Racing to Find the Lost Ships of Sir John Franklin’s Expedition

Where are the lost ships of Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition — the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus

Some refer to them as the “Holy Grail” of marine archaeology.  And, as temperatures rise and melting arctic ice raises hopes their locations will finally be revealed, there’s a race on to find them between public and private concerns.    

For those unacquainted with the story, the Franklin Expedition set sail from England in 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage, a route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Arctic Ocean along the northern coast of North America. 

By September, 1846, the ships had become trapped in ice off King William Island and were finally abandoned by their crews in April, 1848. 

Eventually the whole of both crews — 128 men in all — would perish, most probably from starvation, though not before resorting to cannibalism; other factors in their demise may have been scurvy and lead poisoning.  According to a message left behind and discovered by a search party in a cairn in 1859, Franklin himself had died in June, 1847.

Beginning as early as 1848, there have been many searches for clues to the fate of the Franklin Expedition, though modern-day scientific efforts to unravel the mystery did not really begin until much later.  Many traces — bones, equipment, food containers, even the well-preserved mummies of some of the crew — have been located — but not the ships.  

More recent searches have focused on attempting to find the ships, and a 2008 effort led by Robert Greiner of Parks Canada drew heavily upon native Inuit testimony/traditions about the expedition.

The very latest attempt, apparently being planned by a private concern led by Rob Rondeau of ProCom Diving Services and still not off the ground, has run afoul of the Canadian government and Parks Canada for its failure to consult with local authorities.        

Officials are concerned that the wrecks be properly protected if and when they are found — a prospect made more likely by global warming and the melting ice.  As Canadian Environment Minister John Baird stated last year before Greiner’s search began, “[W]e want to find it before Hollywood.”     

If you’d like to read more, Greensboro Public Library has several books on Sir John Franklin and the lost expedition, including:  Ice Blink:  The Tragic Fate of Sir John Franklin’s Lost Polar Expedition by Scott Cookman; Journey Into Ice:  John Franklin and the Northwest Passage by Ann and Myron Sutton; and Buried In Ice by Owen Beattie and John Geiger with Shelley Tanaka (juvenile).

We also have more general works on the quest for the Northwest Passage, which will include information on the Franklin Expedition, including:  Across the Top of the World:  The Quest for the Northwest Passage by James P. Delgado; Ordeal by Ice:  The Search for the Northwest Passage, edited by Farley Mowat; and The Arctic Grail:  The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909 by Pierre Berton.


7 Responses

  1. Just wanted to say this is a very well-informed and thoughtful post! In addition to these excellent titles, might I suggest that the library consider obtaining Andrew Lambert’s new biography of Sir John Franklin — it’s a definitive and very engaging book — and perhaps also my own book Arctic Spectacles, which details the ways in which the nineteenth-century public received its visions of the north, via panoramas, lantern shows, and stereographic viewers.

    • Thank you for your comment Dr. Potter. I’ll pass those titles along.

    • Hi there, sorry i haven’t been updating you. Anyway we had a meeting with our lawyer and Doug Stenton the archaeologist from Nunavut in November. Next meeting will be sometime in 2010.
      And the digging of the documents of Franklin some time in the summer.
      I’ll chat with u again soon,, Merry christmas and a Happy New year

  2. I Eric Oogark from Kugaaruk Nunavut has some information about the lost ship from Franklin’s day. My greatgrandmother past the information on to me just before she had pastaway. she had showed me the area where she spot the ship, she said no one knows the location so this is your treasure.

  3. I Eric Oogark of Kugaaruk Nunavut lived all my life at Kugaaruk, My grandmother past this information on to me. She told me her side of the sighting of the large pole in the water sticking out about ten feet above water. In those days we have not any poles that size. if you’d like to call me, my phone number, (867) 769-6008.

  4. thankyou for the info…..I have read Everything on the franklin expedition,,,did remember reports of the mast being seen..we know the ships were close to land..I know they will find them soon..the ice shifts and most likely there location has changed from where the last time they were seen

  5. […] a year ago we blogged on how rising temperatures and the melting Arctic ice meant a race was on to find the HMS Erebus […]

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