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A fruitless search

Crewmen from HMS Enterprise and HMS Investigator, Capt. Sir James Clark Ross in command, are fighting for their lives at the Devil’s Thumb, near Baffin Bay in the Arctic archipelago. They had left England in 1848 and sailed of their own free will into one of Earth’s harshest environments — the seas of the Arctic Circle — searching for 129 explorers from the 1845 Franklin Expedition. Now the same fate that befell those ill-starred explorers’ ships is threatening to befall the rescuers.

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Capt. Sir John Franklin’s two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, became icebound in Victoria Strait in 1846. Unable to move, they were slowly crushed and had to be abandoned. In this dramatic image, the crewmen of Capt. Ross’ ships are cutting the ice and warping their ships by hand to open water. They returned to England in 1849 after their fruitless search. All of the Franklin Expedition crewmen died, though many had survived the winters of 1846-47 and 1847-48.

The search for the men was a cause célèbre at the time, promoted by Franklin’s widow and the British Admiralty. Public interest and a cash reward prompted a host of would-be rescue parties in the 1850s; at one point there were 13 ships, including two U.S. vessels, out looking for the lost British explorers. Early finds included the graves of three crewmen and a note with details about the expedition’s fate. Searches continued through much of the 19th century, but little was turned up, adding to the legend of the “lost expedition.”

In the 1980s, skeletal remains of Franklin’s crew were discovered, and this past September a Canadian team found the wreck of the Erebus just west of O’Reilly Island in the Queen Maud Gulf.

December 2014 issue