Monday, June 24, 2019

Earliest photos of graves at Beechey

Graves at Beechey; photo by Allen Young (courtesy of Doug Wamsley)
In the quest to understand the history of the graves of Franklin's men at Beechey Island, and more particularly that of the markers themselves, I've had occasion to track down the earliest known photographs, which are seldom seen today. With the invaluable help of my friend Doug Wamsley, I've been able to see two of the very earliest: that taken during Sir Allen Young's "Pandora" expedition in 1876 (above), as well as an earlier, though much faded, image made in 1858 by Dr. David Walker, who was then aboard Sir Francis Leopold McClintock's yacht the "Fox" (below). These two photos give us invaluable evidence as to the early state of these graves and their markers, and may help clarify the situation today, when some of the replica markers are likely to have been inaccurately placed.

1858 image by David Walker, courtesy Doug Wamsley
One of the more confusing features of these graves is that they seem to have had markers or stones at the foot of the graves, as well as headboards. The gives the leftmost grave in the Young image of being two graves, until one sees the burial mound that connects them; the same applies to the middle grave. In the grave mound closest to the shore (the rightmost), the foot marker is obscured, I think, by its neighbor's headboard. Lastly, at the far right, one can see a tall, rounded white board unlike the others in scale and shape -- this is almost certainly the one made from a repurposed door, which Todd Hansen believes was most likely that of Thomas Morgan. There is one further headboard visible at the far left, which, if Hansen's conjecture is correct, must be the cenotaph erected in memory of Bellot.

With Dr. Walker's image, which has faded considerably, we're on somewhat firmer ground: the perspective is head-on, with only the headboards visible. By turning up the contrast, as I've done here, we can see four clear markers, as well as a dark area at the far right which may be in imperfect image of the marker closest to the shore (or that marker may have fallen).  From this angle, one can see that the furthest shoreward marker is set apart from the others by a greater distance, which again seems consistent with its being Bellot's; in neither image is any grave-mound seen in its vicinity.

There is one last image, which may well have been based upon Young's; this was an engraved vignette in the Illustrated London News article about his voyage. The engraver here has helpfully separated out the headboards by showing them in lighter colors, with the mounds and foot-markers much more darkly shaded. This version also seems to show a cross-piece on the rightmost marker, clear evidence that it must be the modified door, as this was the only marker to have that feature.

So what does this all mean? Well, we can judge something by the shapes: the innermost marker, has the same squared-off rounded shape, which corresponds with Torrington's marker (the second to outermost) as well as the large "tablet" marker Hansen believes was Bellot's. Hartnell's similarly-shaped but far shorter headboard seems to come next from the left, though it's similar enough to Braine's that it's hard to say precisely; it's perhaps no wonder that the NWT staff charged with inserting the replica markers got these reversed.

These features correspond with Walker's and Young's photos -- and Young's adds one further, striking detail: just as described by Miertsching and Robert Goodsir, the three Franklin graves appear to be quite black, while both the "tablet" and "door" markers are brightly white.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

First sight of the graves at Beechey

We often hear about the first discovery of the graves of Franklin's men at Beechey Island -- but not, before now, have we had a vivid a first-hand description of the event. Thanks to the discovery of an 1880 newspaper article by Alison Freebairn, we now have a reminiscence by none other than Robert Anstruther Goodsir, brother of Harry, who by his own account was the first to reach the graves originally sighted by Carl Petersen. It's such a fascinating, gripping account that I'm going to give it almost in its entirety. In my next post, I'll give the rest of his account, which has elements in it that suggest that his memory was not quite as "undimmed" as it seemed, but never the less there's no question that he still recalled -- and felt -- the events with extraordinary vividness some thirty years after the events.

It is to the day on which we discovered the first traces of the ill-fated ships and their crews––ere yet we had come to talk of " relics," ere yet the least sanguine had lost hope. And albeit it is but an old tale re-told, I can tell it with undimmed memory, for as I put down the paper I have just been reading, and with closed eyes sadly allow each clearly cut outline, each unblurred detail to display itself to my mental vision, I forget that I have to bridge over 30 years and three months to do so; I forget that most of the eager faces I see so plainly about me have long been dust; I forget that nearly all of the well known voices I hear so distinctly have long been stilled in the grave.

I write now of what I saw, and what I did and felt on that day with as little stretch of memory as when I sat down the same evening to enter it all in my journal. Much writing in journals and filling-in of log-books was done that night. There are but few who may read these lines that can recollect or realise the intense interest with which everything connected with the name of Franklin at that time excited. Five years and six months had then elapsed since they had sailed from Greenhithe on the 15th of May, 1845. Alas six times five years have now run into the past, and still all we hear of is––relics. Sir John Ross that night, in his close little cabin in the Felix, recorded many marvellous things. Kane, in the Advance, was inditing all that his bright, observant eye had seen. Sherard Osborne that night must have filled sundry folios of that huge, ponderous bank-ledger-looking tome––an awe-inspiring volume it was, which used to make us wonder at the man who could have the courage to contemplate the idea of ever living to cover its wide-spreading pages with closely, neatly written MS.

The day previous to that of our memorable landing at Beechey Island (which had been appointed a place of rendezvous by the different commanders), we had crossed the mouth of Wellington Channel and stood some ten miles to the westward. Here Captain Penny, of the Lady Franklin brig, examined a bay with the view of making it his winter quarters. Captain Ommany had also before this examined the bay with the same view, and named it Assistance Harbour, though, as it turned out, only Penny's two brigs and Sir John Ross's little Felix ultimately wintered in this place. Here a party, of which I was one, was landed to examine the coast thence to Cape Hotham, on the western side of the mouth of Wellington Channel, whilst the vessels put about and ran back under easy sail to Beechy Island, where theymade fast for the night to the "land ice."

During our walk that day, and close examination of the beach, we found various undoubted proofs that parties from the Erebus and Terror had been here before us, but still nothing of any importance. At one place, which I recollect looked as if it had been camped at for some time, I picked up a nondescript sort of apparatus made of hoop iron, something between a long grappling iron and a naturalist's dredge. Many conjectures were formed at the time as to what this had been need for. During the whole day's march a bright look-out was kept for cairns, which we expected to find papers left by the Erebus and Terror, but we did not fall across anything of the kind.

We returned on board that night in a hopeful mood, for, although we found nothing of importance, yet we knew that we had struck the trail, that the scent was strong, and that we were in a fair way of soon gaining more explicit tidings of the lost voyagers. I was the first to start early next morning for the shore, accompanied by John Stuart (the late Dr. John Stuart, of Sandhurst), Petersen, the Esquimaux interpreter, and Alexander Thompson, a seaman. Proceeding across the land ice, we could see on our right front to the eastward the precipitous limestone cliffs and the flat table-top of Beechey Island ; to the left, and stretching westward, the long, gradually sloping and descending gravel spit nearly reaching the opposite cliffs, which there trending northwards, rounded into Wellington Channel.

Our little party made for the lowest orwestern end of the spit. Where we struck it, it rose rather abruptly from the ice, about 10ft, but before we had put foot upon the shingle the quick eye of Petersen had seen something, and his shrill cry in broken English of "Caneesterres! Caneesterres !" made our hearts beat faster with the knowledge that the scent was again breast high. I can hear Petersen's cry, and his next more stirring exclamation ringing in my ear at this moment. Quickly breasting the loose and shifting shingle, we saw before us a neatly-built pyramidal cairn of canisters or meat tins, about 9 ft high, a little broken at the corners by the bears or from other causes, but still evidently carefully constructed ...

Our excitement was at fever beat, for scarce a second elapsed between Petersen's first exclamation and his next more startling cry of " Mans! mans!" his Scandinavian features all aglow, and his blue eyes almost starting from their sockets. Almost at the instant of his utterance I had descried three dark objects about a mile off, where the spit merged into the talus at the foot of the cliffs of the northern sideof Beechey Island. God! Can I ever forget the strange feelings of that half-hour of half hope-the deep excitement with which I started off at headlong speed towards these dark objects, all too willing to be cheated by the thought that the Dane's vision was quicker than mine, and that they were, indeed, men? I recollect dashing down my gun ere I had gone many yards; I recollect tearing madly at the strap of my telescope (a rare Dollond, the gift of ever good and kind Lady Franklin), and of recklessly casting it on the stones. Ammunition belts and pouches were cast aside. I recollect slackening pace for a second or two to get rid of my heavy pea coat and sealskin cap until I could speed more freely along, with the panting Petersen well behind, whose wind had not been improved by years of semi-Esquimaux habits. I recollect noting as I sped along the thousand articles with which the beach was bestrewn, pieces of rope, fragments of timber, scraps of iron, but I did not pause, though I remember me well of gasping out to myself the word 'wrecked.' I recollect that soon after starting I became satisfied that the objects towards which we were so anxiously pressing could not be men.

I recollect that my next idea was that they were huts, and deluding myself into the fond fancy that a filmy smoke rose from one or all of them. I recollect how soon this idea also proved a mockery, and that as I quickly, stride by stride, drew closer and still closer to the dark objects, the ghastly truth dawned upon me that it was their graves that I at last stood beside. Three heavy slabs of wood shaped like humble headstones, painted black, their backs to me, and on the other side the low, oblong-rounded mounds, under neath which three at least of those we were in search of were peacefully lying. 

How well do I remember the pause I made, when the still, quiet desolation of all around me was unbroken, save by the quickly-advancing steps of Petersen crunching over the gravel, the loud beating of my heart and quick-drawn breathing, ere I could gather courage to advance and read the inscriptions that I rightly guessed would appear on the other side of the headboards. I dreaded seeing the name of one near and dear to me who had sailed in the Erebus. After the names, my next glance was at the dates: from these I could judge that in this bay the Erebus and Terror had lain during the winter of 1845-6.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Grave mysteries of Beechey Island

The Franklin expedition graves on Beechey Island are probably one of the best-known and most often visited sites in the Canadian Arctic, and have been a place of pilgrimage almost since their first discovery -- made by a detachment of men from William Penney's search expedition in 1850. The graves of their three most famous occupants -- John Torrington, William Braine, and John Hartnell -- were opened in the 1980's, and a forensic examination of their remains made by the anthropologist Owen Beatte -- during which time photos of the men's faces made headlines around the world, and were the subject of his and John Geiger's groundbreaking book, Frozen in Time.

But what's far less well-known about the Beechey graves is that there's still a measure of uncertainty about which is which. I've guided expedition cruise passengers there for years, and the first question I'm inevitably asked is, what's with that first seeming burial mound -- closest to the shore -- without a marker? The traditional answer has been that this was the site of a memorial to Joseph René Bellot, which was shaped in the manner of a wooden headboard. This headboard, along with all the others, was removed in the 1970's by the NWT government, and taken to the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre for conservation and storage. Resin replicas replaced them, but these did not last well; treated wooden boards with bronze plaques replaced those -- and these are the markers we see today. It was decided at that time not to replace Bellot's marker, since that would confuse visitors by making them think he was buried there, rather than lost in the sea-ice some miles distant. And yet, to this day, other sources of confusion persist.

To begin with, there are not three graves but four -- the fourth had was added early on, as Thomas Morgan, late of HMS Investigator, died on his way home while aboard HMS North Star -- this has been assumed to be the grave furthest from the beach, and the replica headboard is there. Then, due to a mixup when the replacements were installed, Braine's and Hartnell's markers were reversed, adding to the work needed to properly interpret the grave sites. And now, thanks to a recent study of the original markers by Todd Hansen, it seems there may be a further issue: the wooden door originally thought to have been the Bellot marker is not nearly as tall as the other markers; it seems unlikely to have been large enough to contain the lengthy tribute -- 17 lines -- it was said to bear, while a taller, rounded "tablet" marker" seems more likely to have been his. But if that's the case, the taller marker -- which originally adorned the furthest grave -- suggests that that it -- not the first one -- was the site of the Bellot marker, and that the closest grave may actually be a grave, with Morgan at rest beneath its stony mound. Corroborating this, no such substantial mound is to be seen behind the present-day Morgan marker.

Hansen's inference seems to me a sound one -- but it's complicated by the fact that neither panel has any surviving writing legible upon it. It's possible that the inscription for Bellot was stamped into lead tablets, similar to those that originally hung on the pillar next to Northumberland House; since the "tablet" marker is extremely worn down, it's also possible that the wood containing painted letters simply wore away. All the markers, now part of the Archives of Nunavut, are presently in temporary storage outside Ottawa at a facility operated by the Canadian Museum of Nature; one can hope that, when the time comes for them to be sent to a permanent home in Nunavut, further study can be conducted using modern, non-destructive techniques.