On May 19, 1845, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror left England under the command of Sir John Franklin in search of the Northwest Passage. This expedition was without a doubt a most ill-fated venture, as not a single member returned alive.
Major search efforts were launched to find the missing men, including three expeditions to the Arctic in spring 1848. Rewards were also offered in 1849 and 1850 for any information about Franklin’s expedition. These searches did produce results: in 1850, the first relics—the graves of three crewmen who died in 1846—were found at Beechey Island, west of Devon Island.
In July 1857, Lady Franklin also financed an expedition under the command of Francis McClintock aboard the ship Fox. On May 5, 1859, William Hobson, Lieutenant of the Fox, found a document placed beneath a cairn containing two messages. The first, written by Franklin on May 28, 1847, indicated that the crew of the two ships had spent the winter of 1845–46 off Beechey Island, and that all was well. The second message, dated April 25, 1848, indicated that the Erebus and Terror had been trapped in ice since September 1846, west of King William Island, and that 24 men had died, including Franklin on June 11, 1847.
In the wake of expeditions undertaken to find Franklin, numerous maps were drawn, including the Discoveries in the Arctic Sea, 1616-1927 and the Chart showing the vicinity of King William Island. These identified the sites Franklin visited, the places where his group wintered and the site in which his ships were abandoned. The second map also mentions the diverted courses the two wrecks may have followed.
Although we now know the fate of the members of this expedition, every attempt to find the wrecks of the Erebus and the Terror has been unsuccessful, despite the magnitude of the searches and modern technologies deployed.
For more information about the period prior to the expeditions:
- John Franklin Collection
- Robert Were Fox fonds
- George Back fonds
- North West Expedition, Captain Ross, Captain Back, Sir John Franklin; Offices and Individuals
For more information about the periods prior to and following the expeditions:
- Arctic expeditions (Hudson’s Bay Company)
- Franklin’s search expedition
- Richard Julius Cyriax Collection
For more information about the period following the expeditions:
Publications, bibliographies and guides held at Library and Archives Canada:
- The Search for Franklin and Franklin relics, 1847-1880 (archived content)
- Arctic Exploration and the Search for the Northwest Passage (archived content)
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