The disappearance in 1845 of Sir John Franklin and his crew in the Canadian Arctic set off the greatest rescue operation in the history of exploration. More than 30 expeditions over two decades would search by land and sea for clues as to his fate, in the process charting vast areas of the Canadian Arctic and mapping the complete route of the Northwest Passage. The search for clues continued into the 20th and 21st centuries. On 9 September 2014, it was announced that one of the expedition ships, later identified as the HMS Erebus, had been found off King William Island. On 12 September 2016, a team from the Arctic Research Foundation announced that they had located the Terror in Nunavut's Terror Bay, north of where the Erebus was found.

The Franklin Expedition

By the 1840s explorers had established most of the Northwest Passage through the frozen islands of the Canadian Arctic, with the exception of a 500 km stretch between Barrow Strait and the mainland. The British Admiralty chose Sir John Franklin to find this remaining portion of the route. Franklin left England in HMS Erebus and HMS Terror on 19 May 1845, carrying 134 officers and men. It was the largest and best-equipped expedition England had ever sent into the Arctic. When the ships reached Greenland, five of the crew were judged unfit and were invalided home to England on a supply ship. Franklin was last seen by Europeans in Baffin Bay, where he was hailed by Arctic whalers on 26 July 1845. He was never heard from again.

Fate of the Expedition

It is now known that things went well for Sir John Franklin during the first months of his expedition. Erebus and Terror negotiated the ice of Baffin Bay and made quick time through Lancaster Sound before they were stopped by a wall of ice in Barrow Strait (between Cornwallis and Somerset Islands). Franklin then turned north into Wellington Channel for some 240 km. A second barrier of ice forced him to retreat along the west and south coasts of Cornwallis Island before he settled into a winter campsite on Beechey Island, a tiny piece of land lying off the southwest coast of Devon Island in the Barrow Strait.

Despite their steam engines, the sturdy ships were locked in the menacing ice, exposed to blizzards, frigid temperatures and cyclonic gales. Three crew members died during the winter of 1845–6, and were buried on the island. The Erebus and Terror again became caught in the ice in September 1846, just off King William Island. Franklin’s ships ought to have been freed during the summer of 1847 so that they could push on to the western end of the passage at Bering Strait. Instead, they remained frozen and were forced to spend a second winter off King William Island. It was a death warrant for the expedition, and Franklin himself died in June 1847. The remaining 105 men abandoned their ships on 22 April 1848 and set up camp on the northwest coast of King William Island, intending to set out for the mainland. All perished — most on the island, and some on the northern coast of the mainland.

The Early Searches for the Franklin Expedition

At the time, though, no one in Europe knew what had happened, and there had been no sightings or reports of the expedition since 1845. By March of 1848 the British Admiralty was sufficiently worried about Franklin to dispatch three expeditions to find him or at least to determine his fate. Captain Henry Kellett was directed to the western entrance of the Northwest Passage via the Bering Strait. John Rae and Sir John Richardson trekked overland from the mouth of the Mackenzie River towards the Coppermine River. Sir James Clark Ross (with HMS Enterprise and HMS Investigator) approached from the east, via Lancaster Sound. Ross’ ships were locked in winter ice and his men suffered a serious outbreak of illness, including scurvy. By sledge he surveyed the shores of Peel Sound (unknown to him the very strait through which Erebus and Terror had sailed to their doom), but found no trace of Franklin. During the summer of 1849, his ships drifted out of the ice into Baffin Bay and in September were able to sail home.

The failure of these expeditions to solve the mystery caused a public outcry in Britain that government was not acting resolutely enough. Lady Jane Franklin lobbied relentlessly for action. In response, in 1850 the British government offered a £20,000 reward to anyone who brought assistance to the crew of the Franklin expedition, £10,000 for information leading to their relief, and £10,000 to anyone who might ascertain the fate of the expedition. In autumn 1850 a fleet of ships combed the Arctic for any sign of the missing explorers. The Admiralty alone sent eight ships, including expeditions led by Captain Richard Collinson (HMS Enterprise) and Commander Robert McClure (HMS Investigator) via Bering Strait, and Captain William Penny, an Aberdeen whaling master, with the brigs Lady Franklin and Sophia, from the east.

Early in 1850 a wealthy New York merchant, Henry Grinnell, with the assistance of the US navy, equipped an expedition to search for Franklin. Commanded by Edwin Jesse De Haven, the expedition ended in sickness, icebound in Baffin Bay.The Hudson’s Bay Company funded an expedition under the aging Sir John Ross (in the Felix) and a second expedition under John Rae, overland and by boat to Victoria Island. Neither of the HBC expeditions found any trace of Franklin.

The First Discoveries

The first signs of Franklin’s expedition were discovered by a British naval squadron commanded by Captain Horatio Austin (in HMS Resolute) and Captain Erasmus Ommanney (HMS Assistance). On 23 August 1850, Ommanney discovered evidence of Franklin’s first winter camp at Cape Riley on the northern shore of Beechey Island. Lieutenant Sherard Osborn wrote of the men rushing towards the “dark and frowning cliffs,” tearing down a cairn and searching fruitlessly for a document or record.

A flotilla of ships converged on the area and soon William Penny found the remains of a hut and a number of artifacts at Cape Spencer, on Devon Island. Then, on 27 August, a breathless sailor brought Penny startling news of three graves on the island: William Braine of Erebus, died 3 April 1846; John Hartnell of Erebus, died 4 January 1846; and John Torrington of Terror, died 1 January 1846.

The Final Attempts to Rescue Franklin’s Expedition

The Admiralty sent its last and largest expedition in 1852 under Sir Edward Belcher, as concern mounted not only for Franklin but also for McClure (HMS Investigator) and Collinson (HMS Enterprise), who had not been heard from. In August 1853, a supply ship sent to Belcher, the Breadalbane (whose wreck was later located and declared a national historic site), sank in the ice off Beechey Island. Belcher returned ignominiously in 1854 after unnecessarily abandoning four of his five ships. Though the expedition had managed to rescue McClure, who had been ordered by senior officer Henry Kellett to abandon his ship Investigator, nothing new was learned of Franklin's whereabouts.

However, McClure’s extensive exploration by sledge convinced him that he had identified the final route of the Northwest Passage. The Admiralty agreed and awarded him and his men a £10,000 reward.

The second Grinnell-funded expedition, commanded by Elisha Kent Kane, sailed in May 1853. This too ended in failure. All members of the expedition suffered from scurvy and malnutrition, and 57 of the 60 dogs that Kane had acquired for his sledging operations died of Arctic canine hysteria. After a near-fatal attempt to escape to Greenland, the bedraggled party was saved by a Danish vessel, some 1,600 km away from where the remnants of Franklin’s expedition were finally located.

By 1854 it was obvious to the Admiralty that nothing could be done to save Franklin or his men. On 20 January 1854, a notice in the London Gazette stated that unless news to the contrary arrived before 31 March, the officers and crew of Erebus and Terror would be considered to have died and their wages would be paid to relatives.

John Rae Discovers the Fate of the Franklin Expedition

On his fourth expedition to the Arctic, sponsored by the Hudson’s Bay Company, John Rae left York Factory to complete the survey of North America’s mainland coast. On 31 March 1854 he set off westward, making for the Boothia Peninsula. According to Rae, at Pelly Bay on 21 April he met a “very communicative and apparently intelligent” Inuk and from him heard about a party of white men who, several years earlier, had perished from starvation near the mouth of a large river a long distance to the west.

On Rae’s return to Repulse Bay, more Inuit told him details of the tragedy that had befallen the party of white men. From this, Rae was able to identify the site as the mouth of Back’s Great Fish River (now called Back River). The Inuit reports were reinforced by articles Rae acquired from them, which he identified as having belonged to members of the lost expedition, including inscribed silverware and Franklin’s Royal Hanoverian Order. Rae eventually received £8,000 reward money for relaying this information about Franklin’s fate, while his men shared the remaining £2,000 of the reward.

McClintock Settles the Mystery of Franklin’s Fate

As the Crimean War (1853–56) preoccupied Britain, it was only Lady Franklin’s determination and her willingness to spend her fortune that kept the search alive. She won extraordinary public sympathy as the loyal, grieving wife of a missing hero. Between 1850 and 1857 she outfitted five ships with substantial contributions from others. In 1857, at personal expense, she outfitted the steam yacht Fox, and persuaded Captain Francis Leopold McClintock to command one last expedition to find her husband.

In spring 1859, McClintock led a sledge party overland to King William Island (using dogs as well as men to haul the sledges). The party split in two, with McClintock taking a southern course and Lieutenant William Hobson a northern route to search the coast of King William Island. In April, McClintock met two Inuit families, who provided him with a number of relics from the expedition; he later purchased some silver plate from a group of about 30 Inuit on the island.

Hobson’s men made an important discovery on 5 May 1859 at Cape Victory on King William Island, when they dissembled a stone cairn and found a sealed tin with two messages inscribed on a single sheet of Admiralty paper. The message documented that Sir John Franklin died on 11 June 1847, that the ships were abandoned 22 April and that the remaining crew intended to walk to Back’s Great Fish River. It is the onlywritten record of the expedition’s fate.

In the meantime, McClintock continued to search the south shore of King William Island, where he made the eerie discovery of a lone ship’s boat with two skeletons. When he heard of the document found by Hobson, McClintock declared, “So sad a tale was never told in fewer words.” The success of McClintock was of solace to Lady Franklin, who now knew the exact date of her husband’s death. He received a knighthood and Hobson a promotion. Parliament voted £5,000 reward to the officers and men of the expedition.

Search Expeditions in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

In 1869, Cincinnati businessman Charles Francis Hall briefly searched the southeast region of King William Island, and in 1879 another American, Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka, also backed by the American Geographical Society, made the first summer search of the island and the adjacent mainland. In spite of rumours that there were still white men living in the area, all Hall found of the Franklin party was more relics and skeletal remains.

Searches for evidence of Franklin's fate continued into the 20th century. In 1930, a Canadian government-sponsored party, led by Major L.T. Burwash and flown by bush pilot Walter Gilbert, found some artifacts on the northwestern side of King William Island, but too few to be of great significance. In 1931, William Gibson of the Hudson’s Bay Company searched the south coast of King William Island, discovering a number of skeletons and artifacts.

The Modern Search for the Franklin Expedition

In the 1980s, forensic anthropologist Owen Beattie and laboratories at the University of Alberta examined the bodies of the three crewmen buried in the permanently frozen ground on Beechey Island: John Torrington, John Hartnell and William Blaine. Beattie and a team of scientists exhumed the three bodies, which were remarkably preserved in the permafrost. Analysis of the soft tissues identified the presence of scurvy, which was expected, but also the presence of very high levels of lead, consistent with severe lead poisoning. They identified the source of the lead in the solder used to seal the food cans supplied to the expedition. Further analysis of bones collected earlier from King William Island also indicated the presence of dangerously high levels of lead. The results of this research prompted Beattie to conclude that the severe physiological and neurological effects of lead poisoning may have contributed to the disaster.

In 1992, 1993 and 1994 further discoveries of human skeletal remains of 11 or more men from Franklin's expedition were made by researchers on the west coast of King William Island. Analysis of these bones also indicated elevated lead levels, as well as extensive evidence of cannibalism.

While Beattie’s team suggested that the high levels of lead originated in the food tins used on the expedition, research published in 2013 by chemists from Western University argues that the levels were too high to have accumulated during that time frame, and the source of the lead poisoning remains a mystery.

The Fate of Erebus and Terror

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were specifically modified for polar service. They were built as bomb ships (designed to withstand the recoil of heavy cannons), with thick ribs and beams of strong English oak. Their bows were reinforced with a maze of crossbeams and diagonal beams designed to plow through the polar ice. They were also fitted with auxiliary steam engines and retractable propellers.

According to Inuit testimony, after the ships were abandoned by their crews off King William Island, one ship sank in deep water west of the island. The other drifted south, perhaps as far as the Queen Maud Gulf and into Wilmot and Crampton Bay.

Since 2008, Parks Canada and the Canadian Hydrographic Service have conducted a search for the lost ships, using advanced oceanographic technology. (By 2014, searchers had covered more than 1,200 square km.) In July 2010, the team, led by Ryan Harris, located Commander Robert McClure’s ship Investigator at the bottom of Mercy Bay. On 9 September 2014, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that one of Franklin's ships had been found. It was announced on 1 October that the ship had been identified as the HMS Erebus. On 12 September 2016, a team from the Arctic Research Foundation (founded by Jim Balsillie) announced that they had found the Terror in Nunavut's Terror Bay, north of where the Erebus was found in 2014. The discovery was confirmed by Parks Canada on 26 September 2016.