Thursday, August 18, 2016

Where to look for HMS "Terror"?

With the discovery by Parks Canada's marine archaeologists of HMS "Erebus" in 2014, the burning question has been the location of her sister ship, HMS "Terror." This year's search by Parks is planned to focus on the Terror, though there will be some new dives on Erebus as well. One might assume that, with one ship located and identified, it might be possible to narrow the range of sites to search for the second vessel, but that's not necessarily the case. In fact, since the Inuit never knew the name of either vessel, it takes some considerable review of the available testimony to sort out which tales refer to which ship; only then can we begin to form a clearer view of the possibilities. And, as was true of the 2014 find, it's mainly but not solely Inuit testimony that we need to consider.

One account that may deserve fresh attention is that given to L.T. Burwash by Enukshakak and Nowya in 1929, describing a cache of crates "northeast of Matty Island," along with wooden planks washed up on the shore, presumably from a wreck "three quarters of a mile off the coast of the island." Since we know that, if indeed this is a Franklin ship, it could only be the Terror, then this testimony offers one line of possibility. Similarly, any other sightings of ships at sites some distance from the known location of Erebus can, if accurate, only be of Terror -- these would include the ship possibly seen by Anderson's men in 1855 somewhere off Ogle Point.

These stories, though, are outliers to the main threads of Inuit tradition, which have the advantage that they begin with two ships, and include eyewitness accounts of one of them sinking. The most dramatic account of this was given to Hall by Kok-lee-arng-nun:
The old man and his wife agreed in saying that the ship on board of which they had often seen Too-loo-ark was overwhelmed with heavy ice in the spring of the year. While the ice was slowly crushing it, the men all worked for their lives in getting out provisions; but, before they could save much, the ice turned the vessel down on its side, crushing the masts and breaking a hole in her bottom and so overwhelming her that she sank at once, and had never been seen again. Several men at work in her could not get out in time, and were carried down with her and drowned.
Apparently, this ship's sinking was visible from on or near shore, and Inuit were present to witness it. Since the Victory Point record indicates both ships were intact when abandoned, and Inuit only learned of the Crozier's landing site (from McClintock's interpreter) in 1859, this event must have taken place after the ships were re-manned. There's good circumstantial evidence that this was the Terror; if we take the "Too-loo-ark" of this story to be Crozier then it would be the ship aboard which the Inuit often saw him, and the line in the "Peglar Papers" about the "Terror Camp" being clear suggests that the survivors from that vessel camped on the land. The likeliest site for this would seem to be Erebus bay, and as Dave Woodman has noted, the "visibility from shore" horizon line enables one to project an area of high probability (you can read his new, detailed account of this here or via my Franklin search archival pages).

At the same time, there are those who still believe that it's more likely that the Terror foundered before reaching that area. It seems significant to them that much of the recovered material from the Erebus Bay site is in fact associated with the Erebus, whereas if the Terror sank near there, more material from that ship might be expected. This was the original plan of the 2014 expedition, which took its name from the Victoria Strait, the goal of which was to locate the wreck or sunken debris from Terror. And now, in 2016, it seems that this is once more the primary search area that's been chosen, though of course it's also possible that ice conditions may limit or prevent a search there, as they did in 2014. It should be remembered that it was only after the disappointment of being unable to reach that year's goal that the Parks Canada team fell back on a further search in the Wilmot and Crampton Bay area -- and that it was that very search that finally revealed the golden sonar shadow of Franklin's flagship.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Utensils and the Franklin search

Sometimes, the humblest objects of daily use tell a tale more eloquent, more rich and complex, than anything we could gain from written records. Such is certainly the case with the material relics of the Franklin expedition. Setting aside those with greatest seeming significance -- Franklin's Hanoverian badge, the infamous dipping needle, or Des Voeux's shirtsleeve -- some of the most common items recovered have the greatest potential meaning for those attempting to reconstruct the last months of the Franklin expedition. I refer, of course to utensils -- forks, spoons, and the occasional knife -- which were recovered by many early Franklin searchers from Rae to Schwatka -- and which, even today, have not yet been systematically examined for what they can tell.

The utensils, most of them quality silver plate, were initially recognized on account of the family crests on their handles, which showed them to be from the families of officers such as Franklin and Crozier. Franklin's distinctive crest -- a conger eel's head between two sprigs -- was the most commonly found, suggesting that his plate had been first and widely distributed among the sailors; perhaps the most poignant of the crests was that of Fairholme -- a dove with an olive branch and the motto "Spero meliora" -- I hope for better things.

And yet there's more: on the stems and undersides of these same spoons and forks, there are found the scratched initials of other men, most of them ordinary seamen. The only explanation seems to be that, prior to the abandonment of the "Erebus" and "Terror," the silverware of the officers of both ships was distributed to the men for their use. In some cases, as with Franklin's, this was because the officer in question was deceased -- but the principal reason, doubtless, was to preserve the silver plate without burdening any one party with too large a quantity. And, since the silver plate from the officers from each ship was distributed to sailors aboard the same vessel, the discovery of a fork or a spoon -- provided its provenance can be definitely settled -- may give us a very likely indication of the path of the crew of that ship.

The pattern seems suggestive -- for instance, nearly all of the utensils recovered by McClintock at Cape Norton on the eastern side of King William Island were connected with the "Terror" -- there were two Franklin spoons marked "WW" (William Wentzall, seaman) and WG (William Gibson, steward), both of the "Terror," along with a Crozier fork and a teaspoon of Alexander McDonald, assistant surgeon. Only one item -- a Fairholme teaspoon -- was associated with the "Erebus." Now that we know that the "Erebus" was piloted to a point much further south in Wilmott and Crampton Bay, that would seem to explain the paucity of silverware from her officers -- and so, might the frequency of "Terror" forks and spoons then suggest its having sunk nearby? If so, this would certainly fit in with L.T. Burwash's theory that a Franklin ship sank in the vicinity.

When McClintock visited a party of Netsilingmiut near the North Magnetic Pole, which would have been near the next general transit of such a journey, he obtained mostly utensils from the "Erebus," although a lone McDonald fork was among them; this would now seem to suggest that perhaps a party from that vessel passed through this area. But of course, utensils could very well have been obtained through trade with other Inuit. What then, of spoons or forks with a clearer provenance? Alas, even when we have a utensil handed in by someone who claimed to have originally found it, the evidence is very mixed. The famous spoon offered to Schwatka (see above), complete with the Franklin crest and a distinctive mending job where the cracked bowl had been repaired with copper, is one such example; the giver, one Nu-tar-ge-ark, could offer only a clouded account:
He said it was given to him by some of his tribe, and that it had come from one of the boat places, or where skeletons had been found on King William Land or Adelaide Peninsula, he could not remember exactly where. 
(see the "Schwatka" chapter of my Finding Franklin for a fuller account of this spoon).

Since the vast majority of this silverware is now catalogued online, it's a question that offers at least the possibility of an "armchair" solution. Most of them are catalogued at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, with a few others -- part of the Lefoy bequest that included Sophia Cracroft's collection -- are now at the Scott Polar Research Institute. Another small collection was retained by Dr. Rae, and later given by him to the University of Edinburgh, these do not seem to have been given detailed analysis (although, judging from the images as they appear in the SCRAN database, they unfortunately seem to have been polished!). 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Whose are the Franklin relics?

There's been a spate of reporting -- much of it plagued with inaccuracies -- about the ownership and disposition of the relics of Sir John Franklin's expedition, specifically those relics which have been brought back from the wreck of HMS "Erebus" by Parks Canada, and those that will (hopefully) be brought back in the future. Some believe that, under the Nunanvut Land Claims Agreement of 1993, the relics ought to belong to the Inuit; others feel they rightfully belong to all Canadians; still others have put forth the (misleading) claim that Britain will get to "cherry pick" those relics they want to keep. Before I offer my own view, it's best to start by clearing up the considerable -- and avoidable -- confusion over the legal status of these relics.

First off: while certainly the Inuit have a strong interest in the disposition and display of these relics -- after all, they're hard evidence of the value of Inuit oral traditions -- they legally belong to Canada. This is because, under international maritime agreements, the contents of any modern military wreck belong to the nation whose ship it was. In the case of HMS "Erebus," that nation is the United Kingdom. However, there exists a very clear memorandum of understanding (MOI) signed by representatives of both the UK and Canada, transferring salvage rights to Canada (with the exception only of any gold that might be found). While yes, it's true that the NLCA assigns ownership of archaelogical finds to Nunavut, that probably doesn't supersede national and international law (though I should emphasize that I'm not a lawyer); though conceiveably the Government of Nunavut could make a legal objection, that would only have the effect -- to my mind very unfortunate -- of delaying the hoped-for public display of these artifacts, which is something of significant value both to both Nunavummiut and other Canadians alike. It's also unfortunate because, as I understand it, agreements were already at least tentatively in place for the HMS "Erebus" historic site to be co-administered by Inuit and Parks Canada, with an interpretive centre in Gjoa Haven in the works. These plans are said to include working "closely with the Kitikmeot Inuit Association to negotiate an Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement as required under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement."

Secondly, despite the recent reporting otherwise, the MOI does not give Britain the right to "cherry pick" relics it would like to keep. The exact language of that agreement is in a proviso to the section assigning Canada ownership of "everything recovered from that wreck," which provides that "any recovered artifacts identified by Britain as being of outstanding significance to the Royal Navy will be offered to Britain for display in an appropriate museum." Again, though I'm not a lawyer, the import of the word "offered" seems to be "for display" -- that is, the objects would be loaned for that purpose by Canada. The loan could, conceiveably, be long-term, but the clause doesn't seem to me to obviate the "everything" of the main section. And indeed, there are plans afoot for such a display, one that would first be mounted at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and then shown at the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa. This is just the sort of co-operative bi-national exhibit that I believe the MOI -- written before "Erebus" was found -- had in mind.

I believe -- I hope -- that everyone involved with this magnificent discovery acknowledges two central facts 1) That HMS "Erebus" might well never have been found were it not for the Inuit oral traditions as to its location; and 2) These relics tell a tale of both British and Canadian history, as well as Inuit history, that very much ought to be told from an international stage. The unfortunate truth is that, even were it decreed that these relics were the sole property of the Inuit, there is no appropriate archive in Nunavut where they could be conserved and displayed. The original Archives of Nunavut, created in 1999 with the establishment of that territory, are stored at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, but that repository long ago reached full capacity. Presently, new items for this archive are going to the Canadian Museum of Nature, where they are, as with the Yellowknife materials, held in trust for the Government of Nunavut and its people.

It's my fervent belief that these extraordinary relics and the story they tell belong to all Canadians, including Inuit -- and, in a symbolic sense, to the nation that launched the Franklin expedition. Co-operation and mutual trust between all parties is essential, and hasty and inaccurate stories about the disposition of the relics do nothing to advance this cause.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Named after Franklin

By Tabercil - Own work, under license via CC BY-SA 3.0
One measure of the influence of a man might be considered to be how many others were given his name -- that is to say, his namesakes. By that measure, it would seem Sir John Franklin was a significant figure indeed, one whose name a great number of parents in his day and long after chose to bestow upon their offspring. One of those you might least suspect -- the great Canadian comedian John Candy -- was actually given the name John Franklin Candy at birth; the image at left depicts his star in Canada's Walk of Fame. Born in 1950, Candy is actually one of the more recent Franklin namesakes; the name seems to have been at its peak in the mid-to-late 1850's and then again in the 1890's and 1940's. In the account that follows, I should emphasize that I don't actually have any definitive account of the reason for the bestowal of these names, though certainly Franklin's is by far the best known possible source; I've eliminated cases where the name has a family precedent (father or grandfather), along with those who were born too early (prior to Franklin's name becoming well-known around 1818).

Among those to bear the name during the early Franklin search era of the 1850's, we have John Franklin Crowell (1857-1931) an early president of Trinity College (now Duke University). That same year, John Franklin Alexander Strong shared an Arctic destiny with his namesake; born in Canada, Strong went on to be just the second Governor of the Alaska Territory. In 1860, John Franklin Kinney, and leading New York Democrat and jurist, was born, and in 1862 we have John Franklin Miller, a member of Congress from Washington, DC. Moving toward the end of the century, we find John Franklin Enders (1897-1985), a pioneering scientist known as the "Father of American Vaccines."

The early twentieth century brings us my favorite of all, the novelist John Franklin Bardin, who worked in an advertising agency by day and wrote dark psychological thrillers by night; his novel The Deadly Percheron may be one of the most harrowing, yet whimsical novels ever penned (the name comes from the killer's habit of leaving Percheron horses at the scenes of his crimes; the book is the one being read by Bob Hoskins' character in the film Mona Lisa). A decade later we have the painter John Franklin Koenig, who grew up in Seattle near Lake Union, though he spent much of his artistic career in France.

And there may be many more -- the genealogical research site lists tens of thousands of them; even if only a small minority were actually named after our Sir John, it would be a considerable number. We may never know much of the lives of John Franklin Eustace, John Franklin Bainbridge, John Franklin Pollard, or John Franklin Brearly Goodall (this last of whom, like many others, was an Australian) -- but they remain curiously woven together by the thread of Franklin's name.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Margaret Bertulli

Makeshift crampons for walking on hard snow and ice; found at NgLj-2 in 1993
As part of my ongoing series on those who have searched for Franklin, I thought I'd take this occasion to speak with Margaret Bertulli, who was one of the first professional archaelogists to do work on the western shores of King William Island in the 1990's. These days, she's retired but far from inactive -- indeed, she'll be serving as one of the resident experts on Crystal Cruise Lines' upcoming Northwest Passage voyage, which will be the first to bring a large-size cruise vessel through this route. I reached her at her home in Winnipeg.

*   *   *   *   *

Tell us, what brought you to the search for Franklin? 

In the early 1990s when I was the Arctic Archaeologist at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, Barry Ranford, a school teacher from southern Ontario and his colleague discovered a site with human remains on their trek down the west coast of King William Island. It was very dramatic as skulls and parts of infracranial skeletons were scattered across the ground surface of a small tidal island in Erebus Bay.  Mr. Ranford had long been a Franklin enthusiast and this find was the first in decades with the potential to reveal more information about the fate of the Franklin Expedition.  Mr. Ranford contacted the Heritage Centre and we organized a project for the following summer to conduct archaeological excavation and physical analysis of the human remains.  Dr. Anne Keenleyside was the physical anthropologist who accompanied this project and analysed the skeletal remains.  As the archaeologist in charge of the project, I prepared all of the logistics and conducted the excavation.  It was particularly interesting for me to hear Mr. Ranford describe how he put himself in the frame of mind of the survivors as he walked along the low-lying terrain of western KWI, imagining himself in their footsteps and looking for Franklin-related items.  He found at least two sites in this way.  I remember flying on a Polar Continental Shelf Project Twin Otter from Resolute Bay to the site on KWI.  Looking out the plane’s window, I marvelled at the myriad lakes and how desolate the terrain seemed.  I began to understand a little about how these British sailors could have felt in this landscape.  ‘Desolate’ is not generally a word I use to describe the Arctic because to my mind it is beautiful and full of wonders but, in this case, I could empathise with men far from home and longing to return.

When you first arrived at the NgLj-2 site, what were your impressions? The bones, of course, have been the subject of much discussion, but I'd be especially interested in your thoughts on some of the other material artifacts --pipe bowls, buckles, glass fragments, buttons, and such. What do you think this site and those near it represent?

It was a sunny mid-afternoon when we arrived.  The Twin Otter blew a tire on landing and Mr. Ranford showed the pilot and co-pilot around the site.  After that the pilots retired to the aircraft to await the arrival of another plane carrying a spare for them.  I was glad to arrive at our destination and know the exact location of the site as Mr. Ranford had not been willing to disclose this information, concerned that others would pre-empt his discovery.  In the midst of unloading our supplies from the Twin Otter, setting up tents and radio contact with Polar Shelf, it was some time until I could walk across the tidal flats from our camp to the small island.

The area is very pretty with valiant little flowers and a huge celestial dome; one could see approaching weather long before it arrived at our camp.

The artifacts that we recovered from surface collection and limited excavation that summer were very fragmented.  They were really only bits of bits of artifacts and yet some provided information about how the men prepared for this journey; for example, the fragments of copper gauze and a partial lens of purple glass indicate that they probably used these materials to make goggles to protect against snow blindness.  (I have never experienced that myself but did over-expose my eyes to the Arctic sun one afternoon on Devon Island and can tell you that it was painful—I wore sunglasses even indoors for the next few days.)  One particularly poignant find consisted of cut shoe heels through which copper tacks have been driven so that the points of the tacks would protrude through the heel and provide the wearer with purchase on the ice and snow.  Any material of value had long since been recruited to new purpose by Inuit who had visited the area.

I know that you've returned several times to the western coast of King William Island, investigating other possible Franklin sites. Do you think it's probable that there might still be undiscovered sites of significance in this area?

I’ve been on field projects on KWI in 1993 for the excavation of NgLj-2 and to Cape Felix in 1995.  I think it is highly probable that there may yet be more sites.  Unless one has been there, it is difficult to appreciate how the terrain effects what one sees on the ground surface.  It is easy to walk within several feet of a find or artifact and not see it as the ground is covered with shattered limestone slabs about the size of dinner plates so that one must be careful with one’s footing.  Many of the objects are small and not highly visible.  The low-lying terrain fosters very poor drainage so that in some years previously dry areas may be water-covered.  Of course, a helicopter would be a useful yet expensive way to conduct survey.

What other sites on land would, in your view, be the most promising for additional archaeological work?

One can return to the same site for multiple years and always find something new or re-interpret evidence and ideas so the area around Erebus Bay would be a likely place to recover further information.  I think that Terror Bay could also be explored systematically.

Do you think it would be worthwhile to revisit Starvation Cove or perhaps the Todd Islets/Booth Point areas?

I certainly think it would be beneficial to revisit Starvation Cove, Booth Point and Todd Islets. etc.  I guess the point I was trying to make was that each area could benefit from multiple searches and searchers  because one sees something different every time and different people notice or perceive in various ways leading to fuller and more detailed explanations or ideas.

In the planned exhibition of Franklin relics in Britain and Canada next year, what would you regard as the most significant, in terms of helping the public understand the significance of the demise of Franklin's expedition.

It seems to me that people have expounded on the significance of the expedition’s demise in poetry, song and scholarly articles for over a century.  What is the significance of a well-outfitted expedition failing spectacularly and mysteriously?  What is the significance for us today?  Perhaps, it is not the artifacts that will help us to understand but exploring the human psyche may provide clues to this fascination.  Having said that, those artifacts which are concerned with the minutiae of daily life and the operation of a nineteenth-century sailing vessel would be interesting to the general public.

Is there any artifact in particular that spoke to you?

The artifacts that spoke most to me were the ones that individuals would have worn and used, like the purple lens for snow goggles and the boot heel with the tacks.  Also, the illuminators are interesting, such as the ones that were recovered from the Erebus.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Franklin searcher of the Month: Robert Cundy

Robert Cundy (L) and Gordon Dean (R); courtesy of the Sunderland Echo
One of the more active armchair Franklin enthusiasts of his day, retired Admiral Noel Wright held a number of unusual views about the Franklin expedition, nearly all of which, sadly, have proven to be mistaken. Still, as a Navy man with considerable interest and enthusiasm, his theories (see his 1959 book Quest for Franklin) were taken seriously by those who read them. One of his more plausible contentions was that the retreating members of the Franklin expedition, some of whom apparently crossed over to the mainland at the narrowest part of the Simpson Strait, may well have been following Dease and Simpson's route, and even used some of the former party's cairns to deposit messages or leave signs of their passing. Wright felt that Dease and Simpson's "Beacon Six," located at the mouth of the Back River, was the most likely of these, the more so as it would have been in accord with the only known written record -- the one left at Victory Point -- which stated that the men were headed there.

So far as Wright or anyone else knew, this cairn might well still be undisturbed, and might yet contain another written record of the Franklin party. This was the idea that motivated Robert Cundy, who hailed from Sunderland on the eastern coast of Britain, to take up the quest to reach that point. Cundy, who commanded his four-man crew along military lines, was somewhat surprised on his arrival in the Arctic to encounter a group of four much more laid-back American paddlers with the same plan;  each hoped to be the first since Back to make a full descent of the river, but Cundy -- as John Lentz, one of the Americans, recalled it, was focused primarily on the goal of reaching the cairn at Beacon Six.

It was a rough journey, with numerous rapids and portages; at one point they were forced to cobble together a kayak out of the broken parts of two others that had been damaged beyond repair. And at the end, for all their hardships, they found that the cairn they sought held only a “small yellow film can, wrapped in polythene” in which a short note had been deposited by some predecessors of “Operation Back River 1960.” As Dave Woodman has noted, Cundy was still hoping that a record might be buried nearby and had come prepared to dig for one, but soon discovered that “there was not a scrap of soil on that windswept bluff, merely an irregular pattern of cracks, which revealed nothing." His disappointment, as recalled in his book Beacon Six, was palpable.

The voyage was only one of many for Cundy, an RAF veteran who took to travelling the world, documenting his trips on film and audiotape. Many of these were later broadcast as episodes of the BBC's Adventure series, including footage of South American diamond-hunters, the mysteries of Mayan civilization, and the newly-emerged volcanic island Surtsey off the coast of Iceland. His work is hard to trace today, and only a few mentions of it survive in the BBC's available archives, and it's not clear whether he himself is still living. According to Chris Cordner, whose excellent article in the Sunderland Echo was where I first learned of Cundy's roots in that area, no readers have yet come forward with information about him. I certainly hope that if he or any of his comrades are still on this side of the soil -- or if any of their family members happen upon this posting -- that they'll let me know; his achievement, though disappointing to him, is still very much deserving of recognition.

Monday, May 23, 2016

HMS Resolute and her Desks

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016
t's widely-known that the "Resolute Desk," currently being used in the Oval Office by President Obama, was crafted from the timbers of the Franklin search ship HMS Resolute. The ship had become, by a strange twist of fate, a symbol of the "special relationship" between the US and the UK; having drifted from where she was abandoned deep in the Arctic archipelago, she was found by a whaling captain and piloted back to port in the United States. Restored to her former glory with funding from the US Congress, she was sailed back to Britain under the command of Henry Hartstene, and presented to Queen Victoria as a gift from the nation. The presentation ceremony, made while Resolute was anchored near the Queen's summer residence at Osborne House on the Isle of Man, was the subject of a famous engraving by William "Crimean" Simpson, a noted war illustrator, and both plain and colored versions -- such as this one at the Library of Congress -- were sold to the public.

US Government official photograph / public domain

It had been hoped by many at the time -- including Lady Franklin -- that the ship might once more be dispatched to the Arctic, but it was not to be. Which was why, when the vessel was being broken up in 1879, the Queen decided to have a series of desks made from her timbers. The large "partner's desk" in the Oval Office, originally used by Rurtherford B. Hayes, is by far the best-known, but the others -- three in number -- are no less significant in their own right.

The Queen had two desks made for herself. One, a modest writing-table or side-table, has a brass plaque similar (but not identical to) the one on the partner's desk; the other, a folding desk, was made for use aboard the Royal Yacht. Both, it now seems, are in Portsmouth, though not on display; the folding desk, indeed, is stored rather plainly, in a crate with a loose plastic cover. Confusion over the similar plaques -- along with the fact that the original plans, now at the National Maritime Museum, were departed from -- apparently led some sources, the Wikipedia among them, to incorrectly state that Her Majesty had also had a partner's size desk made for herself, but that was never the case.

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

The largest of the other three, a ladies' writing desk, was presented to the widow of Henry Grinnell, the whaling magnate who had leant so much of his time and resources to the search for Franklin; it currently resides at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Like many such desks of this period, it has two large compartments and a series of smaller ones built into its top; one may note that the door of one features a crowned lion, a
New Bedford Whaling Museum
heraldic device of the British monarchy, while the other shows a fouled anchor, the symbol of the Royal Navy.

The president's Resolute Desk has played a role in many dramas -- including the film National Treasure: Book of Secrets -- and, assuming the next resident of the White House decides to keep it, it will likely be a part of many more. For those of us who won't have a chance to see it there, there are at least five exact replicas at various presidential libraries -- Kennedy's, Reagan's, Noxon's, Carter's, and Clinton's -- or, if cost is no object, you can order your own replica for a mere $9,495.00 (marked down from $12,000). Of course, it won't be made with oak from the Resolute ... but it would still be certain to impress your friends!

Friday, May 20, 2016

How many?

As a fact-checker, one of the most common things I've had to check in articles about the Franklin expedition are numbers. 128 men? Yes, but only if you exclude those who sailed from Greenhithe but were invalided out and sent home, and you don't count Franklin himself. Dozens of search expeditions? Well, thanks to W. Gillies Ross, we can say that three dozen is a roughly accurate figure, if we limit ourselves to the era up to and including McClintock's search aboard the Fox. But one of the trickiest figures to settle is the number of years we should count Franklin's expedition as missing, which is tied up with the question of what "missing" means. As the author of an upcoming book whose title refers to a "165-Year Search," of course I have some views on the subject.

When Franklin sailed, almost exactly 171 years ago (May 19, 1845), his ships were provisioned for three years of full rations (early press accounts later tended to exaggerate this figure, in part to stave off public concern). Neither he nor the Admiralty expected any immediate news, and given the vagaries of cairns and messages in tin cylinders, it was certainly possible that word -- even of success -- might be considerably delayed. Franklin's sailing orders suggested that, if he made the passage, he might consider calling at the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) to give his crews some R&R, but even had he done so, word of his arrival there would have taken weeks or months to reach London. So it's hardly right to date the Franklin "mystery" to 1845, since there was nothing mysterious about the lack of contact then, or in the succeeding three years. This brings us to 1848, when the first large-scale search sent by the Admirality, that of James Clark Ross, was dispatched. They found no traces of Franklin or his ships, which in one sense is the first note of concern -- but that was not publicly known until he returned to England in 1849. That's the year that I date the "mystery" to, and why -- going from that moment to the discovery of HMS Erebus in 2014 -- I chose the 165 years of my title. There's an argument to be made for 166 years(if one uses either the three-year provision measure, or the date of Ross's initial sailing) or even 167, if one starts counting in 1847, when the very first expedition sent to look for Franklin, that of Richardson & Rae, was dispatched. It's completely wrong, though, to refer as did Macleans in 2014, to a "169-year-old mystery," using the 1845 date, at which time there was no "mystery" at all.

The other number that still vexes, despite Gil Ross's fine work, is the number of search expeditions since the finding of the Victory Point record. Part of it is the question of what qualifies; should we count Allen Young's voyage, even though he never reached the intended search area? Or what about Charles Francis Hall's first foray, which left him stranded on Baffin Island, hundreds of miles from his goal? These questions get even trickier in the twentieth century, when many who sought out Franklin sites were more like pilgrims than searchers, and often were simply making a side-trip from a journey made for other purposes. In my book, I've counted every search that managed to reach its planned search area, even if it was a side-trip, or (as sometimes happens due to weather and ice conditions) it was cut short. By these criteria, the "modern" era -- starting with Rasmussen in 1921 --  gives us fifty-three Franklin searches prior to the first Parks Canada search in 2008. It's a surprising number to some, since relatively few of these searches garnered much publicity. Many know of the exhumations on Beechey in the mid-1980's, but few are aware of Owen Beattie's two earlier exepditions to King William Island; others may know something of searchers such as Dave Woodman or Barry Ranford, but not realize how many times they returned to search again.

And even with that, the number is impossible to absolutely fix. Some searchers have proven nearly impossible to identify or trace, such as the mysterious "Coleman and Holmberg of California," mentioned in William C. Wonders's account as having searched King William Island in 1965, while others, such as John Goldi's 1975 trek, are so incompletely documented that one wonders whether they ought to be counted or not. I've come up with a solution for that, though -- I just say "more than fifty." Which, when added to the 36 in Gil Ross's account, along with Hall and Schwatka, and the seven Parks searches gives us "more than ninety" searches in all. At least for now.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Lachlan Taylor Burwash

One could say that he was the first of the "modern" era of Franklin searchers, but Lachlan Taylor Burwash was at the same time very much rooted in the past. Born in 1873 in Corbourg, Ontario, he was the scion of a long line of eminent Burwashes; named after his grandfather, he grew up under the watchful eye of his father, Nathanael, who was dean of theology and eventually president of Victoria University, which later moved from Cobourg to Toronto. Young Lachlan apparently had a more worldly bent, earning a degree in mining engineering at the University of Toronto -- a prescient specialty, which he soon put to use in administrative work in the Yukon territory during its gold-rush days. When World War I broke out, Burwash enlisted, although he was already forty-one years of age, and rose to the rank of Major (references to him during and this period frequently name him simply as "Major Burwash"). At war's end, he spent some time in London, making the acquaintance of Rupert Thomas Gould, a gifted horologist and bibliophile. It was at Burwash's request that Gould made his famous map, one which catalogued and gave the coordinates for every discovery of evidence related to the Franklin expedition.

It's not quite clear which was the chicken and which the egg, but Burwash soon secured a position with the government of the Northwest Territories -- ostensibly to do geological and practical surveys of the Arctic, but with a broad mandate that would enable him to pursue his Franklin fascination along the way. Posted at King William Island for a season, he solicited stories from local Inuit, and was rewarded with hitherto-unrecounted tale of a cache of crates near Matty Island. Two witnesses, Enukshakak and Nowya, recounted finding a stack of twenty-two wooden crates in an area northeast of Matty Island. The crates contained food, including tins, some of which they said were painted red (only the Goldner's tins supplies to Franklin were known to be so). And, although the story has been dismissed by some as simply referring to crates thrown overboard in the vicinity by Amundsen, which amount to twenty-five in number. Still, as Dave Woodman has pointed out, crates don't stack themselves, and those jettisoned by Amundsen were mostly of pemmican, not the flour ("white man's snow") or red tins reported by Enukshakak and Nowya. Most intriguingly of all, these same two witnesses spoke of a wrecked ship not far from their find, three-quarters of a mile offshore.

Burwash was of course tremendously excited by this story. Over the course of the next several years, he made a number of attempts to visit the site and confirm the testimony. And yet, to his everlasting frustration, snow and ice cover repeatedly prevented him from being able to do so. He searched in other areas as well, including the site of Ross's North Magnetic Pole, and the northwest coast of King William Island (with Dick Finnie, a previous 'searcher of the month'). He retired to his childhood home in Cobourg in the mid-1930's, lecturing on his Arctic researches and writing for a variety of newspapers and magazines. Lachlan Taylor Burwash died in 1940, but his findings still hold potential. Several times, through the 1960's, pilots reported seeing signs of a wreck near Matty Island, and the site has never had a thorough archaeological study. With HMS "Terror" still unlocated, it remains a tantalizing possibility.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Armchair Explorers

Image via Wikimedia Commons
In my upcoming book Finding Franklin, I put it this way: "There’s every possibility that the next vital discovery relating to the fate of Franklin’s men will be made by a lone searcher equipped only with a laptop, in the comfort of his or her own study at home." It's an age of information, and in almost every sense -- maps, satellite images, digitized books and manuscripts, photo archives -- there's a greater wealth of material available to the 'armchair explorer' today than at any previous time in history. The Franklin relics at the National Maritime Museum, the narratives of the Franklin search expeditions, and digital maps showing traditional Inuit place names, all are now at anyone's fingertips who wants them. Most intriguingly, since we now know that HMS "Erebus" lies in water shallow enough that it can be seen from the surface, the idea of using satellite imagery to help find "Terror," or perhaps even smaller Franklin sites on land, seems far less improbable than it once did. There's a good deal of satellite imagery out there publicly (though the best resolution isn't free), and even Google Earth, despite its limited definition in the North, offers a way to put various finds together into a custom-made mapping system.

But although one's armchair is a fine and private place, it's not without its perils, as the cautionary tale of a Canadian teenager who claimed to have discovered a lost Mayan city reveals. The searcher, fifteen-year-old William Gadoury of Québec, had been using star constellations to find correspondences with the placement of cities, and according to press reports, found one star without a known city that matched. With some help from the Canadian Space Agency, he obtained some fairly detailed telemetry of the site, and found a promising square shape that he believed was an ancient city covered with undergrowth. Alas, according to the experts who have since weighed in, it's more likely to be a fallow field, or perhaps a marijuana plantation, though there's still some talk of taking a team to visit the site just to see if it holds any surprises.

This apparently 'false positive' shows the limits of such technology. What's really needed, in addition to visual telemetry, is a system such as LIDAR which is capable of penetrating surface cover and creating detailed imagery of physical terrain. Such a system was used by archaeologist Sarah H. Parcak this year to search for possible Viking settlements in maritime Canada, leading to a much-vaunted claim of having found several. Work on the ground, though, has yet to yield unambiguous results, and the radiocarbon dates from the sites explored gives a range from 800 to 1300 A.D., which doesn't necessarily confirm -- although neither does it exclude -- the finds being Viking-related. The site supposedly had evidence of 'turf walls,' along with bits of "bog iron" that suggested the possibility of smelting activity, but no items of definitive human manufacture.

Which brings up one of the limits of the armchair/satellite method -- it can indeed locate potentially promising spots, but can't definitively identify anything without work on the ground, which still requires the expense and time of proper archaeological investigation. Still, with very large data sets such as LANDSAT now freely available, it's certainly a valuable way to sort out the promising from the unpromising, a particularly worthwhile endeavor in the Arctic, where the shortness of the search season makes every day count.

And it's not only with on-site archaeological work where armchair searchers can make significant contributions. New images of Franklin's officers, new interpretations of surviving documents, and new understandings of the equipment supplied to Franklin, have all been discovered and developed by dedicated amateurs. What's more, since this work is undertaken in a collective spirit and regularly shared -- via sites such as the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook group -- it has enabled multiple minds to focus on a single question, often yielding fresh interpretations that would be much harder, if not impossible, for any lone individual to discern. And this is the other way in which such groups can make a difference: even once something is discovered, its significance still takes time to understand, a process that can be greatly accelerated when people with many different areas of interest and expertise are part of the crowd.