of anyone who, like Cooper, wishes to re-imagine the last days of Franklin's men.

Cooper retired in the late 1960's, and died in 1970 in Cooperstown, New York -- his family home, named after yet another one of his illustrious ancestors.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

A Chronometer 'Frozen in Time'

It was abandoned in the Arctic, buried in the snow and ice not far from the place that Charles Francis Hall had dubbed "Thank God Harbor," where his bones rested in a hasty grave while those he once commanded scrambled for survival. Manufactured in New York by Thomas S. Negus, it had been given the number 1366, and issued to the "Polaris" as part of Hall's equipment. And, against all odds, it survived four years of exposure to cold and the elements, being found and retrieved by the Nares expedition. Nares brought it back to Britain, to the Hydrographer's Office where naval chronometers were kept, and at their behest it was cleaned, repaired, and returned to the U.S. Naval Observatory, who sent it back to its maker for further adjustment. The experts there reported:

"We have the honor to inform you that we have repaired and put in good order the Chronometer Negus 1366, recovered from the Arctic Regions by the English Arctic Expedition. We found in an excellent state of preservation, considering its exposure through four Arctic winters with the thermometer recording as low as 104 degrees below freezing, as reported by Captain Nares."

Put through its time trials, it was found to be accurate to within two-tenths of a second in twenty-four hours, which Negus noted was "but a slight variation from the rate it had in June 1871, when we rated it for the [Polaris] expedition." It was then decided not to issue it to another vessel, but -- as the logbook of the Observatory indicated -- to "keep it as a trophy for the Naval Museum."

Courtesy U.S. Naval Obeservatory Library
In 1893 it was displayed at the World's Columbian Exposition in the Naval Department, next to one of the chronometers that had been issued to the equally ill-fated Jeanette expedition. The logs of the Observatory chronicle other minor events in its career, including an additional time spent back at its makers for cleaning and adjustment in 1906. After that, the trail grows cold, and by the time that the historical collections of the Observatory were inventoried in 1993, the only item recorded was the brass plaque that once adorned its wooden case. I've written to the Observatory's library to inquire after it, and have received a number of helpful replies, the effect of which is that they have not yet been able to determine its present location.

It's possible that Negus 1366 was transferred to another agency, perhaps one of the Smithsonian museums, or that it had been leant out for some other purpose, without a record being made, then not returned. I hold out some hope that it may yet found; it's hard to imagine a more storied instrument, bound up so intimately with both American and British exploration in the nineteenth century -- and I have a feeling that, if it is, it will still be found to keep excellent time.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

True Story: W. Parker Snow and the Franklin Relics in Lincoln's Coffin

W. Parker Snow, wearing his Arctic medal
Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction -- an observation that has a special resonance in the history of Arctic exploration. With this post, I'm inaugurating a new occasional series of 'strange things' up north, and it's hard to think of a better candidate for the first installment than William Parker Snow.

Snow, a man who quest for making a name for himself in the Arctic always seemed beset with troubles, is best known for his involvement with the "Weesy Coppin" clairvoyant episode. Although not as well publicized at the time as other would-be Franklin soothsayers, the story of Captain Coppin's daughter Anne, and the "revelations" given her by the ghost of her dead sister Louisa ("Weesy"), later became the stuff of legend. The Reverend J. Henry Skewes, who first broke the story in 1890, met with skepticism in many quarters -- that is, until Snow stepped forward to vouch for it, and more: to disclose that he himself had first been guided to take up the search for Franklin by a message from the spirit world. Early in that search, Snow had served as the second officer aboard the Prince Albert, the first private vessel dispatched by Lady Franklin, and by all accounts served well; on his return he published an account of the voyage, which enjoyed modest success.

His later pursuits -- both navigational and literary -- met with less success. Hoping to command his own voyage in further pursuit of Franklin, he purchased a small ship, the Thomas, in Melbourne, Australia and had her outfitted for a polar voyage. He sailed for the Arctic, accompanied by his wife and a crew of four, in June of 1853, but encountered a storm which damaged the vessel, and dissent among his crew; the voyage was abandoned. He then took up missionary work, heading to Tierra del Feugo and the Falkland Islands, but was dismissed by his employers; at some point during this period his wife suffered a nervous breakdown from which she never recovered. Snow came next to America, where he was briefly allied with Charles Francis Hall, and was engaged by Hall to help him compile and edit his Life Among the Esquimaux. Snow, however, proved to be a most unreliable collaborator, dragging his heels for months at a time with almost no work to show for it, and complaining frequently of "fearful troubles" of an unspecified nature. Hall, exasperated, cancelled their arrangement and finished the book himself, only to have Snow later complain that he, Snow, had written almost the entire volume!

He apparently was having some sort of breakdown himself, but, never one to miss an opportunity, he found a way to insert himself into the preparations for the burial of Abraham Lincoln. Approaching General John Adams Dix, he offered Franklin relics and, remarkably, Dix accepted them. According to the New-York Herald:
Captain Parker Snow, the distinguished commander of the Arctic and Antarctic exploring expeditions, presented to Gen. Dix, with a view of their being interred in the coffin of the President, some interesting relics of Sir John Franklin's ill fated expedition. They consisted of a tattered leaf of a Prayer Book, on which the first word legible was the word "Martyr," and a piece of fringe and some portions of uniform. These suggestive relics, which are soon to be buried out of sight, were found in a boat lying under the head of a human skeleton.’
How Snow would have gotten hold of such things, which could only have been brought back by Sir Francis Leopold McClintock, is a puzzle -- apparently, they were accepted at face value on account of his reputation -- and, so far as anyone knows, they're still in Lincoln's coffin to this day.

Snow's later years seem to have been as unhappy as his earlier ones; after being profiled in the popular Review of Reviews in April of 1893, he wrote a letter to the editors, appraising them of his dire personal straits and offering his library of books for sale to save himself from privation. It's unclear whether such a sale ever took place -- though at least one book from his library, his copy of Life Among the Esquimaux -- eventually made it into Chauncey Loomis's hands. Filled with angry marginal comments pointing to "theft" of his words by Hall, it was one of Loomis's key sources on the Hall/Snow relationship in his book Weird and Tragic Shores. Scarcely a year after writing this letter, William Parker Snow died; according to the DNB, his wealth at death was a mere £80 17s., 0 d. -- the papers with which his small apartment was filled were later sold to the Royal Geographical Society.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Franklin artifacts in dispute?

The big news out of the north this week is that there's a dispute over the disposition of the relics so far -- and yet to be -- retrieved from Sir John Franklin's flagship, HMS "Erebus." Some Inuit organizations, along with representatives of the Government of Nunavut, have invoked the archaeological section of the Nunavut Act to lay claim to the artifacts themselves, or at least to the right to insist that the protocols of the Act be followed -- which include consultation with local Inuit communities, a written application, and evidence that the person or persons doing the retrieval of artifacts has the proper archaeological credentials. According to the Nunatsiaq News, Peter Taptuna, Nunavut's Premier, citing Article 33 of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, says that "there are some disputes on the ownership of certain relics, certain things that are found on the sea-bed."

But there shouldn't be. Despite the fact that the NLCA has a clause stating that "this Article shall apply to marine areas of the Nunavut Settlement Area," there's a long tradition in international and Canadian law that salvage rights to ships of a nation's navy belong to that nation -- in this case, the British government. In the particular case of Franklin's ships, there also exists a memorandum of understanding, signed by representatives of the Canadian and UK government, that states that, once a ship is found, that the ownership of any articles discovered there "shall be transferred" to the Canadian government (though there has not, as of yet, been a formal enactment of this provision by the UK). Furthermore, the site of the "Erebus" (as well as the site of the "Terror," even though it's presently unknown) have been designated as national historical sites, which generally means that federal Canadian law applies and supersedes territorial law.

Parks Canada, to its credit, has -- despite the fact that it may or may not be legally required to do so -- assiduously followed the provisions of the Nunavut Act, and has consulted with Inuit throughout the process; there's certainly no shortage of qualified marine archaeologists among their team. And yet, apparently, the Government of Nunavut has balked, at least once, at allowing the work on the site to proceed. Some of the regional Inuit associations are reported to not want the artifacts to 'leave Nunavut,' apparently concerned that if they do, it might prevent their being displayed in Nunavut near the site in a manner that would help generate much-needed tourist income.

But herein lies a problem: the Nunavut Act also insists that artifacts be properly conserved and stored, and at present, there's simply no place in Nunavut that is capable of doing so. The "Nunavut collection" at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre -- which came into existence with the territory in 1999 -- is full, and in any case, the GN has not appointed any curator, or appropriated any funds, for its care. There are temporary protocols in place that have fixed this problem for now, as the Canadian Museum of Nature has become a designated repository for artifacts found in Nunavut, but of course there's no way to get the items there without their leaving the territory.

Back under the previous government, an announcement had been made that a Franklin centre was to be built in Gjoa Haven, news which -- though welcomed by most folks there -- was regarded with understandable suspicion, since the plan was announced without any consultation with the Inuit Heritage Trust or local Inuit. I think it's the hope there -- it's certainly my hope -- that the Trudeau government will honor this plan but improve upon it, taking the time to make the consultations that weren't made the last time. Having a facility there which could store and display selected artifacts properly would be a tremendous boon the local economy in Gjoa Haven and a source of pride for all Nunavummiut -- and it would, I hope, address the concerns over the disposition of the artifacts recovered, and yet to be recovered, from among the timbers of Franklin's ship.