The Inuit and the Franklin Expedition

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The loss of the Franklin Expedition is one of the most famous events in Canadian history. For over 150 years, it has captivated Canadians as we strive to learn what happened to the men of the Erebus and Terror. While we know a great deal about the fate of the crew and ships, having not only found the ships but the graves of many of the crew.

Last year, I was on This Is A Disaster Podcast to talk about the Franklin Expedition, but today on the podcast I wanted to talk not about the disaster itself, but the Inuit and their role in the investigation of the disaster.

Not only did they interact with the doomed sailors and helped other explorers in their search for the crew, but even in the 21st century they helped locate the ships beneath the waves.

First, a bit of a refresher on the Franklin Expedition.

Setting sail from Kent, England in the morning of May 19, 1845, the 24 officers and 110 men on the two ships had no idea that none of them would ever see England again, except for five men who were discharged in Greenland after becoming sick. They were the lucky ones. After encountering the Prince of Wales and Enterprise whaling ships in July 1845, the crew of the ships were never heard from again.

Spending the 1845-46 winter trapped in the ice off Beechey Island, the ice would thaw in the summer of 1846, but only two months later both ships were trapped in the ice once again off King William Island. Neither ship would sail again. The crew would winter the next two years at the island, as various members, including Franklin himself, passed away. On April 22, 1848, almost three years after they first set off, the remaining crew abandoned the ships and began walking across the sea ice towards the Canadian mainland. By this point, nine officers and 15 men had died. Over the next 400 kilometre march across the Arctic, the remaining men died, never even coming within a few hundred kilometres of the nearest Canadian outpost.

Lady Franklin would press the British Admiralty to launch a search for the expeditions in 1848, and these searches would continue for decades. Through these searches, thousands of kilometres of coastline would be mapped, and the story of what happened would slowly emerge.

The Inuit would play a vital role in learning what happened, as they were the last ones to ever interact with the doomed crew members.

It is not known if the Inuit encountered the doomed crew and ships prior to the abandonment of the ships. The Victory Point Record states that the ships were deserted on April 22, 1848 but it doesn’t mention any Inuit, nor are there any mentioning of Inuit in the ship logs. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, the encounters could have just been omitted from the records at the time they were recorded.

According to oral histories and information gathered by explorers looking for the Franklin Expedition, several Inuit boarded an abandoned ship in 1850, which had been icebound off King William Island for some time. Prior to this, there are stories of seeing men on the Erebus prior to its sinking.

In 1854, John Rae, who was surveying the Boothia Peninsula for the Hudson’s Bay Company, would meet with an Inuk on April 21, 1854. The Inuk would tell him that a party of 35-40 white men had died of starvation at the mouth of the Back River. Rae would continue to speak with other Inuit and they confirmed the story of the starving sailors, and also provided the first evidence of cannibalism among the sailors. They told Rae that they had found bones that were broken apart. In addition, Rae was shown several objects that were identified as belonging to Franklin and his crew. These included several silver forks and spoons that belonged to Franklin and his officers.

For Rae, the stories of cannibalism would dog his career for the rest of his life. Lady Franklin would launch a smear campaign against him for suggesting that Englishmen could do something like that and for listening to the Inuit. Charles Dickens would join in the smear campaign, writing on Dec. 2, 1854, quote:

“Quite apart from the very loose and unreliable nature of the Esquimaux representations (on which it would be necessary to receive with great caution, we believe we shall show, that close analogy and the mass experience are decidedly against the reception of any such statement and that it is in the highest improbable that such men as the officers and crews of the two lost ships would, or could, in any extremity of hunger, alleviate the pains of starvation by this horrible means.”

Dickens would add his own racist flourishes to the story, stating quote:

“Lastly, no man can, with any show of reason, undertake to affirm that this ad remnant of Franklin’s gallant band were not set upon and slain by the Esquimaux themselves. It is impossible to form an estimate of the character of any races of savages, from their deferential behaviour to the white man while he is strong. This mistake has been made again and again, and the moment the white man has appeared in the new aspect of being weaker than the savage, the savage has changed and sprung upon him.”

In 2015, new bone analysis showed that the crew did indeed resort to eating flesh and then bone marrow to survive.

One year later in 1855, a band of Inuit encountered Hudson’s Bay Company Chief Factor James Anderson and his employee James Stewart, who were traveling to the mouth of the Back River. They stated that they had come across a group of white men who starved to death on the coast.

By the 1860s, some theories began to spread that the survivors of the expedition had chosen to live among the Inuit. Charles Francis Hall would conducted two expeditions in 1860 and 1869 and lived among them on Baffin Island, and he came to the conclusion that none of the crew lived among the Inuit. During the 1869 expedition, Hall stated that local Inuit took him to a shallow grave on King Edward Island, where the skeletal remains of a crew member were found. These remains were taken back to England. In 2009, the remains were examined and it was determined to be Harry Goodsir, the assistant surgeon on the Erebus. Hall would also learn that four men were seen by Inuit hunters trying to head south in 1851, which is the last verified sighting of the survivors of the expedition.

Hall would journey with two Inuit guides, Ipirvik and his wife Taqulittuq, whom he had hired in 1860. While Ipirvik served as his guide and hunter, Taqulittiq was his translator. Both were also well-known among explorers in the Arctic, especially after they had met Queen Victoria in 1852. Both Ipirvik and Taqulittuq would help Hall gather hundreds of pages of Inuit testimony about the fate of the expedition.

Hall was told by one Inuit man, Neewikeetoo that he and others had visited the ships. He also showed Hall a watch he had recovered. Hall stated, quote:

“He took the watch off the dead body of a Kob-lu-na…This was on a large island not very far from Neitch-il-le. The Kob-lu-nas and the boat came from a ship that was crushed in the ice. Before hard times came upon the Kob-lu-nas the Inuits saw the ship or ships.”

Another Inuit man, Nood-loo-ong showed spoons that had been given to him by Crozier, one that had his initials on them.

Hall would find that the artifacts had been spread throughout the Inuit communities of the area. There was also repeated interactions between the Inuit and the men of the ship. One oral history states that there was even a joint caribou hunt, although Hall stated that he had his doubts regarding the story.

He would state, quote:

“I believe they had visited many times Sir John Franklin’s ship while beset in the ice near King William’s Island and there met him, Crozier and all their company. It took something like three days while encamped on the ice to find out the fact that all the old man and wife had told me was of Captain and Commander Ross.”

There would be further evidence of the Inuit visiting the crew on the ships before they were abandoned. Hall would state about an old woman who quote:

“had seen Eg-loo-ka who was Esh-emut-ta (chief) before, one year before on board his ship. Her nephew went to this ship on the ice in company of many other Innuits. After this visit to this ship, the Neithc-il-lee Inuits believed that the ship had gone away, gone home to the Kob-lu-na country but the first they hard was that a great many Kob-lu-nas had frozen or starved to death.”

Hall would add, quote:

“Had any Eskimos visited the ships near that coast before the retreat to the Great Fish River they would almost certainly have returned to the north-west coast during the next few years to see whether the white men had left behind anything worth taking away.”

Reports from the Inuit would state that at least two men, including Captain Francis Crozier, had survived in the Baker Lake area, between 1852 and 1858.

Peter Bayne, a whaler, related a story he was told by the Inuit that quote:

“during the first summer they caught seals like the natives and shot geese and ducks of which there was a great number. That there was one big tent and some small ones and many men camped there.”

For decades, the Inuit told those who were looking for the ships that they had sunk at Utjulik, in water shallow enough for a time that the masts stuck up above the water. Often, this was ignored but by the 21st century, researchers began to listen. As far back as 1857, the Inuit had told Captain Francis McClintock that one of the ships had been wrecked off the cost of King William Island, and another had been wrecked at a place called Ugjulik. During the expeditions of Charles Hall, one Inuit elder pointed out the location of the wreck on a map and even drew his own map to the wreck location. Once again, this was ignored. Hall had learned that the Inuit had even found a body on board when they went to salvage what they could from the doomed vessel.

McClintock would state, quote:

“He made a motion to the northward and spoke the word oo-me-en, making them to understand there were two ships in that direction, which had, as they supposed, been crushed in the ice. As he pointed to the north, drawing his hand and arm from that direction he slowly moved his body in a falling direction and all at once dropped his head side ways into his hand, at the same time making a kind of combination of whirring, buzzing and wind blowing noise. This the pantomimic representation of ships being crushed in the ice.”

One Inuit man named Nuk-kee-che-uk told Hall that the ship had been stuck in ice in its first year in the area, with four boats hanging along the sides and one on the stern. A gangplank led from the deck down to the ice and the deck was housed over with canvas. The Inuit felt that the men had wintered on the ship and later tracks were found on shore. When they went aboard, they found the corpse of a large man. After salvaging what they could, they left. Upon their return, they found the ship had sunk but the masts were still above the water. In the area, large amounts of wreckage and lumber washed ashore.

On Sept. 2, 2014, Ryan Harris with Parks Canada conducted a search at Utjulik and saw the shadow of the HMS Erebus.

Of course, some things don’t change. While Parks Canada followed the archaeological provisions of the Nunavut Act, the relics recovered from the ships were taken south without appropriate acknowledgement, and according to the Government of Nunavut and other Inuit organizations, without permission. The Premier at the time, Peter Taptuna, would write a letter to Parks Canada demanding the return of the relics.

In 2016, acting on information from local resident Sammy Kogvik, the Terror was found at Terror Bay.

After the discovery of the Terror, the Franklin Interim Advisory Committee was created, and Inuit Guardians were appointed to keep each wreck site secure. Agreements were also reached with Inuit Heritage Trust and the Kitikmeot Inuit Association. Funds were also allocated for the expansion of the Heritage Centre nearby.

Information comes from Nunatsiaq News, Canadian Mysteries, Smithsonian Magazine, Wikipedia,, Parks Canada, The Conversation,

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