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.


  1. Unfortunately, Miertsching says nothing about headbord and/or marker for Thomas Morgan; his only comment is: "Sein Leichnam wurde neben den drei Franklinschen Gräbern auf Beechey Insel begraben."

  2. Walker's image looks like a paper print. The original daguerreotype, wherever it is - would show a much clearer image.

  3. I had no idea that that David Walker photo existed. *Amazing* to see such an early record of the Beechey graves.

    Russell, this raises a question that has long perplexed me: Are there any operative theories as to why Franklin seems not to have left any note or record behind at Beechey? The Admiralty provided him with an abundance of message tubes and printed forms for just such a purpose, if I'm not mistaken (section 19 of the Admiralty orders). And if he had, surely it would have been found by now, even more easily than McClintock's expedition located the Victory Point cairn....

    I can well understand the possibility that he might have needed to leave Beechey in a hurry, if the ice gave little warning of summer breakup; but he had all winter to make provision for leaving *some* record of his progress.

    1. The best explanation I can offer was that, indeed, they left in a hurry. It is possible that they left a sign with a record of their date of departure -- see the post on the 'Shining Skin' -- or it's always possible that there is a message in some spot that has not yet been searched.

    2. Thank you - I had overlooked your 'Shining Skin' post.

      I remains possible that Franklin (or one of the other captains) left some other sign or note, either now lost to the elements or yet to be found - it is disappointing as you said, that no real archaeological work has been done at Beechey since the 1980's. But the hard reality is that the more time that goes by, the more chance that anything left could be lost to the elements...

      I do not doubt Beck's 'Shining Skin' story, confirmed by Ross, but the date really does seem hard to accept. The ships would have needed to cover nearly 70km per day to reach the point where they were beset off KWI. Perhaps, like Franklin in the Victory Point note, the writer got the year wrong or (more likely) Beck simply misread the date. But I take your point that it is merely suggestive of some other, more substantive sign that Franklin may have been left behind, now lost to the elements, or buried unfound.

      But a hasty departure seems like the more likely explanation.