FAIRBANKS — For Arctic history enthusiasts, there’s never been a more exciting time. The recent findings of the two lost vessels of the Franklin Expedition, last seen sailing from Greenland in 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage, made global news. Meanwhile, historians have been producing an unending stream of books bringing us new and, in many ways, deeply revised understandings of the era. Keeping up with developments has become nearly impossible.
Thus, we’re at a good point to revisit the entire arc of this history and grapple with the new findings and what they mean, particularly in regards to Sir John Franklin and his men. This is the task Canadian author Ken McGoogan masterfully accomplishes in his newest book, “Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage.”
McGoogan, a highly adept Arctic historian, seeks with this book to lay out the entire story of efforts of finding the Passage, from the 16th century to Roald Amundsen’s first navigation of it early in the 20th century, as well as the recovery of Franklin’s ships in the 21st.
In digging through the many nautical and overland journeys undertaken by Europeans, McGoogan explains, a common theme emerged. Native peoples, especially the Inuit, were often the heroes who saved expeditions that would otherwise have come to ruin. Of equal importance was how various explorers interacted with Natives. Those who observed and learned from the region’s inhabitants and adopted their methods generally succeeded in their efforts. Others, convinced that European technology and knowledge were inherently superior to local wisdom, often didn’t.
Martin Frobisher was the first to seek the Northwest Passage, setting out from Britain in 1576. The English merchants who financed his journey were seeking a shortcut to Asia. Over the next three centuries locating that route would be an objective pursued by many. McGoogan recounts this trip, as well as other early explorations, including that of the ill-fated Henry Hudson, namesake of Hudson Bay.
For nearly 250 years, exploration of the region was driven by the fur trade, with the search for the Passage a secondary concern. McGoogan documents the importance of Native guides and assistants who were crucial to the success of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Among them was Thanadelthur, a multilingual Chipewyan woman who served as a de facto diplomat, and Dene leader Matonabbe, who guided Samuel Hearne, the first European to reach Canada’s Arctic coast.
The British Admiralty took up the cause of discovering the Passage early in the 19th century, throwing a nearly endless supply of men and money at the objective in the following decades. In 1845, after a handful of previous attempts, the Franklin Expedition was sent forth with two modern ships, 129 men, and absolute confidence of success. They headed north of Canada and vanished. From the few bones later found it became apparent that the last survivors resorted to cannibalism in their final desperate days.
It’s here that the recent locating of the ships has drastically altered what is believed to have happened. But as McGoogan highlights, if more value had been placed on Inuit reports than on one hastily scribbled note, we would have known sooner both where the ships were and what befell the men.
The narrative that held for a century and a half was that the ships were iced in off the northwest coast of King William Island. Franklin and several others died on board. The rest abandoned the ships in 1848 and headed south, hoping to reach Hudson Bay. They starved to death before ever coming close.
This theory was based on the one written document ever found, a note detailing the plan that was recovered by Leopold McClintock in 1859. The problem is, it contradicts what Inuit in the region told searchers. They spoke of the ships moving further south, of boarding them and discovering at least one corpse, and of accidentally sinking one ship themselves in Queen Maud Gulf, southwest of King William Island.
This information was initially gathered by John Rae, who was mapping the Arctic coast in 1854 and happened upon a group of Inuit who told him these stories. They reported that at least some of the men were still alive as late as 1850, and also provided the first accounts of cannibalism.
McGoogan hails Rae as the greatest of British Arctic explorers, noting that more than any others — especially the obstinate Franklin — Rae fully embraced Native ways. He carefully learned from everyone he met along his overland travels and thrived where Franklin’s men died. Yet history turned on him. Victorian England, buoyed by Franklin’s widow Jane, refused to believe good British sailors would resort to eating each other. Rae was disgraced. McClintock was credited with learning the expedition’s fate. For the next 150 years searches for the vessels focused on where the note was found.
Then in 2014, one of the shipwrecks, the Erebus, was discovered submerged in Queen Maud Gulf. The other, the Terror, was located in Terror Bay off southwestern King William Island. They were both exactly where the Inuit had told Rae they were.
This changes the story dramatically. McGoogan writes that it’s now believed some of the survivors re-boarded the ships and made another effort at pushing through. The sailors’ demises appear to have been far more drawn out and complicated than long believed. Searches of the wrecks will hopefully shed additional light.
There is far more in this book than just a revision of the Franklin calamity. McGoogan covers numerous voyages, some well known, others largely forgotten, always with an eye on the role Natives played. Summarizing Hearne’s successful early explorations, McGoogan writes, “Europeans would be wise to apprentice themselves to the Native peoples who had lived there for centuries — a strategy that eluded many who followed.”
Most importantly, McGoogan shows how the search for the Northwest Passage isn’t just a part of European history. It’s equally a part of Inuit history. While plenty more is found here, this long overdue recognition is his book’s most significant accomplishment.
“Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage”
By Ken McGoogan
HarperCollins Canada/Patrick Crean Editions
448 pages • 2017
$33.99 Canadian (available in U.S. through Amazon)
David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. He can be reached at email@example.com.