Sir John Franklin | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Sir John Franklin

Sir John Franklin, naval officer, Arctic explorer (born 16 April 1786 in Spilsby, England; died 11 June 1847 aboard HMS Erebus near King William Island, Nunavut).
Sir John Franklin.
Credit: Library and Archives Canada/C-1352.

Sir John Franklin, naval officer, Arctic explorer (born 16 April 1786 in Spilsby, England; died 11 June 1847 aboard HMS Erebus near King William Island, Nunavut). Franklin’s name is synonymous with Arctic exploration and the Northwest Passage. A respected naval officer and colonial governor, he was involved in several high-profile expeditions to the Canadian Arctic that mapped large stretches of unknown coastline. He is best known for leading the tragic 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage. All hands perished on that voyage, despite being close to discovering the elusive sea route through the Canadian North. The Franklin expedition remains one of the most enduring mysteries of Arctic exploration and Canadian history.

Early Naval Career

Franklin entered the Royal Navy in 1800 at the age of 14. Early in his career, he developed the surveying skills and interest in natural science that would determine his career as one of the greatest explorers of the Canadian Arctic. The Royal Navy was the leader in promoting voyages of exploration and scientific research throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. From 1801 to 1803, Franklin was part of an expedition led by his uncle, navigator Matthew Flinders, that surveyed much of the coastline of Australia. He also saw significant naval action during the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812: he served under Horatio Nelson at the Battles of Copenhagen (1801) and Trafalgar (1805) and was later injured during the British offensive against New Orleans (1814).

Surveying the Canadian North

After the wars, the British Admiralty resumed its interest in exploration, especially the almost mythical Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific. Franklin’s experience, particularly his surveying skills, made him a valuable asset in these endeavours. In 1818, he commanded a modified whaling ship, the Trent, in an expedition led by David Buchan to find a passage through the polar ice northwest of Spitsbergen (a Norwegian island in the Arctic Ocean). After months of probing pack ice, the mission was called off.

The following year, Franklin was charged with mapping the northern shoreline of the American continent. His party travelled vast distances overland and by canoe down the Coppermine River, reaching the sea on 18 July 1821. Although it encountered serious problems, this expedition was the first to map large sections of the Arctic seaboard. In his well-organized second expedition to the Arctic (1825–27), Franklin made the approach in boats up the Mackenzie River. From the Mackenzie Delta, the party split into two groups: one ventured east to map as far as the Coppermine River, while Franklin led the other west toward Alaska. Back in Britain, Franklin was celebrated as a hero. He published Narratives of both journeys, was promoted to captain in the navy, elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and even knighted. Through it all, he remained a modest and private man.

Tragedy in the Northwest Passage

Ironically, Franklin’s career as an explorer stalled after his exploits of the 1820s, as the Admiralty lost interest in northern exploration in the following two decades. From 1836 to 1843 he served as the lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), a British penal colony. Although Franklin attempted to institute significant political and social reforms, he fell out of favour with the Colonial Office and was not reappointed. Fortuitously, his arrival back in Britain coincided with the Admiralty’s renewed efforts to complete the Northwest Passage. Since his earlier expeditions, new discoveries and mapping had reduced the unknown part of the Passage to a stretch of almost 500 km between Barrow Strait and the mainland. Although Franklin was now in his late fifties, he campaigned hard to lead the expedition. Supported by friends and fellow explorers and bolstered by his professional reputation and his fame as an Arctic trailblazer, the Admiralty gave him command in February 1845. It would be the best-equipped and most technologically advanced Arctic expedition to that date.

Along the Barrow Strait, Nunavat, 2014.
Credit: Master Seaman (MS) Peter Reed, Underwater Imaging Dept. FDU (A), CFB Shearwater, Nova Scotia.

On 19 May 1845, the Franklin expedition left the River Thames to find the Northwest Passage. Aboard the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were 134 officers and men (five later disembarked at Greenland as they were judged unfit for service). The ships also carried provisions for three years — including approximately 60,000 kg of flour; 30,000 kg of salt beef and pork; 8,000 cans of preserved meat, vegetables and soup; 500 kg of tinned pemmican; 4,000 kg of lemon juice; 90 kg of pepper; 3,000 kg of tobacco; 4,000 kg of chocolate; and thousands of litres of wine and spirits. The ships also carried research instruments for botany, zoology, and geology as well as early photographic equipment, hand organs, and libraries — 2,900 books in total, including technical manuals and works by Charles Dickens. The vessels were modified for service in the Arctic: the bows were strengthened with sheet iron to withstand ice and steam engines were added for use in emergency situations. The ships were also equipped with desalinators, which could distill drinking water from seawater, and with boilers. In short, it was a well-provisioned and well-equipped expedition; the general mood was optimistic and many believed they would make it through the Northwest Passage in a year. However, after sailing into Baffin Bay, where it was spotted by whaling ships on 26 July, the expedition was never heard from again.

Franklin Expedition Site
Site of the archaeological site on King William Island where the remains of Franklin's crew were found (courtesy Owen Beattie).

Based on evidence gathered during rescue missions and archaeological excavations, historians have reconstructed Franklin’s route on this fateful voyage. Entering Lancaster Sound, they spent the first winter at Beechey Island. During the summer of 1846, they turned south and navigated their way through Peel Sound and into Victoria Strait, only to get frozen in thick ice off King William Island, where the ice floes reportedly did not recede all summer long. Trapped, they spent the winter off King William Island, where Franklin died from unknown causes on 11 June 1847, aboard the Erebus. Other crewmembers had also perished. Based on written messages, historians now know that the survivors abandoned the ships on 22 April 1848 and attempted to reach safety overland. Some died along the way while others reached the Adelaide Peninsula, in essence completing the final unknown leg of the Northwest Passage. Eventually the ships sank; in 2014, HMS Erebus was found in the waters near King William Island, and in September 2016, a team from the Arctic Research Foundation announced that they had found the Terror in Nunavut’s Terror Bay. With the death of all 129 men, the Franklin expedition is the worst tragedy in the history of Arctic exploration.

Searching for Franklin

Between 1847 and 1859, some 30 expeditions searched for the lost ships, most sponsored by the Admiralty and Lady Franklin. Search missions continued into the late 19th and early 20th centuries, although any hope of rescue had long been abandoned. Gradually, these missions found evidence that pieced much of the voyage together, but still left the biggest questions unanswered. John Rae’s discovery of cannibalism on King William Island horrified Victorian Britain, with Charles Dickens and others rejecting the possibility of such barbaric behaviour by Franklin’s men. One of the unintended benefits of these missions was increased understanding and mapping of the Arctic, and the completion of Franklin’s quest for the Northwest Passage. (See History of Cartography: The Arctic.)

Franklin, Lady
Shown in 1816. Lady Franklin launched the long search for her missing husband (courtesy National Portrait Gallery).

In recent decades, archaeologists have continued to investigate the Franklin expedition, with the help of Inuit oral history and expertise. (See Exploring the Arctic Through Oral History.)

In the 1980s, a team led by forensic anthropologist Owen Beattie examined the bodies of three crewmen found on Beechey Island and found high levels of lead and suggested that solder used to seal the food cans had been the source of contamination; this led to the theory that the physiological and neurological effects of lead poisoning had contributed to the eventual fate of the Franklin expedition. However, a 2013 study led by chemists at Western University has cast doubt on the role of food tins as the source of lead poisoning.

In 1992, the Canadian government designated the Erebus and Terror a national historic site, despite not knowing their location. Since 2008, Parks Canada has led a large and much-publicized search for the lost ships. Speaking from onboard a vessel involved in this underwater search in Cambridge Bay in 2012, Prime Minister Stephen Harper voiced the federal government’s support: “It is truly exciting to be launching this new initiative to continue searching for the lost vessels of the Franklin Expedition.” On 9 September 2014, Harper announced that one of Franklin's ships had been found; it was identified later that month 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. (See Franklin Search.)

In October 2017, the British government announced that it would transfer ownership of both ships to Parks Canada, while keeping a sample of artifacts. According to Canadian environment minister Catherine McKenna, the ships would be co-owned with local Inuit, who played a crucial role in locating the wrecks.


An accomplished Arctic explorer, Franklin is best remembered for his tragic 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage. That mysterious voyage, which has baffled explorers and experts for more than 150 years, obscures the fact that Franklin added more to the coastal map of Canada than any explorer except George Vancouver.

A map of the Northwest Passage, created in 1854.
Credit: Samuel Gurney Cresswell, William Simpson. Day & Son/Library and Archives Canada/e002852748.

The Terror

American author Dan Simmons wrote a fictionalized account of Franklin’s expedition in The Terror (2007). In the best-selling thriller, the crew contend not only with starvation, disease, mutiny and cannibalism, but also a monster that stalks them through the frozen landscape. The book has been adapted as a television mini-series by AMC, which premiered in March 2018.

See also: Arctic Exploration; Exploration; Franklin Search

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