The Franklin mystery

Sir John Franklin was a Royal Navy officer and veteran Arctic explorer.

Despite being nearly 60 years old, Franklin was invited by the British Admiralty to lead an expedition in 1845 to chart the remainder of the Northwest Passage.

Neither Franklin nor his 128 men would make it out alive.

The Franklin expedition departed Greenhithe, England, on May 19, 1845. They sailed aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, both wooden sailing ships outfitted with the latest Arctic technology: iron-clad hulls, stores of tinned food, desalinators and steam engines. 

After stopping briefly in Greenland to pick up supplies, Franklin and his men continued their journey into the fabled Northwest Passage. They were last seen by British whalers as they entered Baffin Bay in August 1845.

The search parties that were later dispatched to search for Franklin pieced together a catastrophic tale: Franklin and his men circumnavigated Cornwallis Island and then spent their first winter at Beechey Island. The following summer, the expedition headed south toward the Victoria Strait, where they became mired in heavy ice for the next two winters.

Franklin died in June 1847, according to a note that was found in a cairn on nearby King William Island. The same note read the death toll had risen to nine officers and 15 men by the time the ships were deserted on April 22, 1848. Under the command of Francis Crozier, the Terror’s captain, the men set out for Back River on what is now the Canadian mainland.

The effort was described by some later explorers as a "death march." There was even evidence that some sailors may have resorted to cannibalism in their most desperate hours.

helm 1.jpg

How  did  one of the most experienced and best-prepared Arctic expeditions of its time fail so miserably? Weather and starvation certainly played a role. But there is also speculation the sailors may have suffered from lead poisoning or botulism from their poorly tinned rations.

Nor is it clear why Crozier set out for Back River — particularly in April, when the weather was still frigid — when there were other options to escape the Arctic that stood a better chance of success.

It's hoped the discovery of Erebus and Terror, a prize that eluded generations of explorers, will finally shed new light on this enduring maritime mystery.


explore the discoveries

The HMS Terror

The Franklin mystery