Friday, February 28, 2020

The Three Franklin Records

Nearly everyone who develops an interest in the lost Franklin expedition comes -- sooner rather than later -- upon the famed "Victory Point" record. In the contrast between its bold and confident original message and the second, sorrowful one in its margins, it's the most potent encapsulation I know of the whole tragedy that befell Franklin and his men, and has been studied for years in search of any additional clues that might be preserved in its peripheries.

But it's not as well known that that a second record, minus any marginal message, was deposited by the same sledging expedition that left the first. It was found by Lieutenant Hobson at a cairn only eight miles south of that at Victory point, surely less than a day's hauling, suggesting that Gore and his party must have had a practice of leaving a message in a cairn at each prominent headland. The area where the second record was left is now known as Gore Point; doubtless there were many others which are now lost.

But there is yet another record -- one fewer still have seen.  This third record (actually the first, in order of which they were deposited) was mentioned by Richard J. Cyriax in several of his papers, but never reproduced. My friend and fellow Franklinite, Gina Koellner, found a xeroxed copy among Cyriax's papers at the National Maritime Museum. Happily, the xerox included the index number for the original at the National Archives at Kew, and that's where Gina found it, glued down to a sheet of paper that was bound into a larger volume; you can see the stitch-marks on the binding at the left. Just recently, another far-faring Franklinite, Logan Zachary, re-visited Kew to take high-resolution photos, and that's the occasion for this post.

Location where record was left, via Google Earth
Now, for the first time, we can see the third record in all its glory. Perhaps the most notable feature is Sir John Franklin's bold signature -- clearly, it had been usual practice for him to sign these forms personally, which makes it seem the more likely that the later records -- where his second, James Fitzjames had simply written "Sir John Franklin commanding" -- are a sign of Franklin's illness or incapacity. The other information shows that Erebus and Terror were still accompanied by the "Baretto Junior, Transport," and their latitude and longitude show them off the coast of Greenland near Simiutaq, an uninhabited island about 150 miles NNW of Nuuk. The original also adds, "with a Danish Brig in company."

Photo by Logan Zachary
Franklin's instructions were to toss these messages -- in their cylinders and suspended inside a barrel -- overboard periodically so as to help ascertain the direction of the currents. In this case, they must have tended north, as the notation at the side shows the message was recovered near Imerissoq -- Franklin's "Whalefish Islands"-- nearly two hundred miles up the coast, in July of 1849 -- more than four years later. Alas, aside from the currents, the message doesn't add very much to our overall knowledge of the early days of the expedition, but the presence of Franklin's signature -- clear as day -- does add force to the suggestion, first made by William Battersby, that the illness that took Franklin's life on June 11, 1847 must have already taken a significant toll before Gore and company departed the ships on the 28th of May.


  1. Is it possible that the Gore Point record was written before June 11,1847 as no mention of Franklin's death appears on it ?

    1. Yes, it must have been filled out before Gore's party left the ships in late May. In the romanticized version of the tale, Gore returns to ship just before Franklin's passing, with the news that he has been to Cape Herschel, and in effect proved the existence of a Passage -- though it had not yet been sailed -- but we don't actually know when he returned. He, too, would be dead before the final VP note was written.

  2. Hello Russell,

    Franklin's instructions were to toss these messages -- in their cylinders and suspended inside a barrel -- overboard periodically so as to help ascertain the direction of the currents.

    Actually, now that I look again at the Admiralty orders, they directed Sir John to do so "after you have passed the latitude of 65 degrees north, and once every day when you shall be in an ascertained current."

    "Once every day" suggests there should have been quite a number of message cylinders. It is *quite* easy to imagine a high attrition rate to elements in that region - especially once they penetrated Lancaster Sound - but it is remarkable that only a single one has been recovered. Not *impossible*, but the odds have to be quite long if we are indeed talking about scores of cylinders, surely?

    That said, I hate to simply assume that Sir John simply flouted his orders on this point, opting to drop off no more than a few messages in the water - just as I hate to assume he left no more than two message cairns behind. "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," as the saying goes.

    Or are there other theories on this out there?

    1. Good comment! Given that this one, which may have been one of the first, drifted 200 miles north in the "West Greenland" current, many of the later ones may have drifted clean away from any settled areas. It's also possible that some barrels leaked and sank, or were salvaged by Inuit more interested in the valuable wood and metal than a piece of paper.

  3. "Danish brig in company".....

    I took a peek at the website . The website includes an alphabetical list of ships serving in the Danish Royal Navy from 1848-1850. There is only one brig listed , the St. Croix was commissioned in 1836 and was in service until 1861.

    Could this be the one ?

    1. Quite possibly. Frustratingly, the only reference I can find to it in the men's letters comes from Fitzjames on the 29th -- the day before the note was dropped overboard -- but he simply says "We have found the transport, and a Danish brig is close to us."!

  4. It is great discovery, indeed! One question concerning the fact that cylinders were "suspended inside a barrel":
    Do we know something more about these barrels? Were they some special kind of barrels, e.g. somehow marked that they carry message inside? I cannot remberer any mention about barrels in the Admiralty Instruction for John Franklin.

  5. What tenacious researchers there are for tracking down these sources! I can only imagine how much time and energy goes in to searching out all these pieces of the story! Thank you all for what you do.
    This story just continues to fascinate.