Inuit testimony

SINCE 1997, SEVERAL search parties have mounted successive expeditions based on a detailed analysis by historian David C. Woodman of the Inuit eyewitness accounts gathered by numerous 19th-century explorers. As he recounts, several Inuit spotted a ship with three or four masts stranded in ice about 13 kilometres west of Grant Point on the Adelaide Peninsula, a region known as “Utjulik,” about 100 kilometres south of the last known location of the ships.

Woodman, who commands a British Columbia ferry, believes that some of Franklin’s sailors returned to the ships and sailed them south after abandoning them in 1848. According to testimony, the Inuit found a ship off the coast of the Adelaide Peninsula with an ice ramp leading up to the deck. Unable to get inside, they cut a hole in the hull, and began assembling items to remove from the ship. But when the ice broke up, the ship sank in shallow water, leaving its masts protruding above the surface of the water. The other ship, he argues, sank in deep water in the vicinity of the point of abandonment.

The idea that some of Franklin’s sailors returned to the stranded ships is controversial. Trent University bio-archeologist Ann Keenleyside, who has studied the bones of Franklin crew members found on King William Island, feels Woodman’s hypothesis is unlikely. Based on analysis of the bones, she concluded that the Franklin sailors who had set out to reach a Hudson’s Bay Company post on Back River, hundreds of kilometres south, would have been suffering from scurvy, lead poisoning and severe malnutrition. Their weakened state, she says, would have made it extremely difficult for them to return to the Erebus and Terror, much less extricate one of the ships from the ice and guide it south.

Despite the controversy, Woodman’s interpretation of the Inuit testimony has inspired most of the search missions undertaken since 1997, including several private journeys as well as the five expeditions led by Parks Canada since 2008. None uncovered evidence of the ships. But a definitive search based on Woodman’s analysis of Inuit testimony has yet to be completed. He estimates about 30 per cent of the area has yet to be surveyed.

While Woodman went out of his way to demonstrate the reliability of the Inuit accounts, he admits that translation ambiguities persist. The 13-kilometre distance between the sunken ship and the shore of Grant Point is an estimate, offered by someone who had made the journey years earlier. As Woodman notes, the figure is based on an interpretation of what the Inuit considered to be a long walk.