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Banner: PATHFINDERS AND PASSAGEWAYS: The Exploration of Canada About This Site
The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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John Franklin (1786 - 1847)

At a very young age, John Franklin wanted to join the navy. His father, a cloth merchant, began by being opposed to this career but then helped him enter it. Born in 1786, in Spilsby, England, Franklin left school at the age of 12 to become a sailor on board a merchant ship. A year later, his father entered him as a volunteer in the Royal Navy, but took him out the following year to let him join the expedition of one of his uncles, Matthew Flinders, to the coast of Australia in 1802-1803. On his return, Franklin went back into the Royal Navy and served in its ranks until the end of the Napoleonic Wars. He then expressed an interest in taking part in Arctic explorations. After a first, unsuccessful, expedition beyond the Spitzbergen archipelago, he conducted three voyages in search of the Northwest Passage for the Admiralty. He never returned from the last one.

In 1819, Franklin left on an expedition to explore the coast of the Arctic Ocean eastwards, starting at the Coppermine River. To get there, he took a Hudson's Bay Company ship, landed at Fort York and passed through Cumberland House, Saskatchewan, and then through Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, the latter a North West Company post. He recruited Native guides and hunters but too few in number because conflicts between the two fur companies made labour hard to secure. Moreover, Franklin found that the hunters could not provide him with the promised supplies, a fact which did not bode well. Nevertheless, in the summer of 1820, he got as far as Winter Lake, where he spent the winter. In this place, which he called "Fort Enterprise," Franklin, gripped with the problem, among others, of having too few provisions, reacted badly and infuriated both the Native people and voyageurs. Luckily, ensign George Back calmed everyone by acquiring provisions at Fort Chipewyan. Still, these provisions did not suffice and the men were starving when they reached the mouth of the Coppermine River in 1821.

"We were all convinced of the necessity of putting a speedy termination to our advance, as the hope which we had cherished of meeting the Esquimaux and procuring provision from them could now scarcely be entertained; [...] I announced my determination of returning after four days' examination, unless, indeed, we should previously meet the Esquimaux, and be enabled to make some arrangement for passing the winter with them."

(Franklin 1823, 385)

Franklin sent two Native people, Tuttanuak and Hiutiruk, to ask for help from the coastal Inuit, whom they had sighted. The latter, frightened, ran away and did not return. Franklin followed the coast as far as the Kent Peninsula. Hungry and without resources, he returned. As the canoes were damaged, the crew had to walk. Nine men died. Another, suspected of cannibalism, was executed. At Fort Enterprise, the food that they had counted on was not there. Back found Native people, who helped the explorers. On his return to England, in the fall of 1822, Franklin would be greeted as a hero.

Before leaving on his second expedition, Franklin sent, through Hudson's Bay, a large quantity of provisions and a number of watercraft that had been built especially for his voyage. He left London in 1825 and went through New York. In June 1826, leaving from Fort Franklin, on Great Bear River, he split his men into two groups and went down the Mackenzie River to its delta. He and Back skirted the coast westwards with 14 men while Richardson and Kendall went east. Franklin went half of the way planned to Icy Cape before deciding to return because of the cold. He thus missed the ships that had come to meet him. For their part, Richardson and Kendall managed to draft the map of the coast west of the Coppermine River. In 1827, Franklin published the accounts of his voyage for which he was rewarded, among other things, with a knighthood on April 29, 1829.

"[...] many of them had their legs swelled and inflamed from continually wading in ice-cold water while launching the boats, not only when we accidentally ran on shore, but every time that it was requisite to embark, or to land upon this shallow coast. Nor were these symptoms to be overlooked in coming to a determination; for though no one who knows the resolute disposition of British sailors can be surprised at their more than readiness to proceed, I felt that it was my business to judge of their capability of so doing, and not to allow myself to be seduced by their ardour, however honourable to them, and cheering to me."

(Franklin 1828, 143)

On May 19, 1845, Franklin left the Thames River with two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, and 134 men. He left well equipped for this new expedition: food for three years, including a large quantity of canned food, as well as ships heated using a pipe system and with propellers powered by a steam engine. Each ship was fitted with a dining room arrayed with porcelain, crystal and silverware as well as a large library. The ships headed, as planned, towards Lancaster Sound. Europeans saw them for the last time in Baffin Bay on June 26.

From 1847 to 1859, of the some 30 major expeditions to find Franklin, only four found signs of his last expedition. In 1850, Horatio T. Austin and William Penny learned from the Inuit that Franklin spent the winter of 1845-1846 on Beechey Island in Barrow Strait. In 1854, John Rae of the Hudson's Bay Company was informed that the expedition was in difficulty in the area around King William Island and found traces that confirmed this fact. In 1859, Francis L. McClintock found other traces and human remains on the same island as well as two brief notes.

These sources also show that, after having left Beechey Island, Franklin went around Cornwallis Island and south through Peel and Franklin straits. In September 1846, in Victoria Strait, his two ships were irretrievably caught in the ice northwest of King William Island. Franklin died there in 1847. Under the command of captain Francis R. M. Crozier, the survivors abandoned the buildings in 1848 and almost all died of hunger, scurvy and lead poisoning from the canned food while trying to get to the continent. The few men who were left died shortly thereafter at Starvation Bay on the Adelaide Peninsula. By getting on the continent, these last had effectively managed to traverse the Northwest Passage. But the first to claim this exploit would be members of the research expedition conducted by Robert McCLure between 1850 and 1854.

Franklin is a controversial hero. Some have criticised him for exploring Canadian shores without taking into consideration the lessons and experiences of the first explorers in either the Arctic or in the St. Lawrence. Others have reproached him for his blindness in carrying out instructions even when he endangered the lives of the people with him and for his rigid attitude towards Native people and Inuit. Franklin's expeditions nevertheless expanded knowledge of the Northwest Territories and parts of the Arctic.

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