The Myth of Montreal Island
The Myth of Montreal Island

The Myth of Montreal Island

The Myth of Montreal Island

One of the opinions, often taken as fact, concerning the last survivors of the Franklin expedition is that the closest they came to salvation was on Montreal Island in Chantrey Inlet. This is a persistent thread in discussions ever since John Rae, in 1854, returned with the first intelligence of the Franklin party’s fate.

Rae stated that a party “had died of starvation, a long distance to the west of where we then were, and beyond a large River.” Other natives gave further details, “some Graves were discovered on the Continent, and five dead bodies on an island near it, about a long day’s journey to the north west of the mouth of a large stream, that can be no other than Backs Great Fish River, (named by the Esquimaux Oot-koo-i-ha-ca-lik,) as its description, and that of the low shore in the neighbourhood of Point Ogle and Montreal Island agree exactly with that of Sir George Back … Some of the bodies were in a tent or tents; others were under the boat which had been turned over to form a shelter, and some lay scattered about in different directions. Of those seen on the Island, it was supposed that one was that of an Officer (chief) as he had a telescope strapped over his shoulders, and his double-barreled gun lay underneath him … the unfortunate men must have survived until the arrival of the wild fowl (say until the end of May), as shots were heard and fresh bones and feathers of geese were noticed near the scene of the sad event.”

Rae’s implied location of remains having been found at Montreal Island has been taken as a fact by many modern writers and commentators. Yet it is apparent that his account, although essentially correct, melds various elements. Many of these elements were later repeated, with better detail, by other investigators. Hall, while camped on Keeuna, just offshore of King William Island’s south coast, learned of the five men who had died there and realized that this element of Rae’s account had been misplaced. He wrote, “How mistaken the ideas in the civilized world of Montreal Island being the one on wh. the 5 men of Franklin’s Expedition died.” Another aspect, the officer who “had a telescope strapped over his shoulders,” is obviously a slightly garbled account of Adlark’s discovery of a body lying on a telescope at Kun-near-be-ar-nu, again on King William Island’s south shore. Rae’s mention of “fish-bones and feathers of geese” is also evocative of events on King William Island. Inuit accounts told of Franklin’s men hunting wildfowl and fishing in the lakes. Two Inuit who had met retreating marchers noted that the white men cooked “two ducks” and that they had seen “nowyers [gulls], geese and ducks hanging from the boat” in Washington Bay.

When Rae’s geographical framing is carefully considered, “an island near it, about a long day’s journey to the north west of the mouth of a large stream, that can be no other than Backs Great Fish River,” it can easily be concluded that the “island” to the northwest of the Great Fish River is not Montreal Island, but King William Island. His mention of Montreal Island and Point Ogle are intended to reinforce his identification of the river, not to set the scene of what he describes. Yet when the Victory Point record was recovered five years later, with Crozier’s enigmatic addendum “and start tomorrow, 26th, for Backs Fish River,” this apparently reinforced the idea that the last survivors were to be found near that river.

One source of confusion is Rae’s word “continent.” Although in English “mainland” and “continent” are synonyms, the same was not true to the Inuit, whose geographic frame of reference was quite different. The Inuk woman Tooktoocheer spoke of “six skeletons on the main-land and two on the island,” explicitly referring to a spot on the southern coast of King William Island. Here, she is undoubtedly speaking of Keeuna and the “main-land” of King William Island. It is interesting to note that Hall’s editor, Nourse, remarks that “the next day Hall crossed over to the mainland” from Todd Islet to search for remains “near the mouth of the Peffer River.” Here, he uses the term “mainland” to refer to King William Island, the “main island,” which was large enough to warrant such a description. Reading “continent” as Adelaide Peninsula, many had assumed that the “island near it” where five dead bodies were found must be Montreal Island.

In 1855, the Anderson-Stewart expedition was sent to investigate this clue. Anderson and Stewart’s party arrived in August, and “on a high ridge of rocks at the S.E. point of the island, a number of Esquimaux cachés were found, and, besides seal oil, various articles were found belonging to a boat or ship … [i]t was evident that this was the spot where the boat was cut up by the Esquimaux.” Using Rae’s account of “bodies were in a tent or tents … and some lay scattered about in different directions,” an assiduous search for these elements was made, but “not a vestige of the remains of our unfortunate countrymen could be discovered … [and] no traces of the graves were discovered.”

Four years after this visit to Montreal Island, inspired by Rae’s account, Sir Leopold McClintock took a party there. They found a few artifacts in a native cairn, which McClintock concluded were probably “part of the plunder obtained from the boat, and were left here until a more favourable opportunity should offer, or perhaps necessity should compel the depositor to return for them.” No signs of graves or other remains of a white man’s camp were found. He noted the implausibility of the source account, “five bodies are said to have been found upon Montreal Island with the boat [by Rae] … [but] so small a number could not have dragged her there over the ice, although they could very easily have taken her there by water. Subsequently, this opinion proved erroneous.”

There is ample evidence, also noted by Anderson, that a boat was sacrificed and broken up for wood by the Inuit, who placed some of its heavier elements here “en cache.” That a retreating party heading for and hoping to ascend a great river would do this is implausible; it is much more likely that the material was recovered by the Inuit. Proximity alone would tend to suggest that this boat was the one from the site now known as Starvation Cove.

No trace that Franklin’s men ever reached Montreal Island has subsequently emerged.

 

 

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