Monday, August 17, 2020

New Franklin Discovery from the Air

Photo by Joseph Monteith
Photo by Joseph Monteith
Sometimes even the most significant discoveries happen by happy accident. Such was the case with a series of aerial photographs of Beechey Island taken by Joseph Monteith of Iqaluit. It's a storied location, and since there are no expedition cruise ships or other visitors this season, it's one of the few ways any Franklin buff was going to be able to catch a glimpse of its graves and monuments. Joseph shared his photos with fellow aficionados on Facebook, and I was glad to see them, surprised as their clarity and detail. The second photo of the series, though, caught my eye at once: there was a structure, some sort of earthwork, with a curious shape -- a shape I felt certain I had seen before.

And I had. In the pages of my late friend Garth Walpole's Relics of the Franklin Expedition, which I edited after his death, there was a reproduction of a sketch made by Sherard Osborn, who arrived with the very first ships that reached Beechey and discovered the iconic Franklin expedition graves. There were other features in the vicinity of these memorials, though -- a place where a forge or smithy had been erected, an attempt at a garden (by means a transplanted chunk of muskeg from the adjoining flats), and a structure -- apparently a storehouse. Osborn described the structure in some detail:
It consisted of an exterior and interior embankment, into which, from the remnants left, we saw that oak and elm scantling had been struck as props to the roofing; in one part of the enclosed space some coal-sacks were found, and in another part numerous wood-shavings proved the ship's artificers to have been working here. The generally received opinion as to the object of this storehouse was, that Franklin had constructed it to shelter a portion of his superabundant provisions and stores, with which it was well known his decks were lumbered on leaving Whale-Fish Islands.
Even better, he provided a sketch, which indicated the extraordinary scale of this establishment: it was nearly 70 feet long on its longest edge, and 60 feet wide, along with an L-shaped interior embankment -- all described as "four feet through at the base, and five feet high, in which posts had been sunk." Within what must have been a sturdy enclosure, an area thick with wood shavings suggested a carpenter's workshop. Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, in his own account, also mentioned finding "a stocking without a foot, sewed up at its edge, and a mitten not so much the worse for use as to have been without value by its owner" -- and amazingly, this very stocking is preserved in the collections of the National Maritime Museum!

It must have been quite a solid structure -- but Osborn's idea of it as a storehouse for "superabundant provisions" seems unlikely -- for no provisions were left in it. Quite beyond that, the timbers which supported its structure, possibly of canvas, had themselves been removed -- so its use was more likely as a shelter for activities in the winter. That there was time to take it down so thoroughly also argues against the usual assumption that the ships left their anchorage there in a hurry.  So thorough was their work that the remaining earthworks were almost completely forgotten, and never -- so far as I know -- studied by archaeologists. And yet we can see, in Monteith's photo, the entire structure survives intact, its outline an exact match for Osborn's sketch. What a fortunate accident indeed -- the light was just right to throw it into relief!

The observant viewer will also note a second structure, almost perfectly circular, nearby; from Osborn's scale I'd guess its diameter at around twenty feet. My friend Andrés Paredes suggests that it may have been an observatory, noting that the Ross Arctic expedition constructed one that was similarly circular (left). It's certainly a possibility; what we'd want to do would be to have a proper site excavation by modern archaeologists; assuming that some material still lies at or near the surface, the use of each structure might have been. As the one trace of a building actually erected by Franklin's men, there's no underestimating the significance of what might be found.

With thanks to Joseph Monteith for permission to use his photograph!

14 comments:

  1. That would presumably also suggest very high levels of fitness and health, not just to construct the building but also to remove it on departure.

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  2. With such robust fitness and health - can we imagine that the sickness from the Goldner canned provisions did not start to impair the men until the crews left Beechey ?

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    1. If I am not mistaken, the final letters sent back from Disko Bay - I think it was one by Fitzjames in particular - discuss the Goldner tinned foods, and praise them. Of course, perhaps the ones they opened up that early in the voyage were not representative of the whole?

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  3. They must have been healthy to construct and then remove such a structure. As for the canned goods, I always believed, perhaps erroneously, that when Lt. Gore wrote "all well" on the Victory Point message in 1847, that any canned food issues had yet to surface.

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  4. The evidence we have now strongly suggests that the canned food was not the culprit. My friend Peter Carney at his Erebus and Terror files blog, has a pretty strong correction of this oft-held belief.

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  5. I do remember reading an account of the Inuit on the abandoned Erebus where they broke open a can of meat and found it was fine, not spoiled. It did seem at odds with the preserved food gone bad theory.

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  6. It is interesting the more we learn the less we know - or at least - the more questions are raised, at some point we will need to stand back from all of the old guesses and conjectures and rethink the disaster through the new and refined evidence. I hope to high heaven some meaningful papers survive in the sediment of one of the two ships.

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  7. A minor point in rethinking this story hit me the other day. I was reading "The Great Escape, the untold story" by Ted Barris. When the POW's were evacuated ahead of the advancing Russians, "an officer was dispatched to the library to tear pages of the thinnest paper he could find in the books to serve as toilet paper during the march."
    I have never seen it mentioned elsewhere but did they carry books with them to serve the same purpose? People often question why they would haul a partial library with them but with 105 men landing at Victory Point, did the books serve a less noble but still important function?
    If POWs carried books for this purpose while being force marched, it struck me that the expedition might have done the same.

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    1. That is an excellent point, one I've never seen raised before. They were certainly using paper in homes by that time, I wonder what they would have used on ship before hand.

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    2. Interestingly, Roderic Owen -- a Franklin relation and the author of The Fate of Franklin was fascinated with this topic, and pestered many experts for an answer. And, without exception, all of them replied, as did A.P. McGowan (then head of the Department of Ships at the National Maritime Museum), "I'm afraid I really haven't a clue"!

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  8. The oft noted "Vicar of Wakefield" might have been very popular but for reasons not associated with being a "best seller".
    Another "thinking outside the box" type thought was when I read (and I am sorry I forget exactly which source) but that among the debris left by the marchers, were bottles of button polish. I don't know the chemical nature of it but what struck me was a story from my father when he served as a helmsman in the merchant navy during WW2. The ships were "dry" and he said the "black gang" stokers would come out on deck with shoe polish wrapped in handkerchiefs and strain it, draining out the alcohol, then drink it. It disgusted my father to watch. If this button polish was alcohol based, could it have been the Franklin expedition's equivalent of what my father witnessed with shoe polish?

    If the paper in the books was re-purposed, and possibly button polish, it might force us re-think our assessments of the "useless articles" they carried.

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    1. There is only one problem with this notion of books being used as toilet paper -- nearly all the volumes that the crew brought with them were quite small -- what we in the book-collecting trade know as "duodecimo" or "12mo" -- it's about 30% smaller than a mass-market paperback. I'm not certain that the good Vicar would have endured very long in this function!

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  9. It may well be that what was all they had available?? I just put the idea out there after reading about the POWs as noted above. Modern toilet paper is perforated into smallish squares, perhaps close in size to the duodecimo?
    129 men died. Cannibalism. Shipwrecks. Massive suffering. And here we are discussing toilet paper! The Franklin mystery does indeed lead one into strange territory.....

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  10. Laughing out loud !

    When a mate on board ship did the big crap in the ship's loo - he only had three ways to wipe the mess out of and off his rear end : his shirt, his fingers or book pages. Or failing that, pull up his pants and walk around with the crap on or in him !

    As Don Hill said, " strange territory ".

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