It’s 1845 and the world is in the midst of a new obsession—the hunt for the Northwest Passage. This mysterious, un-navigated section in the Canadian Arctic was thought to hold a passable sea route between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, which ran through the Arctic ocean. 

History of Northwest Passage Expeditions 

Roald Amundsen

Centuries before the doomed expedition of Erebus and Terror, the two ships which made up the Franklin Expedition, Europeans had been searching for a possible way through the masses of ice. Since the 15th century,  ships had been exploring the region, all in an effort to increase the efficiency of trade with Asia. 

Early expeditions through the region were hindered by a distinct lack of scientific knowledge about the area and sea travel in general. But, all the same, they persisted in their search for several centuries and as with all dangerous obsessions, this one led to disaster. 

The route was not discovered until 1850 by Robert McClure, an Irish sailor. It was expanded by John Rae and then finally completed by Roald Amundsen who made the first complete passage between 1903 and 1906 (Wiki).

Map of the Northwest Passage

The Franklin Expedition 

A set of ships, the HMS Erebus, captained by Sir John Franklin, and the HMS Terror, captained by Francis Crozier, were dispatched in 1845. They were assigned to explore the region of the Arctic thought to hold a passage through to China—the hypothetical Northwest Passage. Before the Franklin expedition even began, it was rocky. The Admiralty did not originally want Franklin and Crozier as co-captains of this expedition. Their first, second, and third choices were all out of reach due to other circumstances.

Erebus and Terror

Captain Francis Crozier of HMS Terror

Before the start of the Franklin Expedition, Erebus and Terror were well-worn ships used in James Clark Ross’s expedition to the Antarctic in the early 40s (Crozier commanded Terror on this expedition as well). The ships were sturdy, built with steam engines

converted from locomotives. They could travel on steam power or the wind in order to save fuel. They had stronger, reinforced bows than other ships of their time, something that was likely benefited them when navigating looser ice flows.

Terror was built as a “bomb vessel,” built to withstand the impact of explosions. The ship was involved in several battles in the War of 1812 and was then reutilized for exploration in the 1830s. 

The two ships were provisioned with enough food for three years, a terrible prospect, but one which they knew was possible. There were some fresh items but also a great deal of tinned food (8,000 cans), provided by Stephen Goldner. Unfortunately, the tins would play a major part in the downfall of the Franklin expedition and the deaths of the men involved. 

The Beginning of the Expedition 

The ships set sail from Greenhithe, Kent in May of 1845. There were a total of 134 men, including 24 officers, onboard the two ships. They stopped off in the Orkney Islands and then in Greenland, a journey which took a total of thirty days. While stopped at the Whalefish Islands the crew wrote their final letters home.

While trying to track down what happened to the ships, the Admiralty recorded that they met with Prince of Wales and Enterprise on the waters in Baffin Bay. April 22nd, 1845 was the last time that the crew members were seen alive by Europeans. 

What Happened to the Franklin Expedition? 

The crews of both ships, as well as the ships themselves, disappeared off the face of the earth in 1848 while searching for the Northwest Passage. Their fates have remained a mystery for centuries. Around thirty expeditions were sent after them, first with the hope of finding someone alive and then out of simple scientific curiosity. There are have been dozens of theories posed as to what happened to the two ships, some more outlandish than others.

As the search continued for the two ships and their crew, more and more men met their deaths in the terrible conditions of the Arctic. It was not until 1859 that any remains of the men were found. These were accompanied by a log that explained how the two ships became stuck in the ice. The crew labored with the ships for almost two years, trying desperately to get them free. Over this period of time the captain of Erebus, John Franklin, as well as twenty-three crew members died. The log ended in April of 1848 but not before stating that the remaining men set out on foot in an effort to walk across the Arctic (Wiki).

The log ended in April of 1848 but not before stating that the remaining men set out on foot in an effort to walk across the Arctic. 

As scientific research as progressed and the skeletal remains have been studied, it has become clear that one of the main reasons that the men, who should’ve had plenty of supplies for another years, died was due to the state of the tinned food. These cans were hastily prepared and ended up containing a great deal of lead which poisoned the men over months and years of consumption.

Expedition Timeline 

May 19, 1845: The Franklin Expedition departed from Greenhithe, near London, England.

July 4, 1845: The ships arrived at the Whale Fish Islands, Greenland.

July 12, 1845: Crew members mailed their last letters home.

July 29 or 31, 1845: HMS Erebus and Terror were sighted in Baffin Bay 

Winter 1845 to 1846: The expedition spent its first winter in the Arctic off Beechey Island, three crew members died. 

September 1846 to Spring 1848: The ships were surrounded and stuck in ice northwest of King William Island.

June 11, 1847: Sir John Franklin died.

April 22, 1848: The men deserted the ships.

April 25, 1848: The men landed on King William Island, officers left a note stating their plan to walk out.

September 2, 2014: HMS Erebus, is found.

2016: Terror is located in Terror Bay.

(Timeline from historymusem.com)

Discovery of the Wreck of the HMS Erebus and Terror 

In 1859 a note was found, on a preprinted Admiralty form, that contained information about the fate of the two ships and their men. The first note was written in 1847 and described everything in calm, expected terms. The second note was added a year late in April 1848. It states that twenty-four people, including Franklin, the captain of Erebus had died. The note also describes how the two ships had been abandoned after being trapped in the ice for more than 19 months. The note was found near Victory Point near King William Island. It was there that the men came ashore after abandoning their ships. (History Museum). 

HMS Erebus was discovered in 2014 and HMS Terror in 2016.

The wrecks from the Franklin expedition were discovered in 2014 and 2016, providing answers to some questions but also creating many more. HMS Erebus was discovered by Parks Canada in 2014, Terror was found two years later. Since the two ships have undergone extensive study by the Canadian government and nonprofit groups. The interiors of both ships have been explored extensively over the last several years with hundreds of objects of interest taken from each and brought out for the public to see (History Museum). 

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