The mystery of the Franklin expedition

By Catherine Butler

The lost expedition

The story of the lost Franklin expedition is well known to many Canadians. Led by Sir John Franklin, the expedition comprised 24 officers and 110 men and set sail from Greenhithe, England, in May 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage. On board the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus, the voyage initially progressed relatively smoothly.

The crew made it to the Whale Fish Islands off the coast of Greenland to stock up on supplies, and arrived in Baffin Bay in July 1845. There, the captains of two whaling ships, the Prince of Wales and the Enterprise, saw the crew while waiting for favourable conditions to cross Lancaster Sound. This was the last time they were ever seen.

What happened next is as horrifying as it is legendary. The crews of the Erebus and Terror spent the winter of 1845–1846 on Beechey Island, where three crew members died and were buried. Things would only get worse from there. In September 1846, the ships got stuck in ice off the coast of King William Island, where they remained for the winter and spring of 1847. By June 1847, Sir John Franklin was dead. The remaining crew, now captained by Francis Crozier, spent the rest of 1847 stuck in the ice, unable to continue their voyage.

By April 1848, the Erebus and the Terror were abandoned and the remaining crew set off on foot for the mainland. All the men perished along the way, and it would be years before anyone would learn of their fate.

Unlocking the mystery

In the years immediately following the expedition, when no word from the crew was received, the British government made efforts to locate the men, offering rewards for information about their whereabouts or their discovery. The first mission dispatched to search for the Franklin expedition set off in 1848. The mission failed. No sign of the lost men emerged until 1850, with the discovery of their winter camp at Cape Riley and the graves of the men who died during the first winter on Beechey Island.

Poster offering a £20,000 reward for the discovery of the Franklin expedition.

£20,000 reward for the discovery of the missing Franklin expedition, March 7, 1850 (e010754422)

During an 1854 expedition sponsored by the Hudson’s Bay Company, John Rae arrived in the Boothia Peninsula, where he met an Inuit man who told him of a group of white men who had starved to death a few years earlier at the mouth of a large river. After speaking with a number of other Inuit people from the area, Rae was able to identify the Back River as the likely site of the sighting. During this voyage, Rae acquired a number of relics belonging to the lost expedition, including inscribed silverware.

Drawing of a number of different items recovered during various search operations dispatched by the British government to locate the lost Franklin expeditions. Items include silverware, blades, pocket-watches, knives and flasks.

Relics of the Franklin expedition, ca. 1845 (e010958396)

Throughout the years, numerous expeditions sought to locate the lost ships and recover the bodies of the crew. RCMP patrols, intrepid travellers and archeologists attempted to uncover the fate of the men and to locate the abandoned ships. Graves, skulls and countless artifacts were located, but the ships remained hidden. Crews would search for ships, but it would take nearly 170 years for them be found.

Black-and-white photograph depicting 5 skulls against black rocks. The skulls were found in 1945 during an expedition by William Skinner and Paddy Gibson.

Skulls of members of the Franklin expedition discovered and buried by William Skinner and Paddy Gibson in 1945 (a147732)

Uncovered at last

In 2008, the Canadian government launched a renewed effort to locate the wreckage of the Franklin expedition’s lost ships. Working more closely with Inuit historians and local communities, these efforts would soon pay off. In September 2014, the HMS Erebus was discovered near King William Island in the Queen Maud Gulf. Locating this ship, which had eluded so many experts for so many years, was made possible largely because of the oral histories known to historian Louie Kamookak.

Almost exactly two years later, the wreckage of the HMS Terror was located, thanks in large part to Sammy Kogvik, an Inuit hunter and Canadian ranger who joined the crew of the Arctic Research Foundation that lead search and recovery efforts. Without the assistance and knowledge of local Inuit communities, it is quite possible that the abandoned ships might never have been located.

Find out more

Library and Archives Canada holds a number of archival records relating to the search for the lost expedition, including journals kept by Francis McClintock during his four Arctic expeditions in search of Sir John Franklin between 1848 and 1859.

For more information on the importance of oral histories and Inuit knowledge, David Woodman’s Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony is an excellent source (AMICUS 43188964).

For an interactive experience about the plight of the crewmen and the role that Inuit communities played in the discovery of the wreckages, visit the Museum of History’s exhibition, Death in the Ice—The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition, on until September 30, 2018.


Catherine Butler is a Reference Archivist in the Public Services Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Sir John Franklin Expedition

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.

An iceberg, HMS Terror and some walruses near the entrance of Hudson Strait.

An iceberg, HMS Terror and some walruses near the entrance of Hudson Strait
Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1979-49-1. Source

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:

For more information about the periods prior to and following the expeditions:

For more information about the period following the expeditions:

Publications, bibliographies and guides held at Library and Archives Canada:

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