“Strangers Among Us” – Review by Russell A. Potter
“Strangers Among Us” – Review by Russell A. Potter

“Strangers Among Us” – Review by Russell A. Potter

Russell Potter

The mystery of the disastrous British Arctic expedition led by Sir John Franklin in 1845 was ostensibly solved in 1859 when Captain Leopold M’Clintock returned to England with a trove of artifacts, the “Victory Point” record signed by the Expedition’s leaders, and accounts of scattered skeletons on the coast of King William Island. Yet in the years since, the enigmatic aura of this episode has grown rather than receded, in part thanks to generations of dedicated amateurs who have sought to unearth its details and underlying causes, and resolve the final fate of its last few survivors. Attention from professional historians has not been wanting, though most of them — such as the inestimable R.J. Cyriax — have been content to sketch the probabilities of the case in fairly broad terms, after which the remaining threads were left dangling with the sense that the known facts permitted no further conclusions.

Yet for those amateurs who have, as it were, continually resuscitated the sense of mystery with which the case was first imbued, these loose threads — so inevitable, even admirable to those who subscribe to an ethos of indeterminacy — have served for others as a continual spur to speculation. This, at the same time as the Franklin  disaster faded as a subject of “serious” history, it grew in interest among amateur historians with a very different attitude towards ambiguous evidence and unanswered questions. Ultimately, it has come to occupy a signal position in the field of historiography as one of the signal instances of what might perhaps be called the “Zapruder effect.” Like the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, whose blurry indistinctions of grassy knolls, shadowy fences, and scurrying crowds have by their very irresolveability driven decades of conspiracy theorists, the fragmentary and contradictory trail of Franklin evidence continues to give birth to elaborate private researches and hypotheses. Bankers and lawyers, for an odd idea of a summer vacation, have returned by private plane to the scene of the Franklin party’s last steps, and have scoured the stones in what has become almost an annual ritual. Retired admirals and eccentric librarians have conceived of their own readings of the evidence, and have burnt much midnight oil poring over maps, charts, and copies of old papers.

I would hasten to emphasize that I do not think such enthusiasm is wasted; indeed, there are many areas of history — the U.S. Civil War, for one — which owe a tremendous debt to these dedicated amateurs. But in the case of Franklin, the sheer panoply of speculation — beginning the moment Franklin was missed with the outpourings of psychics, the contradictory polemics of Arctic “experts,” and the obsessive passion of individual searchers such as Charles Francis Hall, almost boggles the mind. A substantial portion of it has, unfortunately, been redundant, and much of the rest has been hampered by a limited, second-hand knowledge of the area, to say nothing of nautical history, navigation, or Inuit culture.

David C. Woodman’s work has in the past been tossed out by some reviewers with the bathwater of this kind of speculation — or, if praised, qualified by the sort of stuffy sensibility that declares that what cannot be determined is hardly worth dwelling on. This is extraordinarily unfortunate, as Woodman’s is by far the most significant study of the Franklin expedition yet written, and has important implications that reach far beyond the bounds of its immediate subject. More than any previous historian of the Franklin disaster, Woodman has taken the full range of available evidence into account. He does not — and given the scope of his project, hardly could — flesh out all the implications of his accounts as regards, say, the history of British-Inuit cultural contact. But he does offer a detailed and provocative litany of the crossed cultural circuits between British and American Franklin
searchers and Inuit witnesses, and goes farther than anyone else in linking Inuit testimony with other corroborative texts and sources.

Readers of Strangers Among Us, however, may first wish to examine Woodman’s 1991 volume, Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony, of which Strangers is an outgrowth and extension. Unravelling offers the bulk of Inuit testimony, carefully concatenated and summarized in a series of closely-worked chronological chapters; Strangers deals only with the question of what may have happened to the Franklin party’s last few survivors. Indeed, one could quarrel with Woodman’s editors, at whose suggestion the matter of Strangers was postponed from the earlier volume. Nevertheless, Woodman has done an admirable job of giving this book its own distinct tone and interest, and anyone familiar with the general outlines of the Franklin case could well begin here, and pursue their interest afterwards in Woodman’s earlier book.

Woodman begins with a dramatization of the curious scene of writing of the one surviving official record — the often-reproduced “Victory Point” document. This record — originally only one of several deposited in 1847 by a sledge-crew detached from the ships — became far more important when, in 1848, it was recovered and added to by the by Expedition’s surviving officers. They had just abandoned their ships in the ice, convinced evidently after two years of entrapment in the slowmoving and often dangerous ice of Victoria Strait, that they would never reach their
goal aboard them. Franklin had died the year previous, “and the total loss by deaths in the Expedition has been to this date 9 officers & 15 men.” The document was signed by Captains Crozier and Fitzjames, and the former, after his signature, appended a brief and tantalizing line: “and start tomorrow , 26th, for Backs Fish River.” This last statement, along with M’Clintock’s discovery of an abandoned sledge-borne whaleboat a few days’ journey further south, as well as scattered skeletons along the southern coast of King William Island, have been interpreted by most historians to mean that the entire party attempted to reach the Fish River in 1848 by manhauling several of the ships’ boats. It was assumed that their goal was the Hudson’s Bay Company outpost on the Great Slave Lake; the fact that this would require hundreds of miles of rowing, portaging, and hauling ungainly whaleboats upriver was simply taken as evidence that Crozier and Fitzjames were addled by scurvy or lead-poisoning, and in their demented state imagined such a plan could meet with success.

Woodman has always been skeptical of this claim, and rightly so; he does not accept the premise that the officers were demented, or idiots, and he places great trust in the reliability of Inuit accounts which suggest a very different reading of the evidence. He believes that the goal of reaching the Fish River was more likely to hunt the game which was reported to be abundant in the area, or to contact the Inuit who were known to congregate there. He argues that one or both of Franklin’s ships were later re-manned; one almost certainly was, as it was discovered by a coastal band of Inuit anchored off an island far to the south in Queen Maud Gulf. Furthermore, while those who remained on King William Island eventually starved to death (not before resorting to cannibalism, an Inuit observation verified by recent forensic evidence), the crew of the surviving ship evidently remained through an additional winter (the Inuit reported that the ship was housed-in as for winter quarters, and its gang-plank was lowered), and some number of survivors left her and made one final attempt to reach a British outpost.

Thus far the argument is pursued in Unravelling. In Strangers Among Us, Woodman follows the trail of these last survivors through the detailed, though tantalizingly incomplete testimony of Inuit witnesses, most of them interviewed in the 1860’s by Charles Francis Hall, the first and most persistent amateur to follow Franklin’s trail. Hall spent six years in the Arctic interviewing everyone who had the least information to offer, and revisiting some of the sites himself. Some of Hall’s testimony — in particular an account of an encounter between four Inuit hunters and a party of the land-based portion of the Expedition — has been incorporated into the standards histories. Others of his tales, such as the claim that three or four survivors were rescued and nursed back to health by a Netsilik hunter, or that some survivors were seen as far away as the Melville Peninsula, have been largely ignored.

Woodman’s accomplishment in Strangers is to revive these last two possibilities by re-considering the evidence in detail — a daunting task, but one which he manages with alacrity and thoroughness. Woodman deals first with the Melville Peninsula stories, which are the more problematic as they must be sorted out from sightings of Dr. John Rae’s travels in the area; Rae visited a number of the same places, and the various witnesses require detailed cross-referencing. The Inuit traditions are suggestive, but a final verdict ultimately turns on such details as whether Rae might have erected cairns that he neglected to mention in his written accounts, or on whether certain sightings are timed correctly to match the date of Rae’s travels. Woodman is diligent in presenting all possible readings of each piece of evidence; the case, ultimately (as he himself notes) is circumstantial. Rae heard of these Inuit accounts, and was convinced that he himself had been the cause of these sightings, and the builder of a cairn that Hall claimed was the work of Franklin survivors. My own sense is that, while Woodman demonstrates that Franklin survivors could plausibly have been the origin of these
sightings, he does not show that they probably were.

Woodman’s second set of tales concerns Inuit sightings of people that they thought were “Et-ker-lin” (Hall’s spelling of Itqilit — Chipweyans), but that the witnesses on later reflection thought might have been “Ka-bloo-nans”– Europeans. In regard to many of the witnesses, who had encountered Etkerlin previously but not Kabloonans, Woodman offers very plausible reasons why the signs, such as different footprints with deep heel-marks, strange clothing, even strange ar-nuk (dung), might have been misinterpreted as traces of Etkerlin but in fact were sightings of Franklin survivors. Yet there is a lack, in many instances, of strong corroborative evidence; with the exception of one abandoned camp, where telltale red-painted meat tins such as those supplied to Franklin were found, the evidence is again circumstantial. There are also a number of instances where the behavior of these strangers seems strange indeed, such as when they deliberately scared away some Inuit boys — hardly a coherent act for desperate survivors. Still, some evidence, such as tales of sign-posts with pointing hands (a known trademark of other Franklin camps) found along the land route eastward of the Fish River, admit of no alternate explanation; whatever else can be said, it’s clear that the whole story of Franklin survivors cannot be reconciled with the previously accepted tale of a single abandonment followed by a single drive south to the Fish River, much less an ascent of it.

Woodman’s final case — and his strongest — is for a small party of three or four men who were said to have spent a season with a Netsilik hunter named Too-shoo-artthariu. These survivors arrived in the spring, and stayed through the summer and possibly even the winter following, eventually heading south towards the Hudson’s Bay post at Fort Churchill. One of these survivors was indeed said to be named “Aglooka” — which was Captain Crozier’s Inuit name, acquired through nameexchange many years previous when he was a young midshipman with Parry’s expedition. Unfortunately, many white explorers were also known as “Aglooka,” and so the precise identity of this man would be almost impossible to determine, were it not for two strong pieces of corroborative evidence. Firstly, this man told his Inuit hosts that he had been with Parry at Igloolik, a fact they could not have otherwise learned; Crozier was in fact the only Franklin Expedition member who had. Secondly, another young Inuk, apparently a son of Too-shoo-art-thariu, told almost the same story to a whaling captain many years later, and another whaling captain down in Hudson’s Bay heard that Aglooka/Crozier had made it as far as Chesterfield Inlet.

Whether or not this survivor was in fact Crozier — which Woodman, who believes that Inuit stories of the death of a captain earlier in the expedition concern Crozier, thinks he was not — his story is one that cannot easily be brushed aside. He wascertainly not an Etkerlin, and his circumstances and travels do not correspond with either of Dr. Rae’s visits to the area. He evidently wore an officer’s uniform, and among his gifts to his hosts was a naval sword — neither of which could apply to Rae. This “Aglooka,” in fact gave ‘nearly everything he had’ to Too-shoo-art-thariu before departing with a Netsilik guide and a companion said to be a servant or steward, for the overland route to Chesterfield Inlet. The Qairnirmiut of Wager Bay, through whose country he would have passed, reported his presence there to their contacts among the Netsilik, whom Hall later interviewed. Finally, a certain Captain Fisher of the whaler Ansel Gibbs reported to Hall that he had heard that this stranger had starved or possibly been killed after he arrived, though the evidence (and possibly the translation) was sketchy.

Why these stories, corroborated by testimony spanning a considerable time and distance, have never been taken seriously before is hard to say. Hall himself, after he became convinced no Franklin survivors could be alive, turned against his Inuit informants, accusing them of allowing heroic men to starve to death. And, with the discovery of further bones and artifacts on King William Island, most of the efforts have been concentrated in that area, to the neglect of tracing any further evidence on the mainland. The wreck of Franklin’s last ship, though its approximate location is fairly certain, has never been the object of a determined search such as that which found the wreck of the Breadalbane (a ship that participated in the early search for Franklin) a few years back. Any final verdict on Woodman’s hypotheses awaits such work, which if it could offer any clear physical evidence, would be the only means to fully test the veracity of these accounts. Woodman is quite right to observe that Inuit testimony, when collated and tracked down, has been remarkably, even stunningly accurate. The Inuit remembered Martin Frobisher’s abortive attempt to find Arctic gold centuries after his departure, and guided Hall to the exact spot, long lost to historians.

Woodman should have the honor of having brought together the large and hitherto inaccessible body of Inuit testimony on Franklin’s fate, testimony which dramatically demonstrates the limits of reconstructions by Western historians who have ignored the testimony of the people Charles Dickens (among many others) denigrated as ‘babbling savages.’ Woodman has also traced, with diligence, all known corroborative sources, and has even gone himself to King William Island with a full-fledged archaeological expedition, equipped with satellite-positioning equipment and ground-penetrating radar. That he has so far been unable to locate much physical evidence is partly due to the same passion that motivates his own work; unfortunately, by tromping up and down Arctic shores in search of relics, would-be Franklin-finders have destroyed or scattered what might have been invaluable evidence. Time, too, has done its work, scouring the coasts with ice and rotting away boot-heels and broadcloth.

The mystery remains alive, and the past few years have seen not only Woodman’s two books, but three novels and several new commentaries on the Franklin saga, including Margaret Atwood’s wryly engaging lecture on the subject at Oxford. 1 Unfortunately, the old orthodoxies, such as the “ascent of the Fish River” tale, persist. It is the hope of this reviewer that Woodman’s books will finally gain the attention they deserve; perhaps McGill-Queen’s University Press would consider combining both in an affordable single paperback volume. The Inuit witnesses in these volumes confirm the value and worth of oral history, and demonstrate that a culture’s collective memory often can recall with astonishing lucidity facts lost to scholars who rely solely on written European records. As has been long realized among historians of westward expansion in the United States, to ignore Native testimony is to falsify history; that the inland waterways of the Canadian Arctic were first traversed in the name of science rather than commerce hardly removes such exploration from the history of colonialism. David Woodman’s work in recovering and making thoughtful use of Inuit testimony is thus not only an invaluable contribution to the study of Franklin, but to the whole history of British Arctic exploration, and should serve as the foundation for further work for many years to come.

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