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September 1845 – the voyage north? - 20 February 2011

Reconstructing what happened on the Franklin Expedition during August 1845 is not too difficult, and I believe this probabilistic reconstruction can be attempted for several more years. There are going to be certain dates when it is easier, and some where it is much more difficult or impossible. There are three basic techniques I can use:

- Wringing the maximum information from the limited direct evidence we have for what happened, be it archaeological, written or oral. - Extrapolating from earlier information we already have. So for example in the August 1845 account I suggest that the Expedition would strive to have its Magnetic Observatory manned on land on 29th August, 1845, as an extrapolation of the importance magnetic research clearly had for them from April to July 1845. - Analogy with what happened on prior and subsequent Expeditions under similar conditions.

From about October 1845 until the point when the Expedition left Beechey Island, presumably the early summer of 1846, we have the copious material which the Expedition left at Beechey Island, including grave inscriptions and the evidence from the autopsied bodies. But the most difficult piece of evidence we have is the one around which most histories have been written - the Victory Point note. This is generally interpreted to mean that BEFORE overwintering at Beechey Island, the Expedition did the following:

- Sailed WEST past Beechey Island, perhaps stopping at the Term Date, or alternatively not stopping at all to take terrestrial Term Date magnetic observations - Turned NORTH into Wellington Sound, as it was then known, continuing nearly 170 nautical miles north to 77 degrees north, presumably hoping to reach the mythical ‘Open Polar Sea’ before winter. - Presumably encountering unbroken ice stretching as far to the north as the eye could see, and with winter was closing in, retraced SOUTH almost 160 nautical miles by a separate and unsurveyed seaway to the WEST of Cornwallis Island - Then retraced EAST nearly 100 nautical miles back down Lancaster Sound to the anchorage at Beechey Island.

Ever since Hobson and McClintock first read the Victory Point note in 1859, standing amid the debris of the Franklin Expedition on King William Island, it has been understood to mean that this 'northabout' voyage took place as I describe above in the summer and autumn of 1845. I don't blame them in the slightest for taking this conclusion, but I do blame subsequent scholars, including me, for not appreciating how ambiguous this reading is. See here for a detailed discussion of this point.

On balance I now feel that this voyage is more likely to have taken place in 1846. Here’s why....

Sir John Franklin's orders ( were explicitly to sail west down Lancaster Sound and Barrow Strait as far as 98 degrees west, identified as Cape Walker, then head south and west towards Bering Straits. Only if this passage was blocked by ice was he to attempt a northerly voyage via Wellington Strait, if he found that clear of ice. This was what Franklin said he intended to do, as he explained to his old friend Sir John Richardson in a letter dated 7th July, 1845 – only a few weeks earlier – which he sent back from Disko Island. He said: “should we be entirely obstructed [my emphasis] in forcing our passage between the parallels of Banks and Woollaston lands, we must try Wellington channels or some others of the channels to the North”. We saw from the earlier voyage to Disko Bay that at this stage Franklin was firmly in executive control of the ships. Franklin was not a natural rebel and to have made this northabout voyage without exploring to the south and west properly would be close to disobeying orders.

The Expedition which made the voyage north seem to have had better knowledge of the region's geography than the Franklin Expedition of 1845 possibly could have had. The charts Franklin carried in 1845 did NOT show Cornwallis Island as an island, as his reference to ‘Wellington channels...’ makes clear. Even if they made the northabout voyage in 1845, would they have possibly risked taking their two heavily laden ships, drawing 17 feet of water, back south down an unsurveyed sea-route which might or might not exist 'by the west side of Cornwallis Island'? Especially if their intention was to return to Beechey Island? And why attempt this westerly route anyway, if their destination lay 100 nautical miles to the east?

In his letter to Richardson, Franklin said he did not intend to put ‘ships of our size’ in danger. Instead he would ‘despatch parties on boats and by land to examine into and find out passages in places where it may be difficult and only productive of delay in taking the ships’. We know that in the winter of 1845/1846, the Franklin Expedition sent out such parties, and we know that a major focus of their surveying effort was Wellington Channel – evidence of multiple journeys in that direction was found by the searchers in 1851-4. If the Expedition had already sailed this route and found it impractical, then why carry out these surveys which would have been a complete waste of effort? Surely in that case their surveying efforts would have been focused west and south.

It seems much more likely to me that Beechey Island was as far as the voyage got in 1845. From this strategically placed harbour, Franklin would have been able to do exactly what he said he would do: send out ‘parties on boats and by land to examine into and find out passages’. And from the sledge traces we have proof that that did happen. These parties would not have had to get further than 75 miles from Beechey Island to establish that Cornwallis Island WAS an island, and to find the entrance to what we now know as Peel Inlet, down which it is believed the Expedition DID sail.

Lastly, was there time for this voyage in 1845? We don’t know whether 1845 was an anomalously mild summer and autumn, but the accounts of the searching Expeditions of conditions later in the 1850’s suggest that late September would be the very latest the Franklin Expedition could have got back to Beechey Island from their northabout voyage. For example, the log of HMS North Star (ADM53/4534 at the National Archives) makes it clear that in 1852 by 9th September there was “a quantity of loose ice in the Bays”, by 20th September “the surface of the bay [was] covered with young ice... too thick for a boat to get through” and on the following day “some ice about the ship [was] sufficient to bear the weight of a man”. By 26th the ice was stationery and on the 28th the ice was packed close to the shore in heavy pieces ... from seven to eight feet thick the whole Bay .. also covered with similar ice”. Two years earlier, in 1850, Sherard Osborn in ‘Stray Leaves from an Arctic Journal’ noted that sailing was still possible at Beechey Island on 13th September, but by 4th October “winter was coming on with giant strides” and the ship was already stripped and covered with its awning over to serve as winter quarters. By 9th October, one McClintock had already returned from a 40 mile depot-laying Expedition over the ice.

For the sake of argument let’s assume that the last date the Expedition could have arrived at Beechey Island was 25th September – which would represent a warmer and longer season than any which occurred in 1850-1854, and probably warmer than 1846. The voyage from their last sighting in Baffin Bay, north to 77 degrees and then back to Beechey Island, is one of at least 840 nautical miles. To complete this, the Expedition would have had to cover 14 miles every single day excluding any allowance for surveying or taking magnetic observations on land. As a comparison, they achieved an average of 39 miles per day on the voyage from Disko Bay to their last sighting in Baffin Bay, a distance of just over 500 miles. But surely this would have been easier sailing? From this point – the last sighting – to Beechey Island is a further 440 miles which if they made it in time for the Term Date of 29th August would require them to average 13 miles per day. To have then continued on to 77 degrees north and returned to Beechey Island by 25th September, a voyage of 400 nautical miles, is only possible if we assume the Expedition averaged fifteen miles per day, again making no allowance for landing ashore or for surveying.

Taking all this together, in aggregate these seem to me to be compelling reasons to suggest that in 1845 the Expedition arrived at Cape Riley on or before 29th August 1845 and, realising that further significant progress would be impossible that year, established a base at the safe and secure anchorage of Beechey Island from which the two alternative routes, north and south, could be properly surveyed before a decision was taken on which to follow in 1846. The only counter-argument is the conventional interpretation of the Victory Point note yet as we can see, this is ambiguous and can support either interpretation.

My reconstruction therefore suggests that with advancing winter and shortening days, in the first week of September the ships were warped into the bay at Beechey Island. There would be plenty for the crews to be occupied with in preparing them for winter. No clinker was ever found, which suggests that the engines had not been used up to this point. Sails, rigging and upper masts would have been taken down and stored ashore. Temporary storage facilities were established ashore so that the mass of stores on the upper decks could be offloaded and the awnings erected over the upper decks to convert them into enclosed spaces. Other facilities were also established, including a metal-working workshop, a shooting range and a kitchen garden. No doubt sports facilities were set up. Once the winter ice started to form, the ships tanks were emptied and all steps taken to lighten the ships as far as possible to reduce the volume of the hulls which was exposed to the stresses of freezing water. Another activity would be to construct the equipment for land travel. Unlike later Expeditions, the Franklin Expedition did not take sledges and other equipment manufactured in England. Instead, as resourceful sailors, they were expected to make their own. We know that they constructed tents from sailcloth suspended over poles made from boarding pikes, and we know they had simple sledges for man-hauling supplies over snow and ice, which seem to have been made from surplus barrel-staves. Lastly, a huge cairn was erected on the highest hill above the anchorage, visible from miles away. A cavity was left inside it so that when the time came to leave a message could be safely stowed to let anyone who followed know what the Expedition had achieved so far and where it had sailed next. This again was exactly in line with orders.

As well as preparing the ships and the camp ashore, there was much work further afield. Although the causes of scurvy were imperfectly understood, it was well known that the disease disappeared rapidly when a diet of fresh meat and vegetables was available. No doubt this was why the kitchen garden was planted. Parties would fan out, probably consisting mainly of Royal Marines with their muskets but presumably led by at least one officer, to hunt whatever animals could be found to provide fresh meat – polar bear as well as smaller game such as Arctic fox.

Lastly, and critically important for this reconstruction, exploration parties would have fanned out both by ship's boat and on sledges, to explore the possible seaways to the south west and the north west. We have no direct proof of surveying parties exploring from Beechey Island to the south and west, although we do to the north west – the sledge tracks mentioned earlier. However, we would not expect to find any traces of exploration to the south and west as this would be either by boat until the sea froze, and then by dragging boats over the ice on runners.

How far did these parties range? We must not underestimate how hard conditions would have been for these men. With no primus stoves, sleeping bags or fur clothes, living in sailcloth tents and using highly inefficient sledges and boats, these journeys must have been very trying. It would not be surprising if as early as autumn 1845 some men had already been lost. Later Expeditions used Beechey Island in exactly this way as a base from which parties fanned out seeking to locate the Franklin Expedition, and their technology was not radically different. We know that the party which left the Victory Point note in 1847 consisted of two officers and six men, and parties of a similar size we used by the Royal Navy in the 1850's. We should perhaps not expected the Franklin Expedition to have ranged as far away as its searchers did – after all there was no need, but a radius of 100 miles would have been sufficient for them to have mapped the hinterland of Cornwallis Island, Wellington Straight and Peel Inlet. This would have established that Cornwallis Island WAS an island and that both Peel Inlet and Wellington Straight could be tempting alternatives for 1846, depending upon the thaw. Critically, this exploration would have demonstrated that Peel Inlet, the possible seaway to the south, directly adjoined the northerly seaway 'to the west of Cornwallis Island'.

How much of this exploration took place in autumn of 1845 and how much in spring 1846 we cannot say, but I think it is perfectly feasible that this basic geographical picture could have been completed before the full onset of winter made Exploration by boat or on land excessively hazardous.

An intriguing questions is this: who did what? I would suggest that the two Captains, Franklin and Crozier, and the two ice-masters, would have remained on or close to their ships. As would the surgeons with the possible exception of Goodsir, who was as much scientist as medic. I suggest also that the Royal Marines plus one or two officers would have focused on hunting, being the best armed men and probably the best shots. Gore was an especially keen shot and it is tempting to suggest he might have led hunting parties in 1845 as he had on the Back Expedition of 1836-7. Fitzjames and Le Vesconte, and probably a third officer, would have remained at Cape Riley, with a detachment of sailors and perhaps Royal Marines, to man the scientific station. This leaves only 12 or so officers altogether and given that each ship would need to retain at least two or three to run the the ship, there were probably only six available to make up exploration parties. My best guess, and it is only that, is that there could only have been a maximum of three parties, each of two officers and perhaps six sailors each, exploring to the north west, west and south west. We cannot know what adventures and misfortunes may have befallen them, and whether they all returned safely or not. But I think this does represent a realistic reconstruction of what probably happened. But by mid-October all the men who were going to return that year would have done so, and from that point on nobody would range far from the ships except for foraging parties and Fitzjames' Cape Riley detachment. The ships would have settled down to their deep winter routine.

But from this point things started to go badly wrong, as I will explore next.

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