John Franklin

John Franklin books and biography


John Franklin

Sir John Franklin, explorer.
Born 15 April 1786
Spilsby, Lincolnshire
Died 11 June 1847
near King William Island, Canada

For the American historian, see John Hope Franklin.

Sir John Franklin FRGS (April 15, 1786 – June 11, 1847) was an English sea captain and Arctic explorer whose expedition disappeared while attempting to chart and navigate the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic. The entire crew was lost and its fate remained a mystery for 14 years.


Early life

Franklin was born in Spilsby, Lincolnshire in 1786 and educated at King Edward VI Grammar School, Louth. He was the ninth of 12 children of a family which had prospered in trade. One of his sisters became the mother of Emily Tennyson (wife of the poet).

Although his father initially opposed him, Franklin was determined to have a career at sea. Reluctantly, his father allowed him to go on a trial voyage with a merchant ship. This hardened young Franklin's resolve, so at the age of 14, his father secured a Royal Navy appointment on HMS Polyphemus. Franklin was later present at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. Following this he went on an expedition to explore the coast of Australia on the HMS Investigator with his uncle, Captain Matthew Flinders. Following that expedition, he returned to the Napoleonic Wars, serving aboard HMS Bellerophon at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. In 1815, he was at the Battle of New Orleans.

Franklin first travelled to the Arctic in 1818, as a lieutenant under the command of John Ross, and became fascinated by it. On a disastrous overland expedition into the Northwest Territories of Canada along the Coppermine River in 1819-1822, Franklin lost 11 of the 20 men in his party. Most died of starvation, but there was also at least one murder and suggestions of cannibalism. The survivors were forced to eat lichen and even attempted to eat their own leather boots. This gained Franklin the nickname of "the man who ate his boots".

In 1823, after returning to England, Franklin married the poet Eleanor Anne Porden. Their daughter, Eleanor Isabella, was born the following year. Eleanor died of tuberculosis in 1825, shortly after persuading her husband not to let her ill-health prevent him from setting off on another expedition to the Arctic. This expedition, a trip down the Mackenzie River to explore the shores of the Beaufort Sea, was better supplied and more successful than his last.

In 1828, he was knighted by George IV and in the same year married Jane Griffin, a friend of his first wife, and a seasoned traveller who proved indomitable in the course of their life together. He was appointed Governor of Tasmania in 1836, but was removed from office in 1843, partly because of his attempts to reform the penal colony there. Nevertheless, he was popular among the people of Tasmania, who, upon his death, erected a statue of him in Franklin Square, in Hobart.

Final expedition

Exploration of the Arctic coastal mainland since Franklin's last Arctic expedition had left less than 500 km of unexplored Arctic coastline. It was decided that a well-equipped Arctic expedition would be sent to finally chart the Northwest Passage. Franklin was eager to lead the expedition, and was given command on February 7, 1845. He set off with a party of 129 men on May 19, 1845, in two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The ships were sturdily built, and were outfitted with steam heating for the comfort of the crew, large amounts of reading and educational material, and three years' worth of preserved food supplies. They were last seen by whalers at Baffin Bay on July 26.

After two years and no word from the expedition, Lady Franklin, his wife, urged the Admiralty to send a search party. This was the largest group they had ever lost. But the crew carried supplies for three years, so the Admiralty waited another year before launching the search and offering a £20,000 reward for success. Not only was this a huge sum for the time, but Franklin's disappearance had captured the popular imagination. At one point, there were 10 British and two American ships headed for the Arctic. (More ships and men were lost looking for Franklin than in the expedition). Ballads telling of Franklin and his fate became popular. The ballad Lady Franklin's Lament commemorated Lady Franklin's search for her lost husband.

The note found by McClintock on King William Island in 1859, detailing the fate of the Franklin expedition.
The note found by McClintock on King William Island in 1859, detailing the fate of the Franklin expedition.

In the summer of 1850, several of the ships converged on Beechey Island, in Wellington Channel, where the first relics of the Franklin expedition were found: the graves of three men who had died from natural causes in 1846. No messages had been left there by the Franklin party to provide further clues for the searchers. The bodies of the explorers had been preserved in the frozen ground, and autopsies in the mid-1980's suggested tuberculosis as the most proxomate cause of death, though toxicological reports indicated lead poisoning was also a likely factor.

In 1854, explorer John Rae discovered further evidence of the Franklin party's fate. Rae was not searching for Franklin at all, but rather exploring the Boothia Peninsula on behalf of the Hudson's Bay Company. On this journey, Rae met an Inuit who told him of a party of 35 to 40 white men who had died of starvation near the mouth of the Back River. The Inuit also showed him many objects that were identifiable as having belonged to Franklin and his men.

Lady Franklin commissioned one more expedition under Francis Leopold McClintock to investigate Rae's report. In the summer of 1859, the McClintock party found a document in a cairn on King William Island left by Franklin's second-in-command, giving the date of Franklin's death. The message, dated April 25, 1848, also reported that the ships had been trapped in the ice, that many others had died, and that the survivors had abandoned the ships and headed south towards the Back River. McClintock also found several bodies and an astonishing amount of abandoned equipment, and heard more details from the Inuit about the expedition's disastrous end.

Statue of John Franklin in his home town of Spilsby, Lincolnshire, England.
Statue of John Franklin in his home town of Spilsby, Lincolnshire, England.

There are several things that contributed to the loss of the Franklin expedition. Franklin was culturally conservative, observing wasteful rituals in inappropriate locales; for example, he and his men carried silver plates, crystal decanters, and many extraneous personal effects with them. They attempted to haul much of this heavy gear along with them even after abandoning the ships. They were unwilling or unable to learn survival techniques from the natives. Moreover, their expedition was a naval one, not equipped for hiking over land, so none of the sailors had thick boots or jackets. Their ships were locked in the ice for two winters running as a result of an unusually cold period that did not allow the icebound passages to melt in the summer of 1846. The party's morale and cohesion was damaged by psychological effects of lead poisoning from the solder that sealed their tinned food supply. This has been confirmed by lead found in both skeletal and soft tissue remains of expedition sailors conducted by Dr Owen Beattie of the University of Alberta. They also were weakened by internal bleeding from scurvy after the first two years when the preventive lemon juice they carried lost its potency. The Inuit witnesses had reported that crew members exhibited the blackened mouth and bruised skin typical of that disease.

There is evidence of cut marks found on bones from some of the crew, that suggests conditions were so dire that some resorted to cannibalism. In the end, it was likely a combination of poor planning, bad weather, poisoned food, and ultimately starvation that killed them.

For years to come, however, the Victorian media chose to portray Franklin as a hero, leading his men in the quest for the Northwest Passage. At the constant pressure of Lady Franklin, stories about the expedition's disappointing demise were suppressed, and her husband was elevated to a hero. A statue of Franklin in his home town bears the inscription 'Sir John Franklin - Discoverer of the North West Passage'. Statues of Franklin outside the Athenaeum in London, and in Tasmania, bear similar inscriptions.

An alternative view is that Franklin was portrayed as a hero because of his many achievements, and the fact that he died in a gallant attempt to complete his discovery of the Northwest Passage did not diminish his standing in the eyes of the public. The expedition's fate, including the possibility of cannibalism, was not suppressed but in fact widely reported and debated in the newspapers of the day. The mystery still surrounding Franklin's last expedition was the subject of a 2006 episode of the NOVA TV series, Arctic Passage.

Popular culture

  • In the early 1960s, the Canadian poet Gwendolyn MacEwen wrote, and broadcast on CBC radio, a verse play titled, Terror and Erebus that told of the failed expedition from various perspectives.
  • The 1981 song "Northwest Passage" by Stan Rogers makes reference to John Franklin.
  • The ballad "Lady Franklin's Lament", aka "Lord Franklin", has been recorded by numerous artists, including Martin Carthy, Pentangle, Sinéad O'Connor, and the Pearlfishers. The melody was also used for Bob Dylan's song "Bob Dylan's Dream", as well as David Wilcox's "Jamie's Secret".
  • The song "I'm Already There" on the Fairport Convention album Over the Next Hill is sung from the point of view of a member of one of Franklin's Expeditions.
  • The book The Terror, a novel by Dan Simmons, will feature a supernatural take on the events of John Franklin's arctic expedition. It will be released on January 8, 2007.
  • The novel Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler has a subplot involving the last Franklin expedition.
  • The song "900," the B-side to the Breeders' 1993 Cannonball single, has lyrics based on the Franklin expedition, particularly referencing the unnecessary luggage they carried south.
  • The novel The Discovery of Slowness by German author Sten Nadolny tells its story about the right speed in life along the complete lifeline of Franklin.
  • In William T. Vollmann's novel The Rifles, the narrator tells his own story of fatal fascination with the Arctic alongside John Franklin's, whom he imagines as his "grave twin."
  • In Robert Edric's novel The Broken Lands, a Novel of Arctic Disaster, a fictionalized account of the final expedition aboard Terror and Erebus.
  • There is a street and high school in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada named in his honour. In 1820, Franklin passed through the Yellowknife River on his way to the arctic.

List of Franklin search expeditions

  • 1848–1849, James Clark Ross in Investigator and Enterprise
  • 1848–1851, John Richardson and John Rae overland expedition
  • 1848–1851, Plover and Herald via Bering Strait
  • 1849 William Penney (Captain) John Anstruther Goodsir (naturalist) in whaling vessel Advice
  • 1850–1854, Robert McClure in Investigator via Bering Strait
  • 1850–1855, Richard Collinson in Enterprise via Bering Strait
  • 1850–1851, William Penny in Lady Franklin and Sophia
  • 1850–1851, Horatio T. Austin in four-ship Royal Navy expedition
  • 1850–1851, Sir John Ross in private expedition
  • 1850, Charles Codrington Forsyth in Prince Albert, financed by Lady Franklin
  • 1850–1851, Edwin J. De Haven in first Grinnell expedition
  • 1851–1852, William Kennedy and Joseph René Bellot in Prince Albert, financed by Lady Franklin
  • 1852–1854, Sir Edward Belcher in a five-ship Royal Navy expedition
  • 1852, Edward Augustus Inglefield in Isabel, financed by Lady Franklin
  • 1853–1855, Elisha Kent Kane in second Grinnell expedition
  • 1853–1854, John Rae (explorer) on behalf of the Hudson Bay Company
  • 1857–1859, Francis Leopold McClintock in Fox, financed by Lady Franklin
  • 1864–1869, Charles Francis Hall
  • 1875, Allen Young in Pandora, in a private expedition
  • 1876, Allen Young in Pandora, in a second private expedition which also took despatches to the expedition of Sir George Nares for the Admiralty
  • 1878–1880, Frederick Schwatka, sponsored by the American Geographical Society


  • NOVA - Arctic Passage Part 1 - Prisoners Of The Ice (TV documentary)
  • Frozen In Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition, Owen Beattie and John Geiger
  • The Arctic Grail, Pierre Berton
  • Deadly Winter, Martyn Beardsley
  • The Royal Navy in Polar Exploration, Frobisher to Ross, E C Coleman 2006 ISBN 0-7524-3660-0
  • The Royal Navy in Polar Exploration, Franklin to Scott, E C Coleman 2006
  • British polar exploration and research : a historical and medallic record with biographies, 1818-1999 , Neville W. Poulsom & J. A. L. Myres (London: Savannah 2000)
  • Franklin Saga Deaths: A Mystery Solved? National Geographic Magazine, Vol 178, No 3, Sep 1990
  • The Artic Fox - Francis Leopold McClintock, Discoverer of the fate of Franklin, David Murray, 2004. Cork: The Collins Press, ISBN 1-55002-523-6
  • To the Arctic!: The Story of Northern Exploration from Earliest Times, Jeannette Mirsky, 1970 ISBN 0-226-53179-1
  • Fatal Passage, Ken McGoogan
  • Lady Franklin's Revenge, Ken McGoogan

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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