V. Unforgiving Ice: The Search for Franklin


The steamer Pioneer breaking through the ice on the Austin expedition, 1850-51, from Sherrard Osborn, Stray Leaves from an Arctic Journal, 1852 (see item 37).

In 1843, the Erebus and Terror returned from a very successful Antarctic voyage, and the Admiralty decided to refurbish the ships, fit them out with steam engines and screw propellers, and send them off to the north, to renew the search for a Northwest Passage.  John Franklin, veteran of many polar expeditions, including the first one of 1818, was chosen Commander.  In 1845, the ships left for Baffin Bay, and they sailed into Lancaster Sound, on the same path as Parry in 1819, with 129 men aboard.  No one ever heard from them again.

After several years’ absence, the Admiralty yielded to the pleas of Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, and sent several search expeditions.  Lady Franklin sponsored a few herself.  When these proved fruitless, the Navy sent out the four-ship Austin expedition, and following that, the five-ship Belcher Arctic Squadron.  In addition, ships were sent to the Pacific to search from the Bering Strait.  Even the Americans sent two ships.  In all, forty-seven ships were dispatched to the Arctic between 1848 and 1857.  Only then was it discovered that Franklin had died in 1847 and all of his men within the next year.  The ships were never found.

The fate of the Franklin expedition was a sad one, but the search expeditions not only mapped most of the remaining Arctic shoreline, but they finally discovered (even if they could not traverse by ship) the long-sought Northwest Passage.


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