Finding HMS Terror, 1812 to 1851

The finding of HMS Terror, announced here, has transformed our understanding of the Franklin Expedition.  The story is fast-moving so I’m going to try and use this page as a central location for storing relevant links and also for pulling together my thoughts. Any comments on this are most welcome!  One thing is for certain: this find means that almost everything in the conventional interpretation of the history of the Franklin Expedition is wrong. The person who DID get it so right, and who is now completely vindicated, is of course the eminent David Woodman. But more of this later…

Deck of HMS Terror (c) The Arctic Research Foundation
Deck of HMS Terror (c) The Arctic Research Foundation

Nearly all the earlier reconstructions of the course and fate of the Expedition have been based on interpretations of a single piece of paper – the Victory Point note – found at Victory Point on King William Island.  I have already argued here that a circumnavigation of Cornwallis Island in 1845 was virtually impossible and that this voyage must have taken place in 1846, yet such is the weight placed on the conventional interpretation of the Victory Point note that the 1845 circumnavigation still remains the orthodoxy. A similar orthodoxy clings to the idea of the ‘Death March’ starting south from Victory Point in April 1848 and heading for the Back River, with men dying as they marched until there was nobody left.  Books recently written still argue for this. But clearly we can see now that this death march never took place as described and, like Dan Simmon’s ‘The Terror’, it must be consigned to fiction too.

Why can we say this?  Because we know now that the Terror clearly was sailed to a location 60 miles south of Victory Point, and who knows how long or by which route it reached there?  The Erebus has been found almost 100 miles south of Victory Point, and similarly must almost certainly have been sailed there.

HMS Terror’s wheel (c) Arctic Research Foundation

When did these two ships reach their final resting places?  I believe we can put fairly precise dates on the sinking and abandonment of both the Erebus and the Terror.  On 26th May, 1854, at Repulse Bay Dr. John Rae met several Inuit families who told him that ‘four winters ago’ some other Inuit had met at least 40 white men who said their ships had been crushed by ice. Later the Inuit found corpses of the men. There is no doubt these men were from the Franklin Expedition. The date Rae was given for their sighting was the winter of 1850-51, that is ‘four winters’ before May 1854. Franklin’s men were not equipped to live ashore in the highly hostile conditions of a King William Island winter, so if they were seen in late winter / early spring 1851 walking to try to find sanctuary, it can only because they had recently lost their ship.

And that is not the only eyewitness we have to date survivors specifically to 1851.  In June 1855 the Hudson’s Bay Company sent a party under James Anderson and James Stewart north from the Great Slave Lake to explore the Back River Estuary and to try to find out what had happened to Franklin and his men. On 30th July 1855 they met a party of Inuit who had similary encountered men of the Franklin Expedition. One woman, James Stewart wrote (note 2, page 130, ‘Searching for Franklin, the Land Searching Expedition 1855’ edited by William Barr, Hakluyt Society) ‘was very explicit about having seen one man on an island at the least (last?) extremity. She shewed the way he was sitting on the beach, his head resting on his hands, the hollowness of his cheeks and the general emaciated appearance of the unfortunate person.  This she said was four years ago…’  This again points to some date in 1851.

HMS Terror – ship’s bell (c) Arctic Research Foundation

What happened to the Erebus? I understand from those who have seen the location where she lies that it is unlikely that she drifted there.  If she was sailed there, then I would suggest the date of her abandonment (she appears to have been abandoned afloat before sinking, unlike the Terror) is likely to be later than the sinking of the Terror.  Inuit people reported observing the Erebus frozen into the ice at the place where she subsequently sank, and that she was abandoned in the spring.  If we hypothesise that the Terror and the Erebus remained in concert until the Terror sank in 1850/1, then that means the Erebus must have been abandoned in the spring of 1852 and sank later that year. It is possible that the date given by the Inuit woman to Stewart was 1851-1852, in which case this man might have come from the Erebus.

Perhaps after the Terror sank the decision was taken to split the Expedition, with one party trying to reach safety to the East by travelling overland with their ships’ boats, and the other continuing the voyage in the Erebus in the hope eventually of reaching safety to the West. We should remember McClure’s last-ditch attempt to save his men of the Investigator in April 1853, which involved splitting them into different parties. And it is extremely sobering to think that much of the time McClure and his men were iced in at Mercy Bay, Franklin’s survivors were enduring a similar ordeal in the Erebus and Terror.

One question which is puzzling me is the explanation for the death sites in Erebus Bay, found by McClintock and Hobson in 1859 and studied since.  Why were so many men – the remains of at least 17 have been distinguished and there may well have been more – apparently abandoned to starve to death NORTH of both ships?  Were they a party heading north after the sinking of the Terror, or were they men who were left behind by the ships on their voyage south?

Finally, I cannot close my first post-Terror musings without congratulating the one man whose writings really stand the test of time. Step forward Captain David Woodman! Today more than ever ‘Unravelling the Franklin Expedition’ and ‘Strangers Amongst Us’ are more valuable source-books than ever.