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.
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.
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.