Saturday, August 6, 2016

Utensils and the Franklin search

Sometimes, the humblest objects of daily use tell a tale more eloquent, more rich and complex, than anything we could gain from written records. Such is certainly the case with the material relics of the Franklin expedition. Setting aside those with greatest seeming significance -- Franklin's Hanoverian badge, the infamous dipping needle, or Des Voeux's shirtsleeve -- some of the most common items recovered have the greatest potential meaning for those attempting to reconstruct the last months of the Franklin expedition. I refer, of course to utensils -- forks, spoons, and the occasional knife -- which were recovered by many early Franklin searchers from Rae to Schwatka -- and which, even today, have not yet been systematically examined for what they can tell.

The utensils, most of them quality silver plate, were initially recognized on account of the family crests on their handles, which showed them to be from the families of officers such as Franklin and Crozier. Franklin's distinctive crest -- a conger eel's head between two sprigs -- was the most commonly found, suggesting that his plate had been first and widely distributed among the sailors; perhaps the most poignant of the crests was that of Fairholme -- a dove with an olive branch and the motto "Spero meliora" -- I hope for better things.

And yet there's more: on the stems and undersides of these same spoons and forks, there are found the scratched initials of other men, most of them ordinary seamen. The only explanation seems to be that, prior to the abandonment of the "Erebus" and "Terror," the silverware of the officers of both ships was distributed to the men for their use. In some cases, as with Franklin's, this was because the officer in question was deceased -- but the principal reason, doubtless, was to preserve the silver plate without burdening any one party with too large a quantity. And, since the silver plate from the officers from each ship was distributed to sailors aboard the same vessel, the discovery of a fork or a spoon -- provided its provenance can be definitely settled -- may give us a very likely indication of the path of the crew of that ship.

The pattern seems suggestive -- for instance, nearly all of the utensils recovered by McClintock at Cape Norton on the eastern side of King William Island were connected with the "Terror" -- there were two Franklin spoons marked "WW" (William Wentzall, seaman) and WG (William Gibson, steward), both of the "Terror," along with a Crozier fork and a teaspoon of Alexander McDonald, assistant surgeon. Only one item -- a Fairholme teaspoon -- was associated with the "Erebus." Now that we know that the "Erebus" was piloted to a point much further south in Wilmott and Crampton Bay, that would seem to explain the paucity of silverware from her officers -- and so, might the frequency of "Terror" forks and spoons then suggest its having sunk nearby? If so, this would certainly fit in with L.T. Burwash's theory that a Franklin ship sank in the vicinity.

When McClintock visited a party of Netsilingmiut near the North Magnetic Pole, which would have been near the next general transit of such a journey, he obtained mostly utensils from the "Erebus," although a lone McDonald fork was among them; this would now seem to suggest that perhaps a party from that vessel passed through this area. But of course, utensils could very well have been obtained through trade with other Inuit. What then, of spoons or forks with a clearer provenance? Alas, even when we have a utensil handed in by someone who claimed to have originally found it, the evidence is very mixed. The famous spoon offered to Schwatka (see above), complete with the Franklin crest and a distinctive mending job where the cracked bowl had been repaired with copper, is one such example; the giver, one Nu-tar-ge-ark, could offer only a clouded account:
He said it was given to him by some of his tribe, and that it had come from one of the boat places, or where skeletons had been found on King William Land or Adelaide Peninsula, he could not remember exactly where. 
(see the "Schwatka" chapter of my Finding Franklin for a fuller account of this spoon).

Since the vast majority of this silverware is now catalogued online, it's a question that offers at least the possibility of an "armchair" solution. Most of them are catalogued at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, with a few others -- part of the Lefoy bequest that included Sophia Cracroft's collection -- are now at the Scott Polar Research Institute. Another small collection was retained by Dr. Rae, and later given by him to the University of Edinburgh, these do not seem to have been given detailed analysis (although, judging from the images as they appear in the SCRAN database, they unfortunately seem to have been polished!). 


  1. Silver kills germs. Could sickness or bad food have been the reason for distributing the silverware?

    1. I'm not sure that this quality of silver would have been known by the Franklin expedition -- I suspect it was much more a case of finding a way to retain the utensils without any one person having to carry a big sack of them.

    2. I don't know when this was first realized, but I have read that Hippocrates was aware that silver had some medicinal value. It occurs to me that if the officers guessed that lead poisoning was becoming a bigger problem among the ranks than among the officers, they might have gotten rid of any pewter utensils. Officers might have had a lower level of lead before the expedition left port.

    3. Well, I do know that lead poisoning was not widely recognized in 1845 -- this despite the fact that the ancient Greeks (e.g. Nikander of Colophon) had demonstrated that it could cause illness. Like so many things, it had to be re-discovered in modern times! But in the 1840's, the pathology of lead poisoning was not widely understood, and it's not clear to me that any of the Surgeons on board the two vessels would have suspected lead as the culprit. Ordinary seamen on most of her Majesty's vessels, in any case, used pewter and tin plates, cups, and utensils all the time, so I can't imagine that silver would have been suggested as a safer replacement!

    4. Franklin's crew was not the last to experience lead poisoning. In the book, "In the Kingdom of Ice", author Hampton Sides describes the effects of lead poisoning on the crew of the USS Jeannette, ca 1879-1881 when that ship was in the Arctic near Siberia. When I was reading the pages 205-206, I could just visualize Franklin's crew struggling down KWI with those symptoms. In the case of the Jeannette, it was the canned tomatoes that was the culprit.

  2. So, when the Victory Point note was written, there would have been a return to both ships at a later date, not just the Erebus. Perhaps by this time survey parties had by this time established the island nature of KWI and when the ships were freed, one ship went down the east side (Terror) and one down the west (Erebus). They may have intended a rendezvous at some point and from there, were to sail for home. Could the larger campsites (at Terror Bay and Erebus Bay) have been the result of one ship's complement awaiting the arrival of the other? Could the conflicting stories of "Aglooka" be due to the fact that the Inuit were describing different leaders at different locations?
    The "death march" along the shoreline of KWI also came to mind. If memory serves correctly, there was a general path of crew dying off as they apparently moved eastward from Terror Bay toward the Great Fish River of the mainland. Could those bodies actually have been testimony to survivors returning to the Matty Island area where rumours of a cache of wooden crates were?
    Even if this was all true....what of the Erebus? The accounts I've read seem to suggest a small surviving crew finally abandoning her (with their dog) and walking to points unknown. If that is true, what happened to her crew?

  3. It has always struck me as interesting that many have condemned the crew for hauling shiny trinkets and yet many of these were found with the Inuit years later. I wonder if the silverware was taken along to use but also to serve as possible bartering material? That way it would serve a dual purpose. Since it was recovered, it must have been desirable to possess.

  4. Yes, I agree. I was just talking (via e-mail) with James Savelle, who has done a great deal of fieldwork on KWI, and that was one of his well-taken points: both for Franklin's men, and for the Inuit, acts of giving and exchange were both economically and culturally significant. Knowing this, to some extent, the senior officers must have to some degree been thinking that to distribute their utensils was to maximize the chance that, through such exchange, word of their situation would reach much further than it would otherwise. Savelle mentioned, and I would second, a consideration of Marcel Mauss's The Gift in this regard.

  5. Forgive me but I had to google "the gift" LOL, but I concur! If one had to carry one's "kit", why not carry one with a higher "cash surrender value"? And shiny silver spoons should carry more value than dull pewter. At least in the eyes of those carrying them.
    All of these theories and thoughts make your last post about the politics of artifacts ownership all the more much is still waiting to be discovered and it is stalled!
    As more officers died, and the men too, it must have been easier to more evenly distribute the silverware to dwindling numbers.
    And one more random thought......when the crew left the Erebus, did they take a ship's boat with them and coast the shoreline? Did they go east to the Fish River.....or west toward the Coppermine?

  6. Just wondering if anyone had done studies of the canned goods of the "Investigator" of Rob't McClure? Would be interesting to compare the two ships and their provisions if possible. Since its discovery I hope there are sample cans available.