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Good Words 1860
The Fate of Franklin


(Continued from page 139.)

We hurry over the details of the winter months, the monotonous and dreary solitude of which was endured with a cheerfulness which speaks volumes for the crew and their officers; and look in again upon the little band, as on the 17th of February 1859, the sledge parties left the ship for the first time on their several journeys. From the western extremity of Bellot's Strait, the coast of Boothia, and the whole coast of King William's Island, to the mouth of the Great Fish River, was to be thoroughly explored, while to the north, the coast of Prince of Wales' Island was to be traced to the point in latitude 72.50 reached by Sherard Osborn in 1851. Captain Young, of the mercantile marine, whose enthusiasm in the cause had not only induced him to abandon lucrative appointments in command, and accept of a subordinate post on board the Fox, but to subscribe 500 in aid of her outfit, was now, with a few men, about to start for the purpose of depositing provisions in the last-mentioned direction, in view of the more extended search in the spring, and Captain M'Clintock, with Petersen and another, to leave for the south, for a similar purpose, and to communicate with the Esquimaux of Boothia. Both parties returned in safety in the following month, and M'Clintock with important intelligence, bearing on the main object of the expedition.

He had encountered, in the immediate vicinity of the magnetic pole, in latitude 70 deg., a small band of natives, one of whom had on his dress a naval button. "It came," they said, "from some white men who were starved upon an island where there are salmon, (that is, in a river,) and that the iron of which their knives were made came from the same place. One of these men said he had been to the island to obtain wood and iron, but none of them had seen the white men."

"Next morning the entire village population arrived, amounting to about forty-five souls, from aged people to infants in arms, and bartering commenced very briskly. First of all we purchased all the relics of the lost expedition, consisting of six silver spoons and forks, a silver medal, the property of Mr A. M'Donald, assistant-surgeon, part of a gold chain, several buttons, and knives made of the iron and wood of the wreck, also bows and arrows constructed of materials obtained from the same source.

"None of these people had seen the whites; one man said he had seen their bones upon the island where they died, but some were buried. Petersen also understood him to say that the boat was crushed by the ice. Almost all of them had part of the plunder.

"Next morning, 4th March, several natives came to us again. I bought a spear 6 feet long from a man who told Petersen distinctly that a ship having three masts had been crushed by the ice out in the sea to the west of King William's Island, but that all the people landed safely; he was not one of those who were eye-witnesses of it; the ship sunk, so nothing was obtained by the natives from her ; all that they have got, he said, came from the island in the river."

M'Clintock, on receiving this intelligence, hurried back to the Fox with all the speed in his power, and organised plans for a careful and deliberate search of the district in question. He had encountered great hardships on this rapid journey, during which he had travelled, in twenty-five days, 420 miles, in a temperature the mean of which was 62 deg. below freezing.

On the 2d of April all was ready for the start. Lieutenant Hobson, the second in command, was entrusted with the examination of the western coast of King William's Island, M'Clintock following the bend of Boothia to the east, exploring the eastern shore of the island, and, after a visit to Montreal Island, returning in the track of Hobson. The two parties proceeded in company to the spot where the natives had been met with, and gained from them, on this second visit, additional information.

"The young man who sold the knife told us that the body of a man was found on board the ship ; that he must have been a very large man, and had long teeth : this is all he recollected having been told, for he was quite a child at the time.

"They both told us it was in the fall of the year—that is, August or September—when the ships were destroyed; that all the white people went away to the 'large river,' taking a boat or boats with them, and that in the following winter their bones were found there."

At Cape Victoria, Hobson and M'Clintock parted company, and we now follow the steps of the latter. Crossing over the channel which separates Boothia from King William's Island, he passed several deserted villages of the Esquimaux, around which numerous chips and shavings of wood from the last expedition were seen, and at last reached a cluster of thirty or forty inhabited huts, where he purchased for a few needles six spoons and forks with the crests or initials of Franklin, Crozier, and others of their companions, and was told that it was five days' journey across the island to the scene of the wreck, of which but little now remained.

The site of the wreck lying exactly in Hobson'a track, in which he was himself to return, M'Clintock continued his journey to the southern extremity of the island, and thereafter crossed over to Point Ogle and Montreal Island, at the foot of the Great Fish River. A careful examination of the latter, the last spot in which the survivors of the last party had been seen by the natives, yielded nothing to the seekers but a piece of a preserved-meat tin and some scraps of copper and iron hoops; and with much disappointment they again turned northwards on the 19th of May. Five days afterwards they recrossed to King William's Island, and followed the windings of the western shore. Here on the 25th, "while slowly walking along on a gravel ridge near the beach, which the winds kept partially bare of snow," in all the solemn stillness of an Arctic midnight, they came upon a human skeleton stretched upon its face, with scraps of clothing lying round, and appearing through the snow. The victim appeared to have been a young man, slight built, and, from his dress, a steward or officer's servant. A pocket-book found close by afforded hopes of his identification, but though every effort was made to decipher the hard frozen leaves, nothing but a few detached sentences, in no way bearing on the fate of the expedition, has been made out.

"It was a melancholy truth that the old woman spoke when she said, ' they fell down, and died as they walked along...... This poor man seems to have selected the bare ridge top, as affording the least tiresome walking, and to have fallen upon his face in the position in which we found him."

They now approached a large cairn, originally built by Simpson in 1839, and where, as it must have been passed by the last crews, they eagerly anticipated finding some record, but a careful search proved wholly fruitless, and from the appearance of the cairn, they were led to believe that it had already been examined and rifled by the Esquimaux. Twelve miles further, however, they came upon a cairn built by Hobson's party, who had reached the same point a few days before, and in which was deposited a note, announcing the discovery of the record so ardently sought, under a third cairn, still further to the south, and on the site of one formerly built by Sir James Ross.

Of this painfully interesting document we are enabled, through the kindness of Mr Murray, to present a facsimile to our readers.

"There is an error in this document," says Captain M'Clintock; "namely, that the Erebus and Terror wintered at Beechey Island in 1846-7,—the correct dates should have been 1845-6; a glance at the date at the top and bottom of the record proves this, but in all other respects the tale is told in as few words as possible of their wonderful success up to that date, May 1847. . . .

"Seldom has such an amount of success been accorded to an Arctic navigator in a single season, and when the Erebus and Terror were secured at Beechey Island for the coming winter of 1845-6, the results of their first year's labour must have been most cheering. These results were the exploration of Wellington and Queen's Channel, and the addition to our charts of the extensive lands on either hand. 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 of 1846-7. That winter appears to have passed without any serious loss of life; and when in the spring Lieutenant Gore leaves with a party for some especial purpose, and very probably to connect the unknown coast-line of King William's Land between Point Victory and Cape Herschel, those on board the Erebus and Terror were 'all well,' and the gallant Franklin still commanded."

But, alas! round the margin of the paper upon which Lieutenant Gore in 1847 wrote those words of hope and promise, a sad and touching postcript had been added by another hand on the 28th April in the following year.

"There is some additional marginal information relative to the transfer of the document to its present position (viz., the site of Sir James Ross's pillar) from a spot four miles to the northward, near Point Victory, where it had been originally deposited by the late Commander Gore. This little word late shews us that he too, within the twelvemonth, had passed away.

"In the short space of twelve months how mournful had become the history of Franklin's expedition; how changed from the cheerful ' All well' of Graham Gore ! The spring of 1847 found them within 90 miles of the known sea off the coast of America; and to men who had already in two seasons sailed over 500 miles of previously unexplored waters, how confident must they then have felt that that forthcoming navigable season of 1847 would see their ships pass over so short an intervening space ! It was ruled otherwise. Within a month after Lieutenant Gore [He himself also had passed away. Note the words, "the late Commander Gore."] placed the record on Point Victory, the much-loved leader of the expedition, Sir John Franklin, was dead; and the following spring found Capt. Crozier, upon whom the command had devolved, at King William's Land, endeavouring to save his starving men, 105 souls in all, from a terrible death, by retreating to the Hudson Bay territories up the Back or Great Fish River.

"A sad tale was never told in fewer words. There is something deeply touching in their extreme simplicity, and they shew in the strongest manner that both the leaders of this retreating party were actuated by the loftiest sense of duty, and met with calmness and decision the fearful alternative of a last bold struggle for life, rather than perish without effort on board their ships; for we well know that the Erebus and Terror were only provisioned up to July 1848. ....

"Lieutenant Hobson's note told me that he found quantities of clothing and articles of all kinds lying about the cairn, as if these men, aware that they were retreating for their lives, had there abandoned everything which they considered superfluous."

But there was yet a third, and not the least affecting discovery to be made by the returning band. As they reached the western extremity of the island, they came in sight of a wide and desolate bay, on the southern shore of which was found a large boat, mounted on a sledge; "another melancholy relic which Hobson had found and examined a few days before, as his note left here informed me, but he had failed to discover record, journal, pocket-book, or memorandum of any description." In the boat was that which transfixed the searchers with awe: the portions of two skeletons—the one of a slight young person; the other of a large, strongly made, middle-aged man. Near the former, which lay in the bow of the boat, was found the fragment of a pair of worked slippers, and beside them a pair of small strong shooting half-boots.

"The other skeleton was in a somewhat more perfect state, [No part of the skull of either skeleton was found, with the exception only of the lower jaw of each.] and was enveloped with clothes and furs; it lay across the boat, under the after-thwart. Close beside it were found five watches; and there were two double-barrelled guns—one barrel in each loaded and cocked— standing muzzle upwards against the boat's side. It may be imagined with what deep interest these sad relics were scrutinised, and how anxiously every fragment of clothing was turned over in search of pockets and pocket-books, journals, or even names. Five or six small books were found, all of them scriptural or devotional works, except the 'Vicar of Wakefield.' One little book, ' Christian Melodies,' bore an inscription upon the title-page from the donor to G. G. (Graham Gore?) A small Bible contained numerous marginal notes, and whole passages underlined. Besides these books, the covers of a New Testament and Prayer-book were found.....

"The only provisions we could find were tea and chocolate; of the former very little remained, but there were nearly forty pounds of the latter. These articles alone could never support life in such a climate, and we found neither biscuit nor meat of any kind. ....

"I was astonished to find that the sledge was directed to the N.E., exactly for the next point of land for which we ourselves were travelling!

"A little reflection led me to satisfy my own mind at least, that the boat was returning to the ships: and in no other way can I account for two men having been left in her, than by supposing the party were unable to drag the boat further, and that these two men, not being able to keep pace with their shipmates, were therefore left by them supplied with such provisions as could be spared to last until the return of the others from the ship with a fresh stock.

"The same reasons which may be assigned for the return of this detachment from the main body, will also serve to account for their not having come back to their boat. In both instances they appear to have greatly overrated their strength, and the distance they could travel in a given time."

What thoughts must those have been of that lonely pair in the deserted boat, as hour by hour they gazed across the dreary wastes for the comrades who never returned, or of that strong man in his solitary death-watch when his sole companion had sunk beside him into his eternal sleep!

Neither by Hobson nor M'Clintock had any trace been found of the missing vessels, and at last the latter reached the cairn where the record above referred to had been discovered by his lieutenant. Around it were found an immense variety of relics, —stores, pick-axes, shovels, compasses, medicine-chest, &c, and a heap of clothing four feet high— but not one scrap of writing. From this point the coast was carefully explored to the south, but no further traces found, and on the 19th June the weary searchers reached once more "their poor dear lovely little Fox."

Little is said by M'Clintock of the determination or endurance required bearing on so extended and minute a search on an Arctic shore for a period of more than two months and a-half. The temperature was frequently nearly 30 deg. below zero, with cutting north winds, bright sun, and intense severe glare. The men had each to drag a weight of 200 lbs., to encamp every evening in snow huts, which it cost something like two hours of hard labour, at the close of a long day's walk, to build, and in which the very blankets and clothes became loaded with ice. "When our low doorway was carefully blocked up with snow, and the cooking lamp alight, the temperature quickly rose, so that the walls became glazed and our bedding thawed; but the cooking over, as the doorway partially opened, it as quickly fell again, so that it was impossible to sleep, or even to hold one's pannikin of tea without putting our mitts on, so intense was the cold." Under these privations, Hobson at last had fairly broken down, and for many days before he reached the yacht had been totally unable to walk or even stand without assistance. He was obliged in consequence to be dragged home in one of the sledges, but by the time M'Clintock arrived had already begun to mend. One death had taken place during their absence, making, with that of the engineer, who had suddenly died of apoplexy during the winter, the third that had occurred in the voyage.

Captain Young had been compelled to return some time before from his explorations to the north for medical assistance, his health having been greatly injured by exposure and fatigue; but after having recruited, had started again to renew the search, in the face of a strong written protest by the doctor; and his continued absence was now the only cause of anxiety to the little band. At last M'Clintock, with five men, set off to seek him, and two days after, to his great joy, encountered him on his return, so weakened that he too was travelling in the dog-sledge, but with the particulars of a long and most interesting exploration of new ground, though without any traces of the missing crews.

Every part of the proposed search had now been fully and efficiently performed, and ail thoughts were busied towards home. By the middle of July, they were ready to start; but it was not until the 10th of the following month, and after many anxious hours, that the little vessel was fairly under way. Their passage homewards was almost without interruption from the ice, except for four days, when, though it closed them in, its friendly shelter apparently saved them from the worse fate of being driven ashore in a heavy gale off Creswell Bay. Without either engineer or engine-driver, M'Clintock had himself to superintend the working of the engines, and found, at first, the unwonted task not a little arduous, not only from its novelty, but the continuous attention required, extending, on one occasion, to twenty-four hours' incessant work. On the 21st, they gained the open sea, and, eight days later, were lying in the quiet, security of Godhavn, reading their first letters from home, after a lapse of two years; and, on the 20th September, arrived in safety in the Irish Channel.

"I will not," writes the commander, in the simple and manly phrase which lends to his volume such an additional charm, "intrude upon the reader, who has followed me through the pages of this simple narrative, any description of my feelings on finding the enthusiasm with which we were all received on landing upon our native shores. The blessing of Providence had attended our efforts, and more than a full measure of approval from our friends and countrymen has been our reward. For myself, the testimonial given me by the officers and crew of the Fox has touched me perhaps more than all. The purchase of a gold chronometer, for presentation to me, was the first use the men made of their earnings; and as long as I live, it will remind me of that perfect harmony, that mutual esteem and good-will, which made our ship's company a happy little community, and contributed materially to the success of the expedition."

For the importance of the geographical data acquired by M'Clintock in this expedition, the reader may be referred to the highly interesting preface to his journal by Sir Roderick Murchison, where also will be found a statement of the names on which the claim has, as it appears to us with justice, been advanced for Franklin and his companions, of the discovery, in advance of M'Clure, of the north-western passage. But the engrossing interest of the narrative must ever centre in the scanty, but how deeply touching glimpses it affords of the last hours of those who, eight long years before, had found on those gloomy shores an unmade grave. As yielding one more proof of what can be accomplished by the courage and the devotion of our sailors, it will hold a high place in Arctic literature. As containing the record of the fate of Franklin, it will live, we believe, with our language.


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