"Discovery of the Franklin Expedition Boat"

On King William's Land by Lieutenant Hobson

Original content by: Dr. Paul Goodwin Mystic Seaport Staff

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About This Artifact

This wood engraving from the October 29, 1859 Harper's Weekly depicts the "Discovery of the Franklin Expedition Boat on King William's Land by Lieutenant Hobson."  It shows men, sleds, and dogs, discovering bones in the Arctic.

In 1845 Sir John Franklin, in command of two ships, the Erebus and Terror, set sail from England to find a northwest passage to the Pacific. In 1848, after no news had been received from the expedition, multiple search expeditions were sent out hopefully to find Franklin and his 128 men. They all failed in their efforts, oftentimes confounded by bad weather and heavy ice.  It was not until 1854 that John Rae, who was in the employ the Hudson’s Bay Company and surveyed and charted much of the region, bought artifacts from Inuits that apparently came from Franklin’s lost expedition. The Inuit also indicated that the desperate crews had resorted to cannibalism before they perished.

Rae’s information dissuaded the British Admiralty from sending additional expeditions to search for Franklin. But Lady Franklin was anxious to know how her husband had died. In 1857 she bought a steam yacht and appointed Francis McClintock to lead another expedition. In 1859 McClintock and William Robert Hobson each led a sledge party to King William Island where at two sites they found relics, skeletons, and two messages which showed conclusively that Franklin and his men had perished there. In this scene depicted in Harper’s it was Hobson who found the boat with two skeletons and an assortment of gear.

It is now surmised that a combination of starvation, hypothermia, scurvy and lead poisoning rendered the men incapable of saving themselves and they died on the ice. Recent discovery of cut marks on additional skeletal remains indacates that the Inuit account of cannibalism was accurate.  This most enduring of mysteries leapt back into the headlines in 2014 with the discovery of Franklin’s flagship, HMS Erebus, then two years later with the discovery of HMS Terror, each incredibly well preserved at depths of less than one hundred feet in the Arctic Ocean. Dives aboard the wrecks are rapidly changing our understanding of what befell Franklin’s expedition.



Questions for Further Thought

  1. Why do you suppose there was so much interest in finding the "fabled" northwest passage to the Pacific?
  2. Why has the Canadian government devoted so many resources in an effort to locate the lost ships?