Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Finding Franklin

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on September 10, 2014


Big news in the nautical archaeology world — last week a team from Parks Canada discovered one of the ships of the famous Franklin Expedition of 1845-48. The expedition, that originally set out to find the fabled Northwest Passage across the top of the North American continent, vanished without a trace and became one of the enduring mysteries of maritime history.


The grisly and mysterious tale of two British ships that disappeared in the Arctic in 1845 has baffled generations and sparked one of history’s longest rescue searches. But now, more than 160 years later, Canadian divers have finally found the remains of one of the doomed Navy vessels.
Legend has it that sailors on board the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, who were chosen by the explorer Sir John Franklin, resorted to cannibalism after the ships became ice-bound in the Victoria Strait in the Arctic territory of Nunavut.
Search parties hunted for the crew until 1859, but no sign of either ship was discovered until now. However, tantalising clues have emerged over the years, including the bodies of three crewmen, discovered in the 1980s.
The Franklin expedition’s mission to the fabled Northwest Passage had frustrated explorers for centuries and the sea crossing was only successfully made 58 years later, far further north. The original search expeditions in the 19th century helped open up parts of the Canadian Arctic for discovery.
Canadian divers and archaeologists rekindled efforts to find the ships in 2008 as the government looked to assert its sovereignty over the Northwest Passage.
Announcing the find, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper said: “This is truly a historic moment for Canada. This has been a great Canadian story and mystery and the subject of scientists, historians, writers and singers, so I think we really have an important day in mapping the history of our country.”
“Franklin’s ships are an important part of Canadian history given that his expeditions, which took place nearly 200 years ago, laid the foundations of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty,” he said.
An image of the discovery shows the wooden vessel has remained largely intact, though the main mast has been sheared off. The ship was resting upright on the sea bed only 11 meters below the surface. Searchers used remotely operated underwater technology to find the ship on Sunday, although it remains unclear which of the two vessels it is. The discovery comes shortly after divers found an iron fitting from one of the boats.
The myths surrounding the Franklin expedition have helped make the vessels among the most sought-after prizes in marine archaeology.


Good stuff. Nothing happens in a vacuum, of course, and the reality is that Parks Canada, the arm of the Canadian federal government that does historical archaeology work (similar to NPS or NOAA here in the U.S.), has gone through multiple rounds of deep budget cuts:


Over 80% of archaeologists and conservators at Parks Canada have lost their jobs, reducing the number of archaeologists and conservators at Parks Canada to twelve and eight respectively. The remaining twenty people are responsible for millions of artifacts and the archaeology at 218 national parks, historic sites and marine conservation areas, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
As one Parks Canada Conservator noted, “At this moment there are more people employed in a single Tim Horton’s than are employed by Parks Canada nationally to preserve and care for millions of archaeological and historic objects in storage and on display.”


Many of Parks Canada’s remaining resources re-directed toward finding evidence of the Franklin Expedition — a worthy goal, for sure, but debatable given the severely-limited resources needed elsewhere. Harper’s reference to “Canada’s Arctic sovereignty” is very intentional, because his government is pushing hard for territorial claims in the Arctic for drilling. The discovery of one of Franklin’s ships, one that is older than the creation of Canada itself, provides a nice historical exclamation point for the prime minister’s scramble for Arctic oil and gas.

Still, it’s an amazing find, and kudos to the Parks Canada team that pulled it off.



Update: Here’s a Slate story from May that provides background on Harper’s specific interest in finding remains of the Franklin Expedition.


11 Responses

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  1. corkingiron said, on September 10, 2014 at 10:23 am

    There’s irony upon irony involved here. They found the ship exactly where – for 150 years – Inuit oral history told them it was. But they were not believed – in part because the Inuit accounts also included stories of cannibalism, which was an offense against the image of intrepid and noble English explorers.
    And the Harper Government is under immense pressure from Canada’s First Nations to create a Federal Commission to explore why over 1000 indigenous women have gone missing (or murdered) over the last twenty years. So they can find a ship (a very worthwhile endeavor to be sure) but they can’t seem to find out what has happened to all those women – or at the very least, find the cracks in the system where they have disappeared.

    • Andy Hall said, on September 10, 2014 at 10:26 am

      Thanks very much for this, Sandy.

      • corkingiron said, on September 10, 2014 at 10:44 am

        You’re welcome. The Harper Government’s response to the demand for an inquiry is to say “we don’t need it. We already know the answer. It’s their culture…”

        Sound familiar?

  2. Craig L said, on September 11, 2014 at 11:20 pm

    I understand there’s a cruise line that has fully booked a cruise from Anchorage to Boston by way of the Northwest Passage, which is now considered navigable due to global warming. The big issue for the cruise company, aside from the risk of ice and the need to be accompanied by an icebreaker with a helicopter, is the effect it will have on the indigenous peoples along the route. Tickets for the cruise run something like $29,000 and the wait list is long enough to fully book a second cruise.

  3. Craig L said, on September 11, 2014 at 11:48 pm

    I lived in Manila for fourteen years and flew the polar route from Tokyo to Twin Cities and return about once a year. If you get a daytime flight with clear weather and a north facing window it’s really quite spectacular scenery, but it doesn’t look like planet Earth.

  4. H. E. Parmer said, on September 12, 2014 at 1:08 am

    Seems like an appropriate place for this:

    Lord Franklin – The Definitive Version

  5. Tom said, on March 29, 2017 at 11:02 pm

    There’s a fairly significant American aspect to this story

    Before being lost in the Canadian Arctic, HMS Terror was a bomb ketch. During the war of 1812 she was part of Royal Navy operations on the Atlantic Coast. One of her targets was Fort McHenry in 1814, where a lawyer named Francis Scott Key wrote a poem about how a large American flag remained flying all night through the bombardment by the Royal Navy, occasionally illuminated by ” the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air”

    • Andy Hall said, on March 29, 2017 at 11:38 pm

      Yes — bomb vessels were selected for Arctic exploration because their hulls were much more heavily built than most ships, and so were thought better able to survive being caught in the ice.

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