Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Two Grave Bay

Detail of map by Heinrich Klutschak
It was one of the more poignant finds of the expedition led by Frederick Schwatka from 1878 ti 1880. In the words of journalist William Gilder, who accompanied the searchers, "we found the graves of two white men, near one of which was lying the upper part of a skull; within the pile of stones we found the upper maxilla, with two teeth, and a piece of the cheekbone. No other human bones were found; but these were laid together for burial on our return." The find was apparently the cause for the name "Two Grave Bay," which isn't mentioned as such in Gilder's text, but appears quite clearly on Klutschak's map as "Zwei Gräber Bai." Klutschack noted that “the builders of this grave no longer had the strength to build an above-ground grave out of large rocks” and that “a few stones were all that they used to cover the corpse."
Gilder waxed a bit more poetic: 
"Near Point le Vesconte some scattered human bones led to the discovery of the tomb of an officer who had received most careful sepulture at the hands of his surviving friends. A little hillock of sand and gravel - a most rare occurrence upon that forbidding island of clay-stones - afforded an opportunity for Christian-like interment. The dirt had been neatly rounded up, as could be plainly seen, and everywhere, amid the debris and mould of the grave, the little wild flowers were thickly spread ... The fine texture of the cloth and linen and several gilt buttons showed the deceased to have been an officer, but there was nothing to be seen anywhere that would identify the remains to a stranger. Every stone that marked the outline of the tomb was closely scrutinized for a name or initials, but nothing was found."
And now, with thanks to a number of searchers, this reburial site has had a proper archaeological examination. First relocated in modern times by veteran Franklin searcher Tom Gross, the area was visited this summer by the team from Adventure Science, who observed grave-like features, as well as a cairn, in this same vicinity. They alerted officials in Ottawa and Iqaluit, but were unable to do more than photograph the site, as they only had a Class I permit. Doug Stenton, however, has apparently had this spot on his list for some time, and already had the necessary Class II permit in hand; news of his work at the site this summer shows that the material there still matches very closely with what Schwatka and Gilder reported. According to the CP24 website,
"Stenton and his team recovered three metal buckles, 10 gilt buttons and remnants of an 11th made of mother of pearl. Stenton said such accoutrements were likely only worn by officers or senior-ranking members of Franklin's crew. Stenton said his team then found human bones some distance away, including an intact skull and jawbone, as well as a partial calf bone."
It should be noted that this particular site, roughly that of #6 on Klutschak's map, is some distance out on an island out in the bay; the team reached it via a lift from helicopter pilot Alexander Stirling, whom many will recall as the man who first spotted the davit part that led the Parks Canada team to "Erebus."

Dr. Stenton has been in the process of accumulating a database of DNA from recovered remains, as well as obtaining samples from known direct or collateral descendants of Franklin crewmembers, so there's a chance that, once the laboratory work is done, the remains might be identified. Even if not, we are sure to learn more about the life -- and the death -- of one of Franklin's officers, and in the long run this kind of work offers us the best chance of reconstructing what happened to these men once they left the shelter of their ships, and set out on what was to be their last, desperate journey by land.


  1. I look forward to hearing more about this.

  2. The odds are that this is one of the surviving lieutenants, but...

    One of the great unanswered mysteries of this tragedy regards the fate of Captains Crozier and Fitzjames. How far on the march did they make it? If these remains could be determined by DNA to be one of them, even the mere location of their graves (and thus, deaths) could tell us a great deal.


    1. Yes indeed. So far, alas, there hasn't been a DNA match of any of the remains with any descendants. The crew was fairly young, and many did not have children; the kinds of lineal descendants that would be ideal for this purpose can be hard to find. But certainly, if we could ID the senior officers, that would tell us a great deal. Doug Stenton is doing this work, and I hope that eventually he will find some matches.