Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Tale of the Bones, Part 1

Peffer River, photo by Doug Stenton, courtesy the Government of Nunavut
It was a desolate place, the site of two of the last of Franklin’s men accorded what searcher  Charles Francis Hall deemed a “Christian burial.” A little over two miles to the east of  the estuary of the Peffer river on King William Island, Hall had at last reached the place described by Nee-wik-tee-too, a Netsilik Inuk who had since died. As Hall recalled his testimony, “The bodies buried by placing stones around and over them;  the remains facing upward, and the hands had been folded in a very precise manner across the breasts of both ; clothes all on ; flesh all on the bones. On the back of each a suspended knife found. The bodies perfect when found, but the Innuits having left the remains unburied, after unearthing them, the foxes have eaten meat and sinews all off the bones. A tenting-place of the whites close by where these two men were buried. Many needles and one nail found by the Innuits at this tenting-place."

It was early in the season, and snow covered the ground. Hall's guides In-nook-poo-zhee-jook and Zuk dug about for some time, and at last were able to locate one of these graves, the skeleton nearly complete:
At length Zuck and In-nook-pou-zhe-jook (the former had been seeking too, having the snow shovel) cried to me + motioned with upraised arms. I knew by this sign [that he] had something there so I hastend to the spot which is the one on which I was writing these notes + they had discovered the grave of one – that is they had taken off the pure unspotted mantles of the heavens + laid bare the skeleton remains of one those gallant sons of Franklin Expedition that so triumphiantly + gloriously accomplished the North West Passage.
As was his practice, Hall ordered a volley shot over the grave, and raised "the Stars and Stripes" over the bones. And then -- though he made no immediate note of it -- he pondered a decision: should he bring the bones with him, back to America, eventually perhaps to England? Or should he let them rest where they lay? At last, he decided to bring them with him. We don't have any record of his inner deliberations, although J.E. Nourse, who edited Hall's narrative, said that Hall had had "much hesitancy as though he might have done wrong."

Hall papers, Smithsonian Museum
On his return to the United States in 1869, Hall was a busy man -- in addition to sorting out his notes and preparing the full account of his search asked for by Lady Franklin, he was in the early stages of raising money and attention for what became his third and final expedition, in search of the North Pole aboard the USS "Polaris." He at last decided to delay the ultimate decision of what to do with the remains by placing them in the care of his patron J. Carson Brevoort (whom Hall, mindful of all who had helped him in the past, addressed as "Friend Brevoort"). On November 3rd, he drafted a letter to Brevoort, reporting that "I wish to confide to your special care, for the present, a case that contains the remains of one of the immortal heroes of Sir John Franklin’s Expedition that discovered the North West Passage." Hall did not add any further instructions, and it seems that the skeleton remained in Brevoort's care for several years, until 1872 at least. By then, Hall was dead, murdered with arsenic by his own ship's doctor, and Brevoort no doubt felt free to exercise his own judgment. He contacted the British Embassy in Washington D.C., where -- by happy coincidence -- the Arctic veteran Edward Augustus Inglefield was serving as Naval attaché. Inglefield apparently agreed that the bones should be brought home, and made the necessary arrangements. And here the plot thickens .... but that's a matter for my next post.

NB: Before going any further, I want to express my gratitude to Lelia Garcia, who -- at short notice -- spent two afternoons with the Hall papers at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, and who managed to locate the letter shown above. My thanks also to Russ Taichman for sending along his images from Hall's field notebooks. It's through efforts such as these that the Franklin story is advanced, inch by inch, and the larger understanding of it enhanced, mile by mile.