The search for John Franklin and the discovery of the Northwest Passage

The many searches for the missing explorer John Franklin led to the discovery of all the Arctic waterways. The knowledge gained from these voyages helped Amundsen to finally cross the Northwest Passage in 1903-06.

After Franklin's disappearance from view in July 1845 many months passed before any concern was expressed for the safety of him and his crews as he was well provisioned and there was no serious expectation that the cruise could be completed in one season. In 1847 whaler William Penny attempted to make contact with the missing expedition and in the autumn of that year the Navy began to show concern and to make plans for relief expeditions.

Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea

Captain Franklin seated holding a compass. He wears and cravat and a jacket with epaulettes. He looks directly at the viewer and is middle aged, balding and has dark hair at the sides and on the crown.

Portrait of John Franklin aged 38.

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In the course of a decade almost 40 expeditions were sent out to search for Franklin. Among those who led these British expeditions were John Ross, his nephew James Clark Ross, Horatio Austin, Henry Kellett, John Richardson, Edward Inglefield, and Edward Belcher. It was eventually learnt that on the brink of success his ships had been icebound off King William Island. After what must have been a dreadful winter, Franklin had died on 11 June 1847, and his surviving crew perished in a terrible ordeal while attempting to reach the Back River to the south of the icebound ships.

Ten Coloured Views taken during the Arctic Expedition

Two dozen men camping in the ice at the base of a very steep rock cliff.

James Clarke Ross followed the route that Franklin had been ordered to take. Ross became beset in the ice at Somerset Island close to Cape Seppings, illustrated here.

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Royal Arctic Theatre playbill

Playbill for a play called Charles the Twelfth

The Royal Arctic Theatre was established during the winter of the 1850-51 Franklin search expedition. Horatio Austin led the expedition.

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The discoverer of Franklin's fate was John Rae (1853-54) who was given a reward of £10,000 despite the opposition of Franklin's widow (and Charles Dickens). The Inuit had supplied information about the lost expedition to Rae and their reports were confirmed by Leopold McClintock (1857-59) who brought back to England the only written documentation relating to Franklin's voyage.

A series of fourteen sketches, made during the voyage up Wellington Channel

Illustration showing relics of John Franklin, including a silver spoon, a knife, chronometer, gold band from a cap, a tin case and an Order of the Bath medal.

An illustration of relics of Franklin found by John Rae.

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The voyage of the "Fox" in the Arctic Seas

A sailing ship keeling at a sharp angle, watched by men standing on ice.

In 1857-59 McClintock went on a search for relics of Franklin's expedition. The illustration shows McClintock's ship near to wreckage, after being beset in ice close to Greenland.

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The Franklin searches resulted in a great expansion of the knowledge of the Canadian Arctic, including the discovery by Robert McClure in the Investigator (1850-54) of Prince of Wales Strait, a last link in the fabled passage. McClure was also the first to cross from west to east, partly by sledge over sea ice from Banks Island to near Devon Island.

There were also a number of American expeditions that went in search of Franklin: Elisha Kent Kane (1853-55), Charles Francis Hall (1860-62 and 1864-69) and Frederick Schwatka (1878-80). All of these explorers added to knowledge of the Arctic, although Kane's voyage took him closer to the North Pole than the Northwest Passage. Hall found the graves of some of Franklin's men and learnt more about the fate of the missing expedition from the Inuit. Schwatka's overland trek accompanied by 12 Inuit found further clues but no written records. Their sledge journey to King William Island of nearly 3,000 miles in 50 weeks was a remarkable feat of endurance.

Schwatka's Search, sledging in the Arctic in quest of the Franklin Records

Several men with huskies marching in the snow pulling equipment behind them. Image shows their cold breath in the air.

This illustration is from the account of Schwatka's expedition by his second-in-command.

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By the end of the Franklin search all the Arctic waterways were known, revealing several possible Northwest Passages but no-one had gained the distinction of being the first to navigate from sea to sea.

Roald Amundsen's The North-West Passage

Map showing North Pole and the route of the Gjoa through the North West Passage.

A map showing Amundsen's route to the Pacific.

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In 1875 a private British venture by Allen Young in the Pandora set out to reach the magnetic pole by way of Baffin Bay and Lancaster Sound, and then to navigate the Northwest Passage in one season. But like so many before him Young was beset by ice and had to return homeward. The Passage would not be successfully navigated until the 20th century when, in 1903-06, Roald Amundsen, (who would later beat Scott to the South Pole), made the full transit by sea in the Gjöa. It was left to a Norwegian to accomplish the crossing of the Northwest Passage, but as he himself pointed out, the fact that it was possible had been due to the earlier explorations by British seamen.