John Franklin

Born: 16 April 1786
Died: 11 June 1847
An Arctic explorer, the twelfth and youngest son of Willingham Franklin of Spilsby in Lincolnshire, was born on 16 April 1786. It had been intended to bring him up for the church, but a holiday visit to the seashore excited a strong desire to go to sea, which his father vainly endeavored to overcome by sending him for a voyage in a merchant vessel as far as Lisbon. On his return he entered the royal navy on board the Polyphemus, then just sailing for the Baltic, where she played a leading part in the battle of Copenhagen. Two months later Franklin was appointed as a midshipman to the Investigator, under the command of his cousin, Matthew Flinders, and on the point of sailing for Australia. While in the Investigator Franklin distinguished himself by his remarkable aptitude for nautical and astronomical observations; he was employed at Sydney as assistant in a little observatory which Flinders established, and won the notice of Captain King, the governor, who used to address him familiarly as Mr. Tycho Brahe. When the ship’s company was broken up after the wreck of the Porpoise, Franklin accompanied Lieutenant Fowler to China in the Rolla, and, taking a passage home in the East India Company’s ship Earl Camden, was with Commodore Dance in his extraordinary engagement with Linois (15 Feb. 1804), on which occasion Fowler commanded on the lower deck and Franklin took charge of the signals. On arriving in England Franklin was appointed to the Bellerophon, in which he was present in the battle of Trafalgar, again having charge of the signals, and being one of the few on the Bellerophon’s poop who escaped unhurt. Two years later he joined the Bedford, and, continuing in her after his promotion to lieutenant’s rank (11 Feb. 1808), was employed on the home station till the peace in 1814, when the ship was ordered to North America, to form part of the expedition against New Orleans. In a boat attack on some gunboats in Lac Borgne Franklin was slightly wounded; and he had besides a full share in the laborious duties of the campaign. Its failure may account for the fact that no attention was paid to the strong recommendation of Sir John Lambert, in command of the troops with which he had been serving, and that he remained a lieutenant, serving on board the Forth frigate, with Sir William Bolton, Nelson’s nephew. With Franklin’s appointment in January 1818 to command the hired brig Trent, fitting out to accompany Captain Buchan in the Dorothea, Franklin’s career as an Arctic explorer commenced. Their instructions were to pass between Spitzbergen and Greenland, use their best endeavours to reach the pole, and thence, if possible, to shape a course direct for Behring’s Straits. The two ships sailed on 25 April, sighted Spitzbergen on 26 May, and passed without difficulty along its western coast; they were then stopped by the ice, and, being driven into the pack on 30 July, the Dorothea received so much damage as to be in momentary danger of foundering. They got into Dane’s Gat, where such repairs as were possible were executed, but it was still very doubtful whether she could live through the passage home, and further contact with the ice was clearly out of the question. Buchan’s instructions fully authorised him in this contingency to move into the Trent and send the Dorothea home; but he was unwilling to appear to desert his shipmates in a time of great danger. The Dorothea’s state was such as to forbid her being sent home unattended, and Franklin’s request that he might be allowed to go on rendered the task of superseding him the more disagreeable. So Buchan judged rightly that his proper course was to take the Dorothea home, with the Trent in close attendance on her. They arrived in England on 22 Oct. Early in the following year Franklin was appointed to the command of an exploring expedition to be sent out with the general idea of amending the very defective geography of the northern part of America, and with more particular instructions ‘to determine the latitudes and longitudes of the northern coast of North America, and the trendings of that coast from the mouth of the Coppermine River to the eastern extremity of that continent.’ The details of the route from York Factory, named as a starting-point, were left to Franklin’s judgment, guided by the advice he should receive from the agents of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who would be instructed to co-operate with the expedition, and to provide it with guides, hunters, clothing, and ammunition. The small party, including Dr. (afterwards Sir John) Richardson, Hood and Back, midshipmen [see Back, Sir George], the last of whom had been with Franklin in the Trent, two seamen, and four Orkney boatmen, landed at York on 30 Aug. 1819, and started on 9 Sept. The scheme was, with portable boats or canoes, to follow the line of rivers and lakes, beginning with the Nelson and Saskatchewan, and ending with the Elk, Slave, and Coppermine. At Cumberland House, a long-established station on the Saskatchewan, it was found that further progress that season was impossible. One of the seamen and the Orkneymen were sent back, and, leaving Hood and Richardson to bring on the boats when the way should be open, Franklin and Back started on foot for Fort Chipewyan on the shore of Lake Athabasca, which they reached on 26 March 1820. It was Franklin’s intention to make all arrangements for an onward march as soon as the boats should arrive. He now found that owing to the rivalry, amounting almost to war, between the two trading companies which disputed the territory, no supplies were available; and, when the boats came on, the expedition left Fort Chipewyan on 18 July with little more than one day’s provisions and with a scanty supply of powder. On 2 Aug. they left Fort Providence on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake, the party consisting, what with Canadian voyageurs and interpreters, of twenty-eight men, besides three women and three children. The next day they were joined by a large party of Indian hunters, under a chief Akaitcho. The progress was very slow, and the winter came on earlier than usual. By 25 Aug. the pools were beginning to freeze, and, though Franklin was anxious at all hazards to push on to the sea and establish himself for the winter at the mouth of the Coppermine, he yielded to the very urgent remonstrances of Akaitcho, and wintered in a hut which is still shown on the map as Fort Enterprise. It was not till 14 June 1821 that the ice gave way sufficiently for them to launch their canoes on the Coppermine, and to bid farewell to Akaitcho and his Indians. By 14 July they came within sight of the sea, and on the 21st embarked for their voyage in the Arctic Ocean. And so to the eastward in a tedious navigation along the coast, naming Cape Barrow and Cape Flinders, as far as Cape Turnagain, which they reached on 18 Aug.; when Franklin, finding that his resources would admit neither of going on nor of going back to the Coppermine, determined to take his way by a river to which he gave the name of his young companion, Hood. Hood’s river was soon found to be impracticable for navigation. They took the large canoes to pieces, built two small ones which they could carry with them, reduced their baggage as much as possible, and began their march for Fort Providence through the country which has the distinction of being labelled, even in the Arctic, as ‘Barren Grounds.’ The story of their sufferings is one of the most terrible on human record. Cold, hunger, and fatigue broke down even the strongest of the party. Some died, some were murdered—poor Hood among the number, one was put to death as the murderer. In their last extremity Franklin and Richardson fell in with Akaitcho, who fed them, took care of them, and brought them in safety to Fort Providence on 11 Dec. Back and the miserable remnant of their party joined a few days later. They rested there for some months, and reached York again on 14 June 1822. ‘Thus terminated,’ wrote Franklin, ‘our long, fatiguing, and disastrous travels in North America, having journeyed by water and land (including our navigation of the Polar Sea) 5,550 miles.’ In the following October Franklin, with his companions, arrived in England. He had already, during his absence (1 Jan. 1821), been made a commander; he was now (20 Nov.) advanced to post rank, in recognition of his labours and sufferings; he was also elected a fellow of the Royal Society. Richardson was appointed surgeon of the Chatham division of marines, and Back, who had been promoted to be a lieutenant, after three Arctic winters was sent out to the West Indies to be thawed. Franklin employed his time in England in writing the narrative of his journey, which was published early in the following year, and at once took its place among the most classic of books of travel. He also wooed and, in August 1823, was married to Miss Porden. Early in 1824 Franklin laid before the admiralty a scheme for another expedition, which might benefit by his previous experience, and possibly co-operate with the more purely naval expedition then fitting out under the command of Captain Parry. Franklin proposed that during the course of 1824 and the early months of 1825 stores, together with a party of English seamen, should be sent on in advance as far as possible; that he himself, starting in the spring, should go from New York to Lake Huron, and take on from the naval establishment there such further supplies as were available; and so, picking up his party as he proceeded, make his way to the Great Bear Lake, down the Mackenzie river, and along the coast westward as far as Kotzebue Sound, where a ship might be sent to meet him. In accordance with this the instructions were drawn out; the Blossom was commissioned for the service in Behring’s Straits; and the previous arrangements having been made, Franklin, again with Back and Richardson, and with Mr. Kendall, a mate, as a third colleague, sailed from Liverpool on 16 Feb. 1825. His wife, who had some months before given birth to a daughter, was now in an advanced decline; but he had probably persuaded himself that her illness was not necessarily mortal, and was much shocked by the news of her death, which reached him at the station on Lake Huron. He pushed on to join his advanced party with the boats, which he found near Fort Methy on 29 June. On 7 Aug. they reached Fort Norman on the Mackenzie, and leaving a party to build huts by Great Bear Lake, Franklin himself went down the river, a run of six days, to the sea; and landing on an island—which he named Garry Island, after the deputy-governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company—he there planted the British flag, a silk union-jack which had been worked for the express purpose by his deceased wife. ‘I will not,’ he wrote, ‘attempt to describe my emotions as it expanded to the breeze.’ For the sake of his companions, however, he endeavoured to simulate cheerfulness; and after examining the archipelago at the mouth of the river, returned to the winter quarters, which he had intended naming Fort Reliance, but which, in his absence, the officers had named Fort Franklin. The winter passed not unpleasantly; they had a sufficiency of clothing and food, and were able to keep open their communications with the posts of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and to get occasional letters from home. As the summer approached, their preparations for the coming voyage were made, and they started on 24 June 1826, with the boats provisioned for eighty days at full allowance. At the head of the delta on 3 July they separated, Richardson and Kendall going eastwards as far as the Coppermine River and returning to Fort Franklin overland; while Franklin and Back went westwards, examining the coast as far as Point Beechey, in longitude 149° 37߱′W. It was then 16 Aug.; there appeared no possibility of fetching Kotzebue Inlet; the hazard of shipwreck increased each day; wintering on the coast, as was suggested in their instructions, was out of the question; and a winter journey overland to Fort Franklin was an alternative which Franklin’s past experience warned him against. One of the Blossom’s boats had at this time advanced to the immediate neighbourhood of Point Barrow, but of this Franklin was of course ignorant; fortunately so, he thought afterwards; for otherwise he would have advanced, but would, in all probability, have been unable to overtake the Blossom’s party. As it was, he returned to Fort Franklin by the way he had come. Richardson had been before him and had started again on a geologising expedition to Great Slave Lake. Franklin, remaining at the fort till 20 Feb. 1827, set out on foot for Fort Chipewyan, whence on 18 June he reached Cumberland House. There he rejoined Richardson, and the two, returning by way of Montreal and New York, where they were splendidly fêted, arrived in Liverpool on 26 Sept. The rest of the expedition, which had lost only two men, arrived at Portsmouth a fortnight later in charge of Captain Back. The journey, not so exciting nor so tragic as the former, had been even richer in geographical results, as was fully shown when the narrative was published in 1828. The Geographical Society of Paris awarded Franklin their gold medal; on 29 April 1829 he received the honour of knighthood; and at the summer convocation, the university of Oxford conferred on him the honorary degree of D.C.L. It was also during this period of relaxation that, on 5 Nov. 1828, he married Miss Griffin. From August 1830 to December 1833 Franklin commanded the Rainbow frigate on the Mediterranean station, and during most of the time was employed on the coast of Greece, a service for which he received the order of the Redeemer of Greece, and afterwards (25 Jan. 1836) the Hanoverian Guelphic order. In the summer of 1836 he was appointed lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land, and arrived at Hobart Town on 6 Jan. 1837. The period of his government, extending over nearly seven years, was marked by many measures for the social and moral improvement of the colony, then still, to a great extent, a convict station. The condition of the convicts more especially was a subject which much occupied his attention, and his endeavours for humanising them were strenuously aided by the exertions and the liberal expenditure of his wife. For the better class of colonists he established a scientific society which has developed into the present Royal Society of Hobart Town; and not only founded but largely endowed a college, for which, at his request, Dr. Arnold of Rugby selected a head-master. By the colonists, as a body, he was much beloved. At the close of his period of service he embarked at Hobart Town on 3 Nov. 1843, ‘amidst,’ he wrote, ‘a burst of generous and enthusiastic feeling.’ After visiting several places on the coast, he crossed over to Port Phillip, then a very recent settlement, from which he sailed 10 Jan. 1844, and arrived at Portsmouth in the following June. Arctic exploration was an exciting special interest. The Erebus and Terror had come home from a remarkable voyage to the Antarctic, so that suitable ships were at once available there was, too, a stagnation in the shipping interest, and seamen were everywhere clamouring for employment. Back and Dease and Simpson and Ross had traced the northern coast-line of America almost in its entirety; little remained to be done to solve the problem of the north-west passage. Few capable men any longer doubted its actual existence; though whether, under any circumstances, it could be available for navigation was still problematical. The admiralty resolved on a naval expedition. There was at first some hesitation about the commander; but Franklin claimed the post, as being the senior officer of Arctic experience then in England. The first lord of the admiralty pointed out to him that he was sixty years of age. ‘No, no, my lord,’ answered Franklin, ‘only fifty-nine.’ ‘Before such earnestness all scruples yielded; the offer was officially made and accepted’, and on 3 March 1845 Franklin commissioned the Erebus for ‘particular service,’ the Terror being at the same time commissioned by Captain Crozier. The two ships, fitted, for the first time in the annals of Arctic exploration, with auxiliary screws, and provisioned (as it was believed) for three years, sailed together from Greenhithe on 18 May, with instructions to make their way to about 74° N., 98° W., in the vicinity of Cape Walker, and thence to the southward and westward in a course as direct to Behring’s Straits as ice and land might permit. ‘It was well known,’ wrote Sherard Osborn in 1859, ‘that this southern course was that of Franklin’s predilection, founded on his judgment and experience. There are many in England who can recollect him pointing on his chart to the western entrance of Simpson Strait and the adjoining coast of North America and saying, “If I can but get down there, my work is done; thence it’s plain sailing to the westward.”’ In the beginning of July the ships were at Disco, and Fitzjames, the commander of the Erebus, wrote on the 12th ‘that Sir John was delightful;’ that both officers and men were in good spirits and of excellent material (Osborn, p. 286). On 26 July the ships parted from an Aberdeen whaler off the entrance of Lancaster Sound; a fair wind bore them away westward, and they vanished into the unknown. Over their movements a dark curtain settled down, which was raised slowly and with difficulty, nor was it fully lifted for fourteen years. As early as the winter of 1846–7 there were gloomy anticipations; and though it was maintained at the admiralty that, as the ships were provisioned for three years, there were no grounds for anxiety, popular feeling so far prevailed that in the summer of 1847 large supplies, under the charge of Sir John Richardson and Dr. Rae, were sent out to Hudson’s Bay to be conveyed by the inland water route to the mouth of the Mackenzie or of the Coppermine, or to other stations on the coast. As the winter of 1847–8 passed by without any news of the ships, a very real uneasiness was felt. With the spring of 1848 began a series of relief and search expeditions, both public and private, English and American, which has no parallel in maritime annals, and which, while prosecuting the main object of the voyages, turned the map of the Arctic regions north of America from a blank void into a grim but distinct representation of islands, straits, and seas. These expeditions, of which a complete list is given by Richardson (Polar Regions, p. 172), may be summarised thus: One in 1847, that already mentioned from Hudson’s Bay under Richardson and Rae; five in 1848; three in 1849; ten in 1850, including those sent out by the admiralty under Austin, Ommanney, Collinson, and McClure; two in 1851; nine in 1852, including the one under Sir Edward Belcher; five in 1853, including one in boats and sledges by Dr. Rae, and one into Smith’s Sound by Dr. Kane of the United States Navy; two in 1854; one in 1855; and one, that of the Fox, in 1857. In 1850 Captain Ommanney discovered on Beechey Island the traces of the missing ships having there passed their first winter, and at the same time vast stacks of preserved meat canisters, which, there was only too much reason to believe, had been found to be filled with putrid abomination, and had been there condemned by survey, thus fatally diminishing the three years’ provisions which were supposed to be on board (ib. p. 163). Nothing further was learned till April 1854, when Dr. Rae, a factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, in a boat expedition carried on at the company’s expense, gathered intelligence of a party of white men having been seen, four winters before, travelling over the ice near King William’s Land, and of their bodies having been afterwards seen on the main land in the neighbourhood of a large river, presumably Back’s Great Fish River. From the Eskimos who told him of this, Rae also obtained numerous small articles, silver spoons, &c., the marks on which clearly identified them as having belonged to officers of the Erebus and Terror; among others a small silver plate engraved ‘Sir John Franklin, K.C.H.’ (Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, 13 Nov. 1854, xxv. 250). By these visible tokens the substantial truth of the story seemed to be fully confirmed, and the admiralty declined to enter on any further search. Others, however, were fain to hope that some survivors might still remain, and, chiefly by the personal exertions and at the personal cost of Lady Franklin, the Fox yacht was fitted out in 1857, under the command of Captain (now Admiral Sir) Leopold McClintock. She failed through the accident of the seasons to get into the prescribed locality in the first or second year. It was not till the early months of 1859 that McClintock and his colleagues, Lieutenant Hobson of the navy, and Captain (now Sir) Allen Young of the mercantile marine, came on distinct traces of the lost expedition. Numerous relics were then found: a boat, a few skeletons, chronometers, clothing, instruments, watches, plate, books; and at last, towards the end of May, a written paper, the contents of which, together with what was told by the Eskimos or could be argued by induction, comprise the sum of all that can be known. The paper, which was one of the official forms issued to be left for transmission by any casual finder, had been in the first instance filled up in the customary manner, but carelessly and with a wrong date: ‘28 May 1847—H.M. ships Erebus and Terror wintered in the ice in lat. 70° 05o′N., long. 98° 23o W. Having wintered in 1846–7 [a mistake for 1845–6] at Beechey Island in lat. 74° 43o′28″ N., long. 91° 39o′15″ W., after having ascended Wellington Channel to lat. 77° and returned by the west side of Cornwallis Island. Sir John Franklin commanding the expedition. All well. …’ In 1846 they proceeded to the south-west, and eventually reached within twelve miles of the north extreme of King William’s Land, when their progress was arrested by the approaching winter; and there they remained. The rest of the story was written on the margin of the same form by Captain Fitzjames: ‘25 April 1848—H.M. ships Terror and Erebus were deserted on 22 April, 5 leagues N.N.W. of this, having been beset since 12 Sept. 1846. The officers and crews, consisting of 105 souls, under the command of Captain F. R. M. Crozier, landed here in lat. 69° 37o 42″ N., long. 98° 41o W. Sir John Franklin died on 11 June 1847, and the total loss by deaths in the expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men.’ To which was added, in Crozier’s writing, ‘and start on to-morrow, 26th, for Back’s Fish River.’ And this was all. From the Eskimos McClintock learned that one of the ships sank in deep water, and that, to their grief, they got nothing from her; the other, much broken, was forced on shore, and from her they obtained the wood and iron which he saw in their possession. But there was no further news of the men. It was too certain that every soul of the party perished miserably; some earlier on King William’s Land; some ‘falling down and dying as they walked,’ as an old woman told McClintock; many on the mainland by the Great Fish River. Most fortunate then in his end was Franklin, who died before this terrible fate fell on his men; died, proud in the consciousness of having seen, even if he had not fully travelled over the north-west passage, the strait separating King William’s Land from Victoria Land; the strait which, if the ice would have permitted, would have led him into the known waters already explored by Dease and Simpson. Since the finding of this written record Franklin has been recognised as the discoverer of the north-west passage, and is so styled on the pedestal of the statue to his memory erected at the public cost in Waterloo Place, London. Franklin was a man not only of iron resolution and indomitable courage, but of a singular geniality, uprightness, and simplicity, which kindled into the warmest affection his influence over his comrades and subordinates. He left but one child, the daughter of his first wife. She married in 1849 the Rev. John Philip Gell, the head of an old Derbyshire family, who, as a young man, had been selected by Dr. Arnold’s advice to be principal of the college in Hobart Town, and was long rector of Buxted in Sussex. Mrs. Gell died in 1860, leaving several children.

All books by John Franklin