Franklin’s Lost Expedition

After reading Dan Simmons’ The Terror, a fictional account of Sir John Franklin’s lost Arctic expedition involving a supernatural monster from Eskimo mythology (supposedly), my interest has been piqued and I’ve been digging through some information on Franklin’s Lost Expedition.  While Simmons’ book is obviously fictional, it had a strong base in reality, at least up until the halfway point.  I was actually surprised to learn so much in the book was accurate.

John Franklin


Simmons built his story around what little we know from Franklin’s lost expedition.  Departing for the mythical Northwest Passage in 1845, the expedition seemed doomed for failure.  Of a crew of almost 130 men, only John Franklin and the captain of the H.M.S. Terror, Francis Crozier, had any Arctic experience.  Woefully inexperienced, and sailing (unbeknownst to the men at the time) with spoiled canned food,  the expedition had almost no hope of surviving the cold Arctic winters if the ships became stuck in ice.

Which of course they promptly did.  The expedition consisted of two ships,  Erebus (commanded by James Fitzjames but technically under the command of Franklin, who used Erebus as his flagship, and Terror (commanded by Crozier), but in September of 1846 they became icebound by the encroaching winter.  Their ships were stuck off the coast of King William Island and the crew began slowly dying off.  Eerie remnants of gravelly grave sites were discovered by explorers and scientists over the next hundred and fifty years.  John Franklin himself succumbed to death’s call during the “summer” of 1847, which was still cold enough that the ice did not melt as it was expected to do.

So little is known about what happened next, which is where the intrigue, mystery, and novelist Dan Simmons filled the gaps.  Simmons postulated in his novel that the ships became damaged by ice (a perfectly reasonable assumption) and the decision was made (by Fitzjames and Crozier, thenew commanders of the expedition) to abandon the ships and head over ice and frozen land through bitter cold weather with European clothes barely able to warm the body from the intense temperatures, which could drop to around -100 degrees Fahrenheit.

They dragged themselves through the terribly cold temperatures, lacking nutritious food, drink, across difficult terrain full of ice ridges, hoping that they would end up at the mouth of Back’s River in northern Canada, probably hoping they would stumble across Eskimo villages who could help resupply the group or otherwise that the river would have melted enough to float south away from the desolate wastelands of the great white north.


Captain Francis Crozier

Instead of a heroic journey across hundreds of miles in the worst weather imaginable, lacking supplies and proper clothing, the men died off in a macabre parade of corpses, leaving behind only hastily assembled grave sites and relics like dinnerware and compasses.

None were ever seen again.

And though scientists have tried right up until the present day, the sunken hulls of Erebus and Terror have never been found.  All that remained of the terrible plight are relics of the doomed expedition strewn about King William Land, scattered corpses and boats, human bones cut in a way signifying cannibalism, and various notes written by Crozier and Fitzjames telling us of Franklin’s death and the plan for a southern march to Canada.  Eskimo natives had passed down legends to their descendants, who in turn told explorers and searchers of exposure to the Franklin expedition.  Several Eskimo reported seeing  the men, starving and desperate.

According to U.S. searcher Charles Hall, there was no evidence that Crozier, who led the march south, made it anywhere near Back River, let alone his goal of the Great Slave Lake.  Later expeditions cast doubt on this however, as Inuit testimony and the discovery of a cairn unlike any the Eskimo would make suggested Crozier and one other expedition member were seen near Baker Lake.

For all the effort of scientists and explorers, it appears Franklin’s Arctic Expedition is doomed in perpetuity to remain a mystery.


Online Master’s in History — Is It Worth It?

As a struggling graduate student in an M.A. program in History, I have done my share of research regarding the value of online Master’s in History, but have been repeatedly frustrated by the misinformation and dead-ends floating around out there.  Digging through the Internet can be infuriating sometimes.  Way too many people with way too many loud opinions, and oftentimes it can be difficult to find information regarding your specific situation.  So since this is related to the field of history, let me share with you what I’ve learned by reading through the lines and sifting through the garbage floating around on the Internet.  I will not tell you here whether or not you should take your Master’s online, but I will give you information that will make that decision easier for you, because I’m tailoring this to real-world situations.

For starters, the debate that rages on the Internet over online vs. brick and mortar universities misses the point: Each field of study is different.  Let’s get one thing straight:  there are different reasons for pursuing a Master’s degree in History online and not just because someone wants a short-cut.  Online degrees work extremely well in most fields for people already working in their field who are looking to advance or hone their skills.  A perfect example of this is American Military University, an online “for-profit” that is used by many military and government types.  Look around online and you’re going to find a lot of loud opinions in favor and against places like AMU (or its sister school American Public University System),    but a lot of the chatter misses this very important point.  History is an extraordinarily hard field to break into, and what I’ve learned in my research is that you don’t want to pursue an online Master’s in History if you aren’t already working in a historical field.

Why is this?  Well, it’s an unfortunate reality.  It doesn’t matter how strong the history program at online universities like American Military University, APUS, or Norwich are.  What matters is how they are perceived by employers.  As of July 2011 there have been no studies done showing just how an online degree in history will affect your job search.  But the field is hard enough to break into, completing a Master’s online will make it harder to get a job in many cases.  Which can be frustrating because a lot of brick and mortar universities are truly no better than some online colleges.  So for many (most?) students, you have to lose more money at a brick and mortar school simply because it is perceived to be better, not that it actually is better.

Don’t consider this an endorsement of any of these online universities, however.  I have not attended any of them and cannot vouch for them.  But I can vouch for the subpar quality of many brick and mortar university history programs.

Okay, so the first consideration is out of the way.  Whether or not you are already working in the field is probably the first thing to  evaluate before further investigating online Master’s in History.  The second is whether or not you will be going on for a Ph.D in History.  There are no online Ph.D programs in history as of 2011.  So you’re going to have to live with the expectations of brick and mortar universities.  Do not, under any circumstances, get an online degree.  The History field is too much of an old-boy’s club to accept such new-fangled things as online degrees into Ph.D programs.

The online route might be acceptable if you are aiming at going into public history and stopping with a Master’s.  It certainly seems that some online universities are tailored more toward the practical application of history than the academic.  If you’re not looking to teach, an online education would theoretically work fine.  Again, no studies have been done to show how successful online history Master’s are.

The third thing to consider in evaluating online programs is this:  One of the arguments brick and mortar supporters use frequently is the value of classroom structure.  But when you really think about it, you get plenty of lecture and classroom experience in undergrad.  If you’re not at a prestigious university, chances are the graduate level debates in your classrooms won’t be as enlightening as professors like to think they are.  Also, as with any education, the level of determination in the student determines the quality of education.  If you are not self-driven you will not succeed in online classes.  But there is nothing inherent in a classroom that cannot be achieved online.  What do you do in a graduate history classroom?  You read books, you discuss those books, and you write research papers.  In this day and age you are probably using the Internet (thank you Google Books and archive databases!) for your research anyway.

The one thing you might miss, depending on what brick and mortar university you were considering, is the amazing research libraries some of them have.  My alma mater, Central Michigan University, has an especially awesome library that has helped me in research countless times.  But as far as the discussion goes, some online schools use modules including video chat.  And finally the classroom experience can include lectures.  I don’t want to insult professors, but many lectures are bloated and lack proper depth.  Readings, I find, are much more effective.  But this is a matter more of preference.

The future is online, regardless of the condition of online universities right now.  The steady (but slow) trend of adopting online classes is spreading.  Which makes the decision all the more difficult for history students.  While only Western Kentucky University and Sam Houston State University offer completely online History Master’s, most universities now offer at least some online history classes.   So in 10 years an online Master’s in History may be perfectly acceptable and widespread.   But it’s still a risky investment to spend that money on a degree without knowing what it’ll get you.

But as most History M.A. students are finding, any degree in history is a risky endeavor anyway.

So be careful out there, beware the online lackeys, employed by the for-profits to promote their schools.  A lot of message boards are inundated with positive reviews of these universities, but often these praise-worthy posts are the only ones made by those users.  Suspicious indeed.  But also beware the shills for tradition, who cannot see any value in a non-traditional education.  As I mentioned in the paragraph on classroom structure, is it REALLY a substantial difference, or is it merely a matter of preference?

At any rate, if you do go the route of an online degree, you might want to look into Sam Houston State or Western Kentucky University, because they are actual brick and mortar universities with some prestigious graduates.  As with any education, research carefully and look deeply.  A lot of brick and mortar universities aren’t all they seem, either.

Hopefully this helped give you some tools for your evaluation of the endless pile of misleading information out there trying to convince you that only one of these options is legitimate.

Karma in Early Bay City

Today I’d like to share an amusing little anecdote from early Bay City history, back in the days when the town was known as Lower Saginaw and was mostly trees and swamps.

The characters drawn to seek a fortune in Lower Saginaw often congregated around the hotels and saloons near the river, with the Wolverton House (an early hotel) being a particular favorite. One of Lower Saginaw’s most controversial citizens was a man named Julius Hart, a store owner and prankster. Usually his “jokes” would be at the expense of another citizen, which didn’t make him overly popular. One of his pranks comes down to us through the memoirs of the pioneers collected by William McCormick.

One day, while playing cards at the Wolverton House with his back to an open window, resident George Lord and Reverend Henry J. Schutjes decided to get even with Hart for Hart’s treatment of them over the years. Lord had been watching the card game from the street directly behind Hart through the open window. His attention was drawn to a trader selling fur pelts, which Hart eagerly purchased for his store. Hart placed the furs behind him on the floor, in front of the open window, which gave George Lord an idea.

After Reverend Schutjes was enlisted as an accomplice, the two men quietly stole the furs from behind Hart and gave them to passer-by with instructions that they go into the Wolverton and try to sell Hart the furs. This happened a couple of times and each time Hart eagerly purchased the furs, tossing them on the floor behind his chair. He must have been proud of the collection he thought he was accumulating—that is until the card game ended and he turned around to gather up his pile.

Instead of an impressive collection of fur pelts, it turns out he had paid many times for only the original three pelts. One can imagine how furious Hart must have felt, or how embarrassed, as he grabbed his three pelts and stormed out of the Wolverton.