The Terror AMC

The Terror: 10 Astonishing Facts About The Franklin Expedition

[nextpage title=”The Terror: 10 Astonishing Facts About The Franklin Expedition” ]

In 1845, Sir John Franklin guided the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror through the Arctic waters above North America, hoping to find the elusive Northwest Passage that would open up a new trade route from Europe to Asia. And then… he disappeared along with his two ships and 128 crew members.

The Terror, a new AMC series that launched to critical acclaim two weeks ago, offers a fictionalized version of what happened to the expedition, contrasting the aristocratic hubris of Franklin (Ciaran Hinds) and Commander James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies) with the more practical leadership of Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris).

Fictionalized or not, the story of Franklin’s last expedition is full of mysteries. Various European expeditions were sent out to find Franklin’s crew and the wrecks of the Erebus and the Terror, bringing back fragments of the story from local Inuit, but never learning the full truth of what happened. Here are 10 Astonishing Facts About The Franklin Expedition.[/nextpage]

[nextpage title=”10. Franklin’s Last Contact With Europeans Came in August 1845″ ]

10. Franklin’s Last Contact With Europeans Came in August 1845

HMS Erebus

HMS Erebus in the Ice, 1846 by François Etienne Musin

In August of 1845, The Erebus and the Terror came into contact with the Enterprise and the Prince of Wales in Baffin Bay. They had last stopped for supplies in Greenland and were waiting for better conditions to cross the Bay. It was already August, meaning that they would be heading into uncharted territory as summer was coming to an end.

Still, the Franklin Expedition had reason to hope. They had enough supplies for three years, meaning they could continue sailing in the summer if they got stuck in the Arctic ice. Furthermore, by 1846, much of the Arctic had already been mapped, and so had the West Coast. It was Franklin’s goal to fill in the last gap, while also doing numerous other scientific surveys.

9. Franklin and Crozier Had Experience Exploring the Arctic

Francis Crozier, Captain of the HMS Terror

Photograph of Francis Crozier, Captain of the HMS Terror

This wasn’t the first time Frasier had visited the Arctic. Previously, Frasier had explored the North American arctic over land in several expeditions. In his first expedition, Franklin hoped to map the north coast of North America by following the Coppermine River from 1819 to 1821. In events that would foreshadow his later expeditions, 11 members of his 20 person team lost their lives in the harsh conditions. The crew had fallen apart, which even led to a murder once the crew reached their base at Fort Enterprise.

Francis Crozier had also explored the Arctic multiple times as a crew member on the ships of explorer Captain William Pary, and also spent time searching for missing whalers in the region. During this time, he even learned to speak Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit.[/nextpage]

[nextpage title=”8. The Terror and the Erebus Were Two of the Most Technologically Advanced Ships of Their Era” ]

8. The Terror and the Erebus Were Two of the Most Technologically Advanced Ships of Their Era

Profile of HMS Terror

Profile of the HMS Terror

John Franklin and his men knew (to some degree) how cold and harsh the Arctic could be, which is why the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror were some of the most technologically advanced ships of their day. Prior to the failed Franklin expedition, the two ships actually sailed to Antarctica under Commander James Clark Ross, proving they could withstand extreme temperatures.

Before the Franklin expedition, the Erebus (built in 1826) and the Terror (built in 1813) were outfitted with steam engines, rare at the time, to help the ships break their way through the ice. According to a Toronto Star article on the excavation of the ship, it also contained “a 3,000-volume library, equipment to print a ship’s newspaper and materials to stage amateur theatricals. It held a Daguerreotype camera — capturing, maybe, images from the voyage.”

7. Ships Only Found Recently Thanks To Inuit Storytelling Traditions

Louie Kamookak

Louie Kamookak (Image via screengrab Louie Kamookak: Lost & Found)

Despite numerous expeditions to find the remains of the Franklin expedition, both in the 19th Century and up to the modern-day, the wrecks of the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror were only discovered by interested parties in recent years. At least in part, this was thanks to an Inuit historian named Louie Kamookak, who was inspired by the Inuit tradition of oral history to explore stories from the region to see if he could pinpoint the actual locations of the ships.

By collaborating with experts in traditional methods of archaeology and history, they eventually discovered the wreck of the HMS Erebus in 2014, off the coast of Nunavut near King William Island. The HMS Terror was discovered off the shore of King William Island in 2016, proving that researchers can learn a lot from traditional Inuit histories.[/nextpage]

[nextpage title=”6. Early Expeditions Found Relics and Stories of the Expedition” ]

6. Early Expeditions Found Relics and Stories of the Expedition

Artifact from the Franklin expedition

Artifact from the Franklin expedition (Image via screengrab Louie Kamookak: Lost & Found)

 Lady Jane Franklin, Sir John’s wife, grew restless after hearing nothing from her husband for three years, and in 1848 began requesting the government to send an expedition to find the ships. At times, Lady Franklin funded her own expeditions to find Franklin’s remains and even broke protocol by writing to Zachary Taylor, president of the United States, to send his American ships in search of the remains. A ballad known as “Lady Franklin’s Lament” became popular during this period, as the mystery of the lost Franklin expedition captured the public’s imagination.

Early expeditions failed to find the remains, but they did come across artifacts from the expedition, along with stories about the ships from Inuit who had interacted with them after their ships got stuck in the ice. In 1859, an expedition led by Francis Leopold McClintock discovered a message left in a cairn, dated to April 1848, which detailed the abandonment of the ships and the death of several crew members, including Franklin.

5. Some of the Men May Have Resorted to Cannibalism

A note detailing the fate of Franklin and his men.

A note found by John Rae in 1859 detailing the fate of Franklin and his men.

According to the note left in the cairn, the crew abandoned the ships in 1848 and began a 1000 kilometre hike along Back River to the closest Hudson’s Bay Trading Post, led by Francis Crozier. In 1854, explorer John Rae encountered a group of Inuit who seemed to have relics from the remaining members of the Franklin expedition. They also told Rae that the group had resorted to cannibalism, although none of the Inuit claimed to have seen the “white men” themselves.

When the remains of that group of men were found on Beechey Island in the 1980s and 1990s, studies confirmed that cannibalism was likely. The bones of the men were covered in cuts, which are a sign that the other men had begun to carve up the dead bodies to sustain themselves.[/nextpage]

[nextpage title=”4. Death Was Probably Caused by Tuberculosis” ]

4. Death Was Probably Caused by Tuberculosis

Wheel of the HMS Terror

Wheel of the HMS Terror (Image via screengrab Arctic Research Foundation)

Out of 129 people on board the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, none survived. Death has been attributed to scurvy, starvation, exposure and even lead poisoning. (The Franklin expedition was the first to use canned food and lead was used to solder the cans, but more recent studies have cast doubt on this hypothesis.) Still, the ships were well-stocked with this food, suggesting that starvation isn’t the answer, either.

More recent considerations suggest that the cause of death may have been tuberculosis, which is a contagious disease and could have spread among the men. Inuit accounts of the men suggested that they had black mouths, which could have been a sign of adrenal insufficiency, or Addison’s disease. At the time, the most common cause of Addison’s disease was tuberculosis, suggesting that the then-common infectious disease is the most likely cause of death for the men of Franklin’s expedition.

3. The Franklin Expedition Has Long Been Referenced in Pop Culture

The Terror by Don Simmons

The Terror by Dan Simmons

In the years following the Franklin expedition, the story of the lost ships penetrated the popular imagination. Charles Dickens, for example, often wrote about various attempts to recover the findings of the expedition in his newspaper Household Words. He also produced a play about the doomed ships known as The Frozen Deep in 1856. Statues of Franklin have been erected in his hometown of Spilsby, England, as well as London and Tasmania, where Franklin served as Lieutenant Governor when it was known as Van Diemen’s Land.

In more recent years, the Franklin expedition has become the subject of several non-fiction works, including Ken McGoohan’s Fatal Passage and Lady Franklin’s Revenge. Documentaries have also been produced about the expedition, including Discovery Channel’s “Franklin’s Lost Expedition.” The exploits of Franklin have also been referenced in various fictional works since Jules Verne’s Journeys and Adventures of Captain Hatteras. More recently, Dan Simmons’ novel The Terror is the basis for the current AMC television series. (If you’re worried about spoilers, one should mention here that the novel was published in 2007, before the wrecks of Erebus and the Terror were discovered.)[/nextpage]

[nextpage title=”2. Roald Amundsen First Traversed the Northwest Passage in 1905″ ]

2. Roald Amundsen First Traversed the Northwest Passage in 1905

Roald Amundsen

Roald Amundsen

The Northwest Passage would not finally be traversed by Europeans for over half a century, when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen sailed the Gjoa through the Passage, successfully, in 1905. Unlike the Franklin expedition, Amundsen had a small ship with only 6 crew members, and he survived by staying close to the coastline. Curiously, Amundsen’s goal on this journey wasn’t to complete his childhood dream of crossing the Northwest Passage, but rather to find out if the magnetic North Pole had moved since its discovery.

He spent two winters among the Inuit of northern Canada, learning their language and way of life, while also conducting scientific inquiries and exploring the arctic region. Still, Amundsen could only make this journey due to the small stature of the Gjoa. A commercial route through the arctic would not become viable until recently, as climate change reduces the amount of ice in the Arctic Ocean.

1. Franklin’s Grave is Still Unknown

Sir John Franklin

Sir John Franklin

One mystery that still remains is the location of John Franklin’s gravesite. Louie Kamookak, the Inuit historian whose work proved essential for discovering the locations of the Erebus and the Terror, believed that Franklin’s body would be found somewhere on King William Island in a “vault,” based on his conversations with Inuit elders and correlations with European historical sources. Kamookak had collected stories of a chief being buried underground beneath a large flat stone.

Sadly, Kamookak died in March 2018. Franklin’s grave has still never been found. Kamookak and other Inuit believed that there was a curse on King William’s Land, and it would continue until the body was found and returned to England. He also wanted to find it “to prove [his] great grandma’s story was right.”


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