Sir John Franklin

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Sir John Franklin

The English explorer Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) is perhaps the most important figure in the search for the Northwest Passage.

In the 40-year period after the Napoleonic Wars, the British Admiralty took up the challenge of finding the elusive Northwest Passage, along the northern coast of North America between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Royal Navy could afford to undertake the search at this time because of British predominance in naval power. Moreover, Arctic expeditions were seen as a good training ground for officers and men. The voyages themselves, the Admiralty believed, would yield important scientific information and strengthen the British imperial position in northern North America. Sir John Franklin was of major importance in these undertakings.

John Franklin was born on April 16, 1786, at Spilsby in Lincolnshire. His parents had intended that he enter the Church, but a holiday at the seashore aroused in him an inextinguishable desire to go to sea. His career in the Royal Navy began when he joined H.M.S. Polyphemus, which was about to play a significant part in the Battle of Copenhagen. Subsequent employment included a voyage in the Investigator, commanded by his cousin Capt. Matthew Flinders, to explore and map parts of the Australian coast, and service in H.M.S. Bellerophon and Bedford at the battles of Trafalgar and New Orleans, respectively. Franklin was promoted from midshipman to lieutenant on Feb. 11, 1808, and by the end of the Napoleonic Wars he had experienced much time at sea.

Early Exploration

Franklin's Arctic travels began in January 1818 with his appointment in command of the brig Trent. It was to accompany the Dorothea, commanded by Capt. David Buchan, on a voyage to the North Pole and Bering Strait, passing en route between Greenland and Spitsbergen. This expedition was unsuccessful.

In early 1819 Franklin was instructed to lead an expedition "to determine the latitudes and longitudes of the northern coast of North America, and the trendings of that coast from the mouth of the Coppermine River to the eastern extremity of the continent." The findings of this hazardous 5,550-mile expedition were published in 1823 in Franklin's Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea in the Years 1819-20, a classic in the annals of exploration. By the time of his return to England in October 1822, he had been promoted to commander, and on Nov. 20, 1822, he was advanced to captain. His excellent service also brought him fellowship in the Royal Society.

Franklin's second journey to the Polar Sea was made via the Mackenzie River and Great Bear Lake in the years from 1825 to 1827. The object, Kotzebue Sound near Be-ring Strait, proved unattainable because of the lateness of the season; yet much of the northern coast of the continent was discovered by this expedition. Franklin was knighted in 1829 and thereafter achieved academic distinction.

In 1830-1833 Franklin commanded the frigate Rainbow in the Mediterranean Sea. In January 1837 he arrived at Hobart, Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), to assume the position of lieutenant governor, which he held until 1843. His humanitarian sentiments toward the condition of the convicts restrained there resulted in judicious measures of social improvement.

Northwest Passage

At the time of his return to England in June 1844 Arctic exploration was of special interest, for the Erebus and Terror had just returned from a remarkable expedition to the Antarctic. The British Admiralty decided to use the Erebus and Terror to determine whether the Northwest Passage could be navigated by ship. Franklin, as senior naval officer with Arctic experience, obtained the command in spite of some protests that others were younger and perhaps more capable, and on March 3, 1845, Franklin, now 59, commissioned the Erebus. Both the Erebus and the Terror had been fitted with auxiliary screws (a new development in Arctic exploration) and supposedly provisioned for a 3-year voyage. The two ships sailed from England in May amid optimism that the mission's object would be met. They were last seen July 26, 1845, in Lancaster Sound.

It took many years to reconstruct the fate of Sir John Franklin. Some 50 expeditions were sent over 20 years to find him or his remains. They revealed that from Lancaster Sound the Erebus and Terror had passed through to the maze of islands known today as the District of Franklin. In May 1847 Franklin's party discovered the remaining gap in the Northwest Passage—between Victoria and Simpson straits. On June 11 Franklin died. There followed a third winter in the ice, at the end of which Capt. F. R. M. Crozier, now in command, and his men (105 in all) set out for the nearest Hudson's Bay Company post, Ft. Resolution. All perished miserably in this attempt.

Franklin's second wife (formerly, Jane Griffin) was responsible for sending a number of relief and search expeditions. That of the Fox in 1857, under Capt. Francis L. McClintock, discovered the main traces of the expedition, including important documents that tell the tragic tale.

Further Reading

Two biographies of Franklin are H. D. Traill, Life of Sir John Franklin (1896), and Geoffrey F. Lamb, Franklin, Happy Voyageur: Being the Life and Death of Sir John Franklin (1956). Details of the last expedition are in Capt. Francis L. McClintock, The Voyage of the "Fox" in the Arctic Seas (1859), and Richard J. Cyriax, Sir John Franklin's Last Arctic Expedition: A Chapter in the History of the Royal Navy (1939). A work on Lady Franklin, showing her importance in the search missions, is Francis J. Woodward, Portrait of Jane (1951). Recommended for general historical background is Laurence P. Kirwan, A History of Polar Exploration (1959). □

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Sir John Franklin, 1786–1847, British explorer in N Canada whose disappearance caused a widespread search of the Arctic. Entering the navy in 1801, he fought in the battle of Trafalgar. On his first overland expedition (1819–22) in N Canada, his party crossed the barren grounds from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic coast at the mouth of the Coppermine River and explored eastward along the coast for c.175 mi (280 km). In his Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea (1823, repr. 1969), Franklin describes this journey. On his next expedition (1825–27), the party descended the Mackenzie River and surveyed another long stretch of the Arctic shoreline, westward to Return Reef (c.160 mi/260 km from Point Barrow, Alaska) and eastward to the mouth of the Coppermine. By way of the Coppermine he went to Great Bear Lake, where he built Fort Franklin (now Déline). Franklin's Narrative of a Second Expedition to the Shores of the Polar Sea (1828, repr. 1968) is an account of these feats. On both of these expeditions he was accompanied by Sir George Back.

After serving (1836–43) as governor of Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania), Franklin set out in the Erebus and the Terror in 1845 to search for the Northwest Passage. When, three years later, no word from him had been received, there was dispatched the first of the more than 40 parties that in the following years were to search the Arctic for traces of the expedition. Although the geographical knowledge gained by the searchers was immense, no certain clues as to Franklin's fate were revealed until John Rae, in 1853–54, and Sir Francis McClintock, between 1857 and 1859, found evidence of the great arctic tragedy. The latter expedition, fitted by Lady Franklin, found records at Point Victory that established that Franklin's ships had been frozen in the ice between Victoria Island and King William Island. After his death in 1847, the survivors had abandoned ship in 1848 and had undertaken a journey southward over the frozen wastes of Boothia Peninsula toward civilization. Of the entire expedition of some 129 men, not one is known to have survived. Relics and documents of the Franklin party and of later search expeditions have been found as recently as 2014, when the remains of the Erebus were found on the seafloor near King William Island.

See biographies of Franklin by A. H. Markham (1891) and H. D. Traill (1896); the life, diaries, and correspondence of his wife, Lady Franklin (ed. by W. F. Rawnsley, 1923); R. Collinson, Journal of HMS Enterprise on the Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin's Ships (1869, repr. 1976); P. Nantor, Arctic Breakthrough (1970); L. Neatby, The Search for Franklin (1970); A. Brandt, The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage (2010).

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Franklin, Sir John (1786–1847). After a distinguished naval career in the wars against Napoleon, Franklin became the most famous British Arctic explorer of his day. Then, like Livingstone, at the end of his life, he became even more of a national figure by disappearing into the unknown. Although a naval officer trained in 1818 in using large ships to force a way through the ice of the Canadian north to find the North-West Passage and arguably a victim of that policy, Franklin made his greatest discoveries on two overland journeys of 1818–22 and 1825–7 when he explored vast areas of northern mainland Canada and traced the northern coast. After a spell as governor of Tasmania from 1834 to 1843, he was chosen to take the Antarctic ships Erebus and Terror, which Ross had used, to the Arctic to force the North-West Passage. It was later learned that, having got through sea passages to the west side of King William Island, the ships had frozen in. Franklin died, but his men survived to perish later of scurvy, starvation, and lead poisoning from their tinned foods. No fewer than 40 official and unofficial expeditions searched for Franklin (and in the process, ironically, showed there was a North-West Passage) but not until 1859 was the nature of the disaster fully established.

Roy C. Bridges

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Franklin, Sir John (1786–1847) English Arctic explorer. Franklin served as a naval officer in the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). His first overland exploration of n Canada (1819–22) crossed from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic coast. Franklin's second expedition (1825–27) descended the Mackenzie River. He served as governor of Tasmania (1836–43). In 1845, he embarked on a fated search for the Northwest Passage. The first of 40 search parties was launched in 1848. These expeditions greatly advanced knowledge of the Arctic and eventually established (1859) that Franklin died with his entire 129-man crew after they became caught in the ice in Victoria Strait.