No event in Arctic history holds more allure than that of the Franklin Expedition. In 1845, two ships under the command of Sir John Franklin departed England to discover the Northwest Passage, a fabled route through the Arctic waters above Canada that would provide a shortcut to Asia. Equipped with the most advanced naval technologies of the time, and provisioned to last several years if caught in sea ice, the 129 men onboard sailed away with unwavering optimism that they would succeed in their mission. After a brief stop in Greenland and a chance encounter with whaling vessels in Baffin Bay, they were never seen by Europeans again.
Three years later searches that would drag on for over a decade began, turning up only a handful of clues. Most telling was a note found in a cairn that said Franklin had died, the ships had been abandoned off the shore of Prince William Island, and the men were attempting an overland journey to a Hudson’s Bay Company outpost. Beyond that there was little more than a trio of graves, skeletal remains scattered on beaches, and detritus from the ships. Reports from Inuit witnesses, as well as telltale marks on some of the recovered bones, offered clear evidence that the last stragglers had resorted to cannibalism in a desperate bid for survival. The mystery has haunted people ever since.
Interest was rekindled when the command vessel, the Erebus, was located in 2014, sunk into shallow waters in Queen Maud Gulf, far to the southwest of where it was long thought to lie. Two years later the other ship, the Terror, was found submerged in Terror Bay off of King William Island. Over a century and half of searching had finally borne fruit.
This summer, Alaskans can explore the history and mysteries of the Franklin Expedition first hand at the Anchorage Museum, which is hosting “Death in the Ice” through Sept. 29. On loan from the Canadian Museum of History, the exhibit tells the story of the expedition from its germination through its failure, followed by the searches and ultimate discovery of the ships’ final resting places.
Museum Director Julie Decker said, “We were interested in bringing the exhibition to Anchorage because of the long arc of interest in the Franklin Expedition and its mysterious end, and because it told a much more complex narrative of polar exploration than is typical, including placing respect for Indigenous knowledge and Inuit oral histories at the center.”
Indeed, “Death in the Ice” sets the Franklin Expedition in its broader historical context, both in England as well as with the Inuit residents of Canada’s Arctic coastline, who were the last to interact with the doomed sailors. It appropriately begins with displays on Inuit culture, including tools dating from before and after contact with Europeans, which altered both toolmaking and materials used. On the darker side is a discussion of how Inuit people were transported back to Britain and essentially placed on exhibit in human zoos.
The next section is devoted to Britain’s efforts at discovering the Northwest Passage, a goal that obsessed the nation in the decades that followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Found here are old maps of what the Arctic was believed to contain prior to its exploration. There are also maps carved from driftwood which were created by Inuit to show coastlines and were employed as navigational tools.
“The exhibition goes beyond providing a linear historical narrative and includes information about the personal motivations and incentives of Franklin and the realities of shipboard life,” Decker explained.
Items and information relating to the dozen or so years the British devoted to seeking clues to what befell the men are here, as well as brief displays regarding several subsequent searches of note. Along the way, countless relics are on view, including Franklin’s naval service medal; a watch that belonged to Francis Crozier, who captained the Terror; dinnerware; assorted items abandoned by the crews; a sledge from roughly the same era as the Expedition; models of the ships; and a replica of the note discovered in 1859 by members of Francis Leopold McClintock’s search party from which it was learned that the men had abandoned ships in 1848.
The exhibit reaches its climax with a large area given over to the finding of the shipwrecks. In addition to some of the items brought to the surface, a model shows a scale sized Erebus with a diver, demonstrating the recovery process still in the early stages on the actual vessels. Particularly striking is the Erebus’ ship’s bell, which was one of the first items retrieved after the 2014 discovery (a fragment of the ship’s wheel greets visitors at the start of the exhibit). As noted in the displays, the ships were located where Inuit interviewed at the time of the disaster said they could be found, knowledge widely ignored until modern times.
“Those discoveries add the science of underwater archaeology to the exhibition and the benefit of contemporary science and contemporary perspectives,” Decker said. “It places on even footing both science and Indigenous oral history.”
In a side room, best avoided by the squeamish, the deaths and cannibalism among the sailors are visited. A model shows a skeletal hand with blade marks that could only be made by humans. Such lines were present on recovered bones. And the famous photographs of the bodies of three crewmen who died and were buried on Beechey Island before the expedition collapsed are also on view. Exhumed in 1984, they were examined to determine their causes of death. The corpses were so well preserved in the frozen soil that they appear almost lifelike.
Finding the wrecks answered old questions and raised new ones, including whether or not the survivors re-boarded the ships and attempted an escape. The mysteries of the Franklin Expedition will never be completely solved, but the story on display at the Anchorage Museum remains as gripping as ever.
David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks.