Reconciling earlier Inuit evidence with the known location of HMS Erebus

Originally written on 18th September 2014, this was my first attempt to relate the known location of HMS Erebus with earlier relics recovered from the Franklin Expedition by Inuit people and held by Museums.  Like many people who have followed the Franklin saga, I was at the time reeling over the extent of Parks Canada’s achievement in finding one of the Expedition’s ships.

This attempt to collate the Inuit accounts of the ship with the new find was heavily influenced by those two invaluable books: “Unravelling the Franklin Expedition” by Dave Woodman and “Encounters on the Passage” by Dorothy Harley Eber. It seems pretty clear that this was the ship which the Inuit visited, and this also tallies precisely with the finds we have from other sources which can be linked to it. What is also interesting is that by collating this evidence we may be able to learn more. For example, and quite astonishingly, this quick assessment suggests that William Closson and William Wentzel might have been two of the sailors who sailed this ship to its present location! This deduction may prove to be a fallacy, but is an example of how new insights may emerge from blending old and new evidence.

McClintock heard all about this ship. He was told specifically that it was driven ashore on ‘Oot-loo-lik’. He thought that meant the west coast of King William Island so he searched for it there very carefully indeed. This search produced the Victory Point note and the famous ‘boat place’, but no ship. We now know that McClintock was wrong and that Oot-loo-lik meant the west coast of Adelaide Peninsular, which is exactly where this ship has now been found. (And not, I understand, at Hat Island which is where first reports had suggested.)

Hall, Schwatka and Rasmussen were all given further information about this ship. You can read the full accounts in Eber and Woodman, but to summarise: the ship was seen by the Inuit while they were out sealing, but they were afraid to approach it. For how long we might wonder? We don’t know. None of their accounts record meeting any men alive on this ship, so it seems likely they stayed out of contact while they thought any potentially armed Franklin men might be living on the ship. Schwatka’s informant Puhtoorak said he had only ventured on board ‘when his people saw the ship so long without anyone around it’. McClintock says there was ‘some laughter’ when he asked for details about the ship and a reference to fire which his interpreter did not understand, or perhaps chose not to translate. Perhaps this was a reference to smoke coming from the ship – either its galley or heating system, or even its engine?

Hall was told that the ship was covered over with its awning and Schwatka was told something about canvas which he took to mean that the ship had some of its sails set. This sounds unlikely. Pushtoorek said the ship was covered in snow when he entered it with scrapings and sweepings alongside. To me this sounds as though the ship had had its canvas awning fitted, although maybe later it blew away, and that men had lived on board it for some time with our Inuit witnesses only boarding after the ship had been abandoned.

Hall was told that Nuk-kee-che-uk was the first Inuuk to enter the ship, having seen it first while sealing with a number of Ook-joo-lik Inuit. He visited alone ‘and saw nobody’ so went back to tell the rest of the band, who all then entered the ship. This all suggested they waited until they were sure the ship was abandoned before they boarded. On it were ‘a good deal’ of things. Schwatka met Pushtooraak, who said that he had been on board the ship to recover ‘wood and iron’. They found many empty red cans of meat (the Expedition’s meat cans were painted red) with four still unopened and saw guns, ‘plenty of knives, forks, spoons, pans, cups and plates’ and also books, which they left.

In May, 1859 McClintock bought selected materials from Inuit which he was told had come from this ship. Some of these are in the National Maritime Museum’s collection. It’s instructive to look at what he bought on 3rd May, 1859 from Inuit people he met near Cape Victoria on the Boothia Peninsular:

  • AAA2090.1 and AAA2090.2, two plain metal buttons with shanks.
  • AAA2094, a thin piece of curved metal plate with embossed decoration, pierced at one end with cotton fibres attached.
  • AAA2095, a file blade without a handle.
  • AAA2104, a triangular steel knife blade with two reinforcing plates attached which retain one copper and two steel rivets.
  • AAA2108, one of a number of arrows made using copper heads with long shanks lashed to a wooden shaft.
  • AAA2096, a broken file blade mounted it in an Inuit-manufactured bone handle.
  • AAA2103, AAA2099, AAA2102, AAA2097, AAA2100, five of the ‘seven knives made by the natives out of materials obtained from the last expedition… either of iron or steel, riveted to two strips of hoop, between which the handle of wood is inserted, and rivets passed through securing them together. The rivets are almost all made out of copper nails, such as would be found on a copper-fastened boat, but those which have been examined do not bear the Government mark’.
  • AAA2477, a silver, fiddle-pattern table fork once owned by Sir John Franklin and bearing his family crest. As it has ‘W C’ scratched on the back, it seems to have been reused by William Closson, Able Seaman HMS ‘Erebus’.

On 7th May, 1859, MClintock bought some further items which, again, he was told had come from the same ship:

  • AAA2111, a broken steel razor by Millikin (a firm which made medical equipment) which had been reused by being mounted in a bone handle. What the NMM claim are ‘Illegible letters’ are engraved on the handle and it would be VERY helpful if the NMM were to read these ‘illegible letters’ as we might presume they would identify the man who made this knife, quite possibly on board the missing ship.
  • AAA2480, a silver, fiddle-pattern table fork owned by Sir John Franklin and bearing his family crest.
  • AAA2479, a silver, fiddle-pattern tablespoon which had been owned by Sir John Franklin and which bears his family crest. It bears a ‘W.W’ roughly scratched on the back and front of the handle. Those are the initials of Wiiliam Wentzell, an Able Seaman on HMS ‘Terror’.

The material McClintock bought is all readily portable and exactly matches the goods which our Inuit sources say they recovered from it. It’s very interesting how closely these tally. Possibly William Wentzel, William Closson and the man who carved the ‘illegible letters’ on his knife were among the last survivors living on this ship?

Hall, McClintock and Schwatka were all told that a ‘dead white man’ was found on the ship. All agreed that he was large. Koo-nik told Hall that this man’s body was partially decomposed ‘smelt very bad’ and that his body was lying on the floor in a locked cabin. That’s my interpretation of what she told Hall, that the Inuit ‘broke into a place that was fastened up and there found a very large white man who was dead’. The same basic story was told to McClintock also.

At some point later the Inuit returned to find that the ship had sunk with only her masts visible above sea-level. If the ship which has been found had its masts set when it sank, then it looks as though their tips would have been visible while they remained erected. So this tallies. The loss of the ship was clearly a shock to the Inuit as it largely cut them off from the valuable materials contained within. Persistently the accounts blame the Inuit who visited the ship for ‘breaking a hole’ in it, so that when the ice holding the ship afloat melted it sank. This has always seemed rather unlikely – the ships were so stoutly constructed you would need very substantial tools to cut a hole in their hulls. When we look at the images Parks Canada has released we can see that the ship has huge damage to its stern – which is basically missing. That damage must have been caused by ice, but perhaps it was how the Inuit gained access to the ship. If men of the Expedition were living on the ship at the time, they would have known that damage of this magnitude meant they had to abandon ship and seek salvation by the ship’s boats or land. So as well as being the entry point for the Inuit, it looks like this damage was the trigger for the last men to abandon the ship, as they would know that once the ice melted it would sink.

So why did the Inuit blame themselves (or each other?) for damaging the ship so badly that they were responsible for its sinking? Perhaps the story of the breaking of the interior door into the cabin containing the corpse grew with the telling, and later this action was blamed at second hand for causing the damage which sank the ship.

There is a similar consistency in the accounts of sightings of men from this ship ashore hunting. The stories describe three men and a dog, and it is intriguing that the Expedition took a Newfoundland dog named Neptune with them. Newfoundlands (sadly) don’t live to be very old, but if ‘Nep’ had been one when the Expedition sailed he could still have been an active dog six or seven years later. It seems highly significant that he WAS alive at this point – starving men don’t keep a dog for very long… Given the remarkable consistency of what our Inuit witnesses said they saw with the finds McClintock recovered and the evidence from the ship today, there is no reason to doubt them and you can find detailed accounts of these sightings in Woodman, Eber and elsewhere. Of course it doesn’t mean that ONLY three men survived on the ship – this was, we are told, a hunting party which leaves open the prospect of other men remaining on the ship.

Perhaps I am being naïve, but to me the evidence that the ship was ‘housed’ with its awning, coal or wood was burned and hunting parties sent out from it, which included a domestic dog, suggests that the party on board the ship was in some reasonable order, at least when it first arrived. Provisioning by hunting, sealing and fishing must always have been hard, but the men who survived would have become proficient and, of course, there would be fewer mouths to feed as time passed. Perhaps this ship arrived at its anchorage in reasonable order and the final blow, which forced the men to abandon it and seek salvation ashore, was the ice damage to the stern and the side of the ship which we see in the images released by Parks Canada.

I am sure that much more evidence will emerge in due course and existing finds and accounts will have to be re-assessed in much more detail than in this brief account. However, this is my first ‘stab’ at assimilating what we have learned.