Excerpt from Searching for Franklin: New Answers to the Great Arctic Mystery

Arctic historian Ken McGoogan takes an in-depth, contemporary perspective on the legacy of Sir John Franklin, offering a new explanation of the famous Northern mystery

  • Oct 05, 2023
  • 2,400 words
  • 10 minutes
Ken and Louie at their own "Boat Place" on the coast of Boothia Peninsula. (Photo: Cameron Treleaven)
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The following article by Ken McGoogan is excerpted from his forthcoming book Searching for Franklin: New Answers to the Great Arctic Mystery. In that work, as Chapter 20, it bears the title What Do We Know for Sure?

The Arctic eureka moment came one gorgeous September afternoon in 2014 after the chance discovery on a tiny island of a heavy U-shaped piece of metal and a wooden scuttle or deck-hole cover. These weather-worn objects turned up in Wilmot and Crampton Bay, roughly 95 miles southwest of Gjoa Haven on King William Island. Identifiably Royal Navy in origin, could they have come from one of Sir John Franklin’s ships?

Underwater archaeologists Jonathan Moore and Ryan Harris, leading a Parks Canada investigation from a nearby vessel, responded by laying out a new search grid in the area, near where they themselves had investigated in 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2013. Others had been hunting in this “Oot-joo-lik” area for decades, notably David Woodman, acting on the Inuit oral tradition frequently referenced by Louie Kamookak.  

On September 2, 2014, Moore and Harris established their new electronic lines the usual 150 metres apart. They put a sidescan sonar unit or “towfish” to work “mowing the lawn” up and down these lines, sending images back to the sonar screens they sat watching on their vessel. They had scarcely begun the day’s work when EUREKA! the image of a ship began to emerge from the sonic waterfall on one of the screens. “That’s it!” Harris cried. “That’s it!”

What a moment! Following an international search that had lasted almost 170 years, they had located Franklin’s flagship, HMS Erebus, sitting just eleven metres beneath the surface. Well-earned kudos went to Moore and Harris and those working with them on the survey boat Investigator; to archaeologist Douglas Stenton and pilot Andrew Stirling, who had turned up those artifacts on that tiny island; and to Louie Kamookak, the very incarnation of Inuit oral history.

Dust jacket design: Dwayne Dobson. Detail from Edwin Landseer's 1864 painting Man Proposes, God Disposes
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John Geiger, Chief Executive Officer of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, called Louie “the last great Franklin searcher.” He added, “Louie brought a particular perspective, and that perspective was to listen to the elders, to listen to the oral tradition.” Louie was thrilled and called the discovery “bigger than the Titanic.” But later, to a writer for Up Here magazine, Louie clarified his view of the search for the lost ships: “That’s not my mission. I’m looking for Franklin.”

On September 3, 2016, precisely two years and one day after the finding of Erebus, a team from the Arctic Research Foundation found the Terror off southwestern King William Island after acting on a tip from an Inuk crewmember. Sammy Kogvik, also from Gjoa Haven, told operations director Adrian Schimnowski that a few years earlier, while out hunting on the ice of Terror Bay in winter, he had chanced upon what appeared to be a protruding mast. He kept the find secret because, after snapping photos, he lost his camera and so lacked proof.

The team entered Terror Bay and soon located the Terror sitting on the ocean floor twenty-four metres below the surface. Although not authorized to do so, Schimnowski sent a remotely operated vehicle into the ship through an open hatch. The ROV entered cabins and explored the food storage room, where on shelves it located plates, one tin can, and two wine bottles. The ship’s three masts were still standing, most hatches were closed, and everything was neatly stowed. Experts surmised that a few remaining crew closed down and abandoned the Terror, then boarded and sailed the Erebus forty miles south to where she was found.

Either way, the discovery of the two long-lost ships speaks to the greatest mystery of Arctic exploration: What happened to the Franklin expedition? We know now that its demise was more complex and protracted than anybody had realized. In 2014, I was one of the first writers to respond to the finding of the Erebus. That December, writing in Canadian Geographic magazine, I hailed it as the Discovery of the Century. In retrospect, I see that I got carried away. Since then, others have weighed in and I have had occasion to reflect. Drawing on all these, I will catch us up to we are now.

The finding of the two ships vindicates both Inuit oral history and those explorers who ventured into the Arctic to record it. For Canadians, most of whom live along the US border, the discoveries mean we have to rewrite a foundational myth that underscores our national identity as a northern people. In 1854, as we have seen, John Rae worked with William Ouligbuck and relayed Inuit testimony that many of Franklin’s men had starved to death while trekking south, and that some of the final survivors had been driven to cannibalism.

Ken and Louie at the ruins of the cairn John Rae built in 1854 (Photo: Cameron Treleaven)
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In the mid-1990s, archaeologist Margaret Bertulli and physical anthropologist Anne Keenleyside investigated a grisly discovery in Erebus Bay. They analyzed more than four hundred bones, the remains of at least eight men. Using an electron microscope, they discovered cut marks on ninety-two bones—marks easily distinguished from animal tooth marks and even marks made by stone tools, occurring “in a pattern consistent with intentional disarticulation.” In short, the survivors had dismembered the bodies and carved away the flesh.

Today’s Royal Navy, as represented by historian Andrew Lambert, has finally acknowledged the overwhelming evidence of cannibalism. Lambert’s 2009 biography, Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation, is disingenuous in reframing Franklin and insisting that he not be assessed as an explorer. But it does open with a prologue that vividly describes how sailors from the Erebus and Terror “began butchering and eating their comrades.”

Back in Victorian England, five years after Rae’s evidence exploded like a bombshell, Leopold McClintock returned from King William Island having found skeletons and a one-page record left in a cairn by expedition officers. Today, most analysts take the view that this “Victory Point Record” has been accorded too much weight. It did reveal that after spending the winter of 1845–46 at Beechey Island and there burying three men, Franklin sailed southward into Peel Strait. In September 1846, his ships got trapped in pack ice off Cape Felix at the northwest corner of King William Island.

On June 11, 1847, Franklin himself died. Over the next several months, many others died. Total loss: nine officers and fifteen crew. Drawing on the Victory Point Record, McClintock articulated the so-called standard reconstruction. The starving crews, he wrote, abandoned the Erebus and the Terror in April 1848. “The survivors, under Crozier and Fitzjames, numbered in all 105; they proceeded with boats on sledges to the Great Fish River. One of their boats was found by us, untouched by the Esquimaux, and many relics brought from her, as also obtained from the natives of Boothia and the east shore of King William Island.”

Louie Kamookak in 1999, examining what remains of the Rae cairn. (Photo: Ken McGoogan)
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Today, thanks to the discoveries of both Erebus and Terror, most experts believe that while some men trekked south in 1848 along the coast of King William Island, others returned to one or both ships. Thanks to overland searches and Inuit testimony, we know that in Terror Bay, some men erected a large hospital tent to accommodate—and perhaps to segregate— the deathly ill. Journalist Henry Gilder, travelling in 1879 with Schwatka, wrote that according to a woman named Ahlangyah, “There  were dead bodies in the tent, and outside some lay covered over with sand.” Nearby she saw two graves, and also a scattering of “knives, forks, spoons, watches, many books, clothing, and blankets.”

In 1923, ethnologist-explorer Knud Rasmussen collected stories and found bones and skulls at Starvation Point on the Canadian mainland: “There, exactly where the Eskimos had indicated,” he wrote, “we found a number of human bones that were undoubtedly the mortal remains of members of the Franklin expedition.” Subsequent discoveries, such as those of remains found fifteen miles west of Starvation Cove in 1926 and 1936, suggested that instead of marching south in a single body, those later survivors travelled in smaller groups.

In 1931, William Gibson found the remains of four skeletons on one of the Todd Islets just west of Gjoa Haven. Also, on an islet in nearby Douglas Bay, he found the remains of seven men and buried them beneath a large stone cairn. Four decades later, a Northwest Territories government employee organized a multi-member search expedition. In 1972, Bob Pilot and a few others created the Franklin Probe, which undertook several ambitious sorties. Pilot was obsessed with finding not Franklin’s ships but rather his grave, which he believed was located on King William Island. Like Louie Kamookak and Tom Gross, he regarded this quest as “the true Franklin search.”

In the early 1980s, a forensic anthropologist, Owen Beattie, discovered and analyzed some skeletal remains from King William Island.They showed evidence of scurvy and such high levels of lead as to suggest lead poisoning. In 1984 and 1986, Beattie excavated three early-expedition graves at Beechey Island, where bodies had been buried in permafrost. His most significant discovery, as described in Frozen in Time, which he co-authored with John Geiger, was that the three men had indeed suffered from high lead levels, although this had not killed them.

Beechey Island. The facsimile headboards mark the graves of the first three men to die during John Franklin's 1845 expedition. The fourth marks the resting place of a sailor who perished during the search. (Photo: Sheena Fraser McGoogan)
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Beattie theorized that lead poisoning, contracted from the solder used to seal cans of preserved food, affected the entire expedition. Its symptoms include anorexia, weakness, fatigue, anemia, paranoia, and irritability, which matched certain Inuit tales of disoriented sailors. But some researchers were skeptical that lead poisoning played a major role in what happened. Others argued that if it did, the lead probably came from the ships’ water pipes.

In April 2014, three British scientists—Keith Millar, Adrian Bowman, and William Battersby—published a statistical analysis in Significance magazine, repudiating the idea that most of Franklin’s men died of lead poisoning as too simplistic. They argued that a combination of factors killed the sailors. Further scientific analyses of bone samples support this view. And in his introduction to May We Be Spared to Meet on Earth, American scholar Russell Potter exonerates the tinned foods, stating plainly that neither lead poisoning nor botulism caused the expedition’s breakdown.

The Erebus turned up far to the south of where, supposedly, everyone abandoned it. And that brings us again to David Woodman, who in 1991 challenged the standard reconstruction with Unravelling the Franklin Mystery. Woodman created an alternative scenario, which now stands corroborated in many particulars, by sifting through Inuit accounts as gathered by explorers. After analyzing the Inuit testimony, Woodman argued that the Victory Point Record indicated only what the surviving sailors intended to do, not what they did.

Thanks to the finding of Erebus and Terror, we can see that Woodman was essentially correct. He suggested that in 1848, with Franklin dead, Captain Francis Crozier set out with the bulk of the remaining men for the mouth of Back’s Great Fish River, nine hundred miles away. Most of these men returned to the ice-locked ships. Some of them were aboard the Erebus as it sailed or was carried south by ice to Wilmot and Crampton Bay, an area known to the Inuit as Oot-joo-lik. Woodman suggested that a large group of sailors abandoned that vessel in 1851, before it reached its final resting place. Some Inuit hunters met this party of men, weak and starving, slogging south along the west coast of King William Island.

These were the men In-nook-poo-zhe-jook described to John Rae. A few sailors—probably four, according to Puhtoorak—remained aboard the ice-locked ship until early 1852. All this leaves us still with the question of root cause. Why did this expedition end in catastrophe? The Victory Point Record tells us that by 1848, nine officers and fifteen seamen had died. That represents 37 per cent of officers and 14 per cent of crew members. Historians have scratched their heads: Why such disproportionate numbers? Researchers have spent vast amounts of time and energy inquiring into the deaths of the first three sailors, whose graves remain on Beechey Island. But what if those three passings were anomalies, exceptions that tell us nothing about subsequent illness and loss of life? Perhaps the other twenty-one men—nine officers, twelve sailors—died by some other cause.

The questions keep coming. And the search continues. During the 2022 field season, Parks Canada divers retrieved 275 artifacts from the wreck of the Erebus. Along with table settings, a lieutenant’s epaulettes, and other personal effects, they brought up what archaeologist-diver Ryan Harris described as “probably the most remarkable find of the summer.” In the pantry, a colleague “came across a folio—a leather book cover, beautifully embossed—with pages inside.” It had a feather quill pen tucked inside the cover. The pages may contain an inventory of stores or food supplies, which could reveal more than one might think. How many casks of salted bear meat, for example, remained on board at such and so a date? 

As we went to press with Searching for Franklin, Park Canada conservators were working on the folio. If they can decipher even mundane scribblings, that will constitute a breakthrough. It will prove that, when divers retrieve logbooks or journals from within either of the wrecks, conservators will be able to provide transcripts—and those on-site reports should answer most remaining questions. Don’t be surprised if they corroborate a new theory, advanced later in this book, about why the expedition broke down.


Encouraged by the late Louie Kamookak, the renowned Inuit historian, and drawing on his own career-long engagement with the Arctic, Ken McGoogan has written an exuberant work that takes a creative-nonfiction approach to Arctic exploration history. Searching for Franklin rejects old orthodoxies, incorporates recent discoveries, and interweaves two main narratives. The first treats the Royal Navy’s Arctic Overland Expedition of 1819, a harbinger-misadventure during which Franklin rejected the advice of Dene and Metis leaders and lost 11 of his 20 men to exhaustion, starvation, and murder. The second discovers a startling new answer to that greatest of Arctic mysteries: why did Franklin’s 1845 expedition devolve into catastrophe? Building on the work of those who have repudiated theories involving lead poisoning and botulism, McGoogan points to trichinosis as the root cause of the disaster – trichinosis brought on by the eating of infected polar-bear meat.

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