2014 Preface to Unravelling the Franklin Mystery
2014 Preface to Unravelling the Franklin Mystery

2014 Preface to Unravelling the Franklin Mystery

2014 Preface to Unravelling the Franklin Mystery


When Unravelling was first published in 1991, its central theme was that more credence should be given to Inuit traditional knowledge than had previously been accorded. As a test case, the application of Inuit oral history to the resolution of the mysterious fate of Sir John Franklin’s Third Arctic Expedition was thought to be appropriate. This event resonated through both European and Inuit history and as a central narrative to the European opening of the Arctic; it generated intense interest for the historian and many stories from the Inuit.

Historians of Arctic Exploration had generally ignored the oral traditions because of their inherent difficulties in translation and analysis, selectively using tales that accorded with their own preconceptions or physical evidence and ignoring the others as impossibly vague or unreliable. This book questioned the prevalent dismissal of non-documentary sources and, hopefully, led to a fuller understanding than could be obtained by reference to the scant physical and documentary evidence left behind by the doomed expedition.

This year’s reprinting of Unravelling could, therefore, not come at a more appropriate time, as only one month ago, Franklin’s HMS Erebus was discovered in the area uniformly indicated by Inuit testimony (see Chapter 17). This discovery has been widely seen as validation of oral history, and the wrecked ship certainly serves as the most newsworthy Franklinian artifact found to date, yet it is not the first time that the wealth of Inuit traditional knowledge has been tested and found to be correct. While the initial search party of 1859 identified many of the primary Franklin relic sites on the west coast of King William Island, other sites, such as Terror Bay, Douglas Bay, Todd Islets and Starvation Cove, where artifacts have subsequently been found, were initially identified by Inuit testimony. Perhaps the most controversial of the Inuit traditions, dealing with evidence of expedition cannibalism, was scientifically proven correct in 1994[1].

Yet for those who require a demonstration of the value of Inuit history, the discovery of HMS Erebus is undoubtedly the most visible and tangible confirmation. This book, which brings together in one place most of the Inuit testimony concerning the lost Franklin expedition, may therefore receive closer scrutiny, hopefully, to reveal even more details concerning this fascinating story.

The reader should be aware that this is a reprint of the 1991 edition and not a rewrite. No substantive changes have been made in the text itself. Indeed two decades after writing, there is only one correction I would like to make, and that is in the rather inconsequential matter of the number of boats at the “boat place” (pp 300-01.)  Although only one lifeboat was found on the shore of Erebus Bay by McClintock (and partially removed by Schwatka), Inuit tradition consistently spoke of two. In my research, I concluded that there were, in fact, three, a view that was seemingly supported by a confirmatory letter from the Greenwich Maritime Museum that said that a relic recovered by Schwatka and long thought to have come from McClintock’s boat, had not. That letter subsequently was shown to be incorrect, and it is now most likely that there were only two boats, variously described by the individuals who encountered them. The sense of the reconstruction presented here is not materially changed by this error, which I am sure is not unique.

Although the discovery of the wreck in the Utjulik area validates the long-known Inuit traditions, there are implications beyond this simple statement. The wreck was found upright and in excellent condition in 11m of water (shallow enough that the masts would, as described, have still shown above the water’s surface after sinking). The masts had been broken off by later ice and lay nearby. These facts are all elements of the Inuit description of one of the vessels. There is damage near the stern but no evidence of the natives having broken in through removing planks from the side (confirm with Bernier?),  and so far, no evidence of a body having been left onboard (although an internal survey of the ship has yet to begin).[2]  So many details of the discovery accord with the Inuit testimony that it is likely to lend confidence to other related traditions – that the ship was manned when it arrived, that tracks were seen ashore nearby etc. These traditions have always been troublesome for the “standard reconstruction” that posits a single abandonment far to the north in 1848. They argue instead for reliance on the Inuit traditions of visiting manned ships in circumstances that must post-date the initial abandonment, implying that 1848 was an abortive attempt to reach safety from which some of the crew retreated back to the ships.

Other implications of the discovery of HMS Erebus abound. Admiral Wright’s hypothesis that the Utjulik wreck would not be one of Franklin’s ships at all but the Investigator was proved false by its discovery in Mercy Bay in 2010, as is the idea that the Erebus and Terror were seen riding an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean in 1850 (p 253).

What is clear is that the Utjulik wreck is not the vessel described as having been so crushed by the ice that it sank quickly in deep water. Many historical treatments have assumed that all Inuit descriptions, as varied as they are, are of one broken ship, whereas this book tries to tease out the details to show that the Inuit were aware of two wrecks in quite different locations and at different times. The Canadian Government has announced that, although it has found HMS Erebus in pristine condition, it will continue to search for the wreck of HMS Terror.

One of the most dramatic descriptions of the northern, undiscovered wreck was given by the Inuit Kokleearngnun. According to him, the northern ship was where he had “often seen Too-loo-ark,” the officer in command, and that the ship was “overwhelmed with heavy ice … the ice turned the vessel down on its side, crushing the masts and breaking a hole in her bottom and so overwhelming her that she  sank at once, and had never been seen again.” (p 209)  Although the officer “Too-loo-ark” spoken of is usually thought to be Franklin, implying that the badly crushed ship was the Erebus, my reconstruction gives Crozier the role of Toolooark, and it would therefore be his ship – the Terror – that was crushed to the north. This, of course, leaves the Erebus to be discovered at Utjulik, as she was. There are also the native accounts of this ship that “that a part of the crews were drowned; that the remainder were some time in huts or tents apart” (p. 57) and that after the ship sank quickly, “the Kob-lu-nas had left it and gone to the land and lived in tents” (p. 221) If the Terror was the ship that was crushed to the north, the idea that her crew were moved ashore to a tent camp might also explain the enigmatic reference in the fragmentary Peglar papers to “Terror Camp [space illegible = is?] Clear.” If indeed it was the Terror that sank, her crew might have moved ashore to prevent excessive crowding on the surviving Erebus, at least during the summer, and their camp, quite naturally if unimaginatively, may have been called “Terror Camp.”[3]

The alert reader will nevertheless note that this was not my analysis at the time of writing. Tentatively based on the distribution of the physical remains and uncharacteristically ignoring Kokleearngnun’s clue,  I noted that “the boats found in Erebus Bay all contained relics of the Erebus and her officers, while the boat found in Wilmot Bay was identified … as having probably come from the Terror. This would support the tenuous thread of evidence that it was the latter ship which survived to reach [Utjulik].” (p 261)

The discovery of the Franklin ship will undoubtedly add to our understanding of the sequence of events of the Franklin tragedy in many ways. Should logs be preserved onboard or photographs, these may substantially illuminate the turn of events. Even a dated note or scrap of daily order will prove invaluable. Analysis of the wreck, and the artifacts within, will undoubtedly disclose other errors in the reconstruction presented here and force major revisions. I welcome this as no one is more aware than I that with the current fragmentary state of evidence, it is possible to construct competing narratives of equal probability and that the one presented in this book is simply my best, imperfect effort. New evidence of any kind will reduce the number of possibilities and hopefully lead to a fuller understanding.

Although I claim no credit for it, the two decades since this book was originally published have seen a renewed interest, both public and scholarly, in the Franklin expedition, with much progress being made in various aspects.

Foremost among these has been the significant work done on the proposal that lead poisoning, originating in the soldered joints of Franklin’s tinned food, was a significant contributor to the eventual tragedy. This was based on the undoubted fact, first discovered by Owen Beattie in 1985[4], that the preserved remains of Franklin crewmen had significantly higher lead levels than is found in healthy modern individuals. Recently the source of this lead has been challenged by experts in chemistry and food science questioning the theory that the soldered tins of food were to blame,[5] while other recent proposals posited the ship’s plumbing system as the source of the lead.[6]

Recent analysis has also questioned the consequences of the observed lead body loads[7] concluding that they would probably have been insufficient, and of such variability, to debilitate the crew as previously thought.

The lead-poisoning view, still relatively new when the text of this book was finalized, was treated briefly in an Appendix, where, being a non-specialist, I was carefully noncommittal. At the time, I thought that it was unlikely that the crew had used much of their tinned supply in the early stages of the expedition and that, in any case, there was no evidence in the Inuit testimony for the symptoms, including dementia, that was being proposed. The balance of scholarship now seems to conclude that lead was a minor contributing cause, if any, to the outcome of the disaster.

As the likelihood of a wreck discovery increased during the last decade, much valuable work has been done on the aspects of bomb vessel construction details. Detailed study has concentrated on aspects that would be diagnostic should a wreck be found, including hull copper sheeting, deck layouts, and boats. A particular point of study has been an effort to identify not only the types of steam engines transplanted into each ship but their provenance and details.

Other aspects of study on less concrete matters have been studies of the cultural impact, both contemporary and modern, of the Franklin story (Potter, Atwood) and a revisiting of the biographies of Franklin, Crozier, and Fitzjames. Valuable work on the less-famous crewmen has also been done, including the surprising result of DNA work on the “Le Vesconte” skeleton (p 160) that proves a misidentification as that officer and may point to Goodsir!

The advent of the digital revolution has also overtaken research on the Franklin disaster. This book was originally written on a Commodore 64 computer without a hard-drive and using word-processing software that was little more than a typewriter emulator. Perhaps nothing has changed as much in the intervening years as the impact of the internet, digital search tools, and the immediacy of email on the field of collaboration and research. A large and diverse group of Franklin enthusiasts, both amateur and professional, routinely share expertise and ideas online. This often amazing insight into every arcane aspect of the Franklin story – from details of the heraldry of Franklin’s medal recovered by Rae to Eleanor Porden’s (Sir John’s first wife) poetry to more central issues such as the degree of artifact modification by the retreating crews or the proper translation of Inuktitut terms.

The pre-eminent source for this remains Professor Russell Potter’s website Visions of the North[8]  (a frequent email correspondent of mine who also contributed a new perspective concerning the “Black Men” story (p 205) – think of Guy Fawkes!). This website is the first stop of many for Franklin news and research and helpfully links to other blogs and websites with continuing interest in the story. The last few years have seen an amazing proliferation of websites offering insight into the Franklin story, including those of the Canadian Geographical Society, Parks Canada, and the CBC.

This renewed interest, initially inspired by the dramatic images of Franklin’s deceased crewmen temporarily exhumed from the permafrost of Beechey Island for forensic analysis by Beattie and his team between 1984-6, will undoubtedly be again propelled by the dramatic discovery of the Erebus in Queen Maud Gulf. It has also been fuelled by the proliferation of novels and other fictional treatments of the tale. Described as a “foundational Canadian myth,” the saga of the Franklin tragedy has archetypal elements that inspire continuing interest – men against nature, a forlorn struggle, a modern Penelope in Lady Franklin, and the controversy of cannibalism. While a well-known bibliography notes only five fictional treatments of the Franklin story between 1851 and 1965, it notes nineteen novels on the theme between 1974 and 2010.[9]  Recently the Franklin story has crossed into an electronic meme by way of a fictionalized Dr. Who podcast![10]

There has also been a slow shift in attitude towards the character of the major players in the Franklin saga and their competence and contributions. Many modern authors still subscribe to the “Berton school,” named after Canadian author Pierre Berton’s characterization of Franklin and his crew in his 1988 Ordeal by Ice, which portrayed Franklin as the epitome of a culturally-blind Victorian bumbling fool who refused to learn obvious lessons of survival from the Inuit and led his men to disaster. A more accurate and nuanced view has recently made a comeback. Eschewing the other extreme of hero-worship prevalent in work by their Victorian contemporaries, new biographies of Franklin[11], Crozier[12] and Fitjzames[13] offer balanced and evidenced-based accounts of their characters and competence. A closer look at the actual evidence has shown that Franklin’s men made significant modifications to their equipment prior to the abandonment of the ships, demonstrating a firm understanding of the challenges they would face. Lightened and rebuilt boats and sledges, customized cooking stoves, and improvised sunglasses (including Inuit-style slit eye protection) against snow blindness belie the cultural inflexibility with which Franklin and his crew are so often charged.

When this book was originally published I had never visited the Arctic and could only imagine the conditions faced by Franklin and his men. Since then, I have had the privilege and pleasure to visit the region nine times as either leader or team member of searching expeditions, and I have come to love the friendly people and harsh-but-beautiful land where the story played out. The experiences I have had and the friendships I have made have become a major part of my life, an unexpected boon for an armchair historian. I have been able to visit Crozier’s Landing and Victory Point (repeatedly in various seasons), camped on Umiartalik and Ooksooseeto, and spent quiet moments in contemplation at Starvation Cove and Keeuna. I have handled Franklin relics and even discovered a campsite (at Cape Maria Louisa – again predicted by Inuit testimony).

These experiences have given me an increased empathy for the suffering and an understanding of the challenges they faced. They have given me pause when trying to estimate daily distances travelled, and the difficulties of survival in the “back of beyond,” even with modern gear and freeze-dried food, have left me with awe for the strength and perseverance of Franklin’s men to have travelled as far as they did use current technology.

All of these experiences have been largely based on the two most detailed and compelling stories in this book. In writing a speculative history such as this, I felt it was important to have major elements of the narrative that could be tested – go here, and you will find this. I thought that the two most significant discoveries would be that of the Franklin wreck at Utjulik, spoken of by many natives but in most detail by Putoorak (Ikinnelikpatalok), and the grave and associated document cache spoken of by Supunger. I naively expected some younger and more capable person to actually do the fieldwork, but to my surprise, I was offered sponsorship to conduct the work myself. Six expeditions between 1992 and 2004 were part of “Project Utjulik,”[14] largely based on the testimony concerning the Franklin wreck, a project taken over by the Government of Canada in 2008 and prosecuted to a successful conclusion by Parks Canada this year. Interspersed with these were three expeditions to conduct “Project Supunger”[15] – the search of northern King William Island for the gravesite that continues to this day.

There remains much work to be done. Archeological investigation of both the Investigator and the Erebus will take years and undoubtedly significantly increase our knowledge about nineteenth-century shipbuilding and life. The discovery of the Erebus was materially assisted by finding shore debris from the ship nearby, material that had lain undiscovered for 160 years. Further shore searches are undoubtedly required, and they may establish even more evidence, as the Inuit tradition attests, that the ship was manned. Caches, tent sites or, potentially, documents may still await the careful shore searcher. The Eco-Nova expedition found a weathered skull thought to be of a mid-twenties Caucasian nearby on the shore of a small islet in Wilmot and Crampton Bay that might repay further study, as might a glass prism and some supposed rectangular tent outlines nearby discovered during the 2002 Irish-Canadian Expedition.

Other Arctic ships await discovery – in addition to HMS Terror, Ross’ Victory lies somewhere in Prince Regent Inlet. The grave and document cache reported by Supunger, another cache reported by Kia on the Melville Peninsula, and other unexpected finds, both in the field and in scholarship, will undoubtedly be made in the coming years.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this book will remain valid if and when future work invalidates the reconstructed narrative of the Franklin tragedy. The Inuit traditions remain important in their own right, as does the recognition that history must be told from many perspectives. In this case the story of the exploration of Canada’s Arctic is not solely a story of European voyagers but of the Inuit people who interacted with them and their cultural artifacts and the ongoing story of how that interaction affected each group.


Dave Woodman

Vancouver, BC

October 2014

[1] Keenleyside, Bertulli and Fricke.  The Final Days of the Franklin Expedition: New Skeletal Evidence. ARCTIC VOL. 50, NO. 1 (MARCH 1997) P. 36 – 46; Keenleyside, 1995. The last resort: Cannibalism in the Arctic. The Explorers Journal 72(4):138 – 143; Keenleyside, A., and Bertulli, M. 1994. NgLj-2: A Franklin site on Erebus Bay, King William Island. Paper presented at the 27th Annual Meeting of the Canadian Archaeological Association, 4 – 8 May, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

[2] Personal communication with Marc-Andre Bernier, Parks Canada.

[3] I would like to thank Professor Potter for pointing out the Kokleearngnun clue, and William Battersby for  the “Terror Camp” idea, which he first proposed in 2010.

[4] Beattie, O. B. (1985). Elevated bone lead levels in a crewman from the last Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin. In (P. D. Sutherland, Ed.) The Franklin Era in Canadian Arctic History: 1845-1859. Ottawa: National Museum of Man, Mercury Series Archaeological Survey of Canada, Paper No. 131, pp. 141-148; Beattie, O.   Geiger, J. (1987). Frozen in Time. London: Bloomsbury.

[5] Farrer, Keith Thomas Henry, ‘Whence came the lead in Franklin’s crewmen’, Food Science and Technology Today, vol. 3, no. 2, 1989, pp. 93-94, ‘Lead in the last Franklin expedition’, Journal of Archaeological Science, vol. 20, 1993, pp. 399-409, ‘Goldner’s preserved meat and the last Franklin expedition’, Food Science and Technology Today, vol. 15, no. 1, 2000, pp. 20-24, ‘Watering the fleet and introduction of distillation’, The Mariner’s Mirror, vol. 91, no. 4, 2005, pp. 548-553.

[6] Battersby, W.  Identification  of the Probable Source of the Lead Poisoning Observed in Members of the Franklin Expedition.  Journal of the Hakluyt Society (September 2008)


[7] Millar, K., Bowman, A. and Battersby, W.  A re-analysis of the supposed role of lead poisoning in Sir John Franklin’s last expedition, 1845–1848. Polar Record, Cambridge University Press, 2014.  doi:10.1017/S0032247413000867

[8] http://visionsnorth.blogspot.ca

[9] http://visionsnorth.blogspot.ca/p/franklin-fiction-list.html

[10] http://www.podfeed.net/podcast/Doctor+Who-TERROR+OF+THE+ARCTIC/3980

[11] Lambert, A., Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation Faber & Faber, 2009; Beardsley, M., Deadly Winter: The Life of Sir John Franklin. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2002.

[12] Smith, Michael (2006). Captain Francis Crozier – Last Man Standing? Cork, Ireland: Collins Press.

[13] Battersby, W., James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press.

[14] Project Ootjoolik – 1992, Eco-Nova Franklin 150 – 1997, St. Roch II Voyage of Rediscovery – 2000, Project Utjulik 2001, Irish-Canadian Franklin Expedition – 2002, Irish-Canadian Franklin Expedition – 2004.

[15] Project Supunger – 1994, 1995, 1999. My friend and colleague Tom Gross has continued searching for the Supunger site on an almost-annual basis since 2000.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *