In Search of Sir John Franklin’s Lost Expedition

On the night of August 12, 1850, six sailing vessels dropped anchor at the edge of Melville Bay on the northwest coast of Greenland. They represented five different British naval expeditions, all of which were hoping to find two ships that had left England 5 years before on an ill-fated attempt to discover the Northwest Passage.

Under the leadership of Sir John Franklin, an experienced Arctic explorer, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were considered the best equipped Arctic exploration ships of their day.  Their puzzling disappearance after their final sighting by two English whaling ships in Baffin Bay in July 1845, would ultimately stimulate the deployment of forty subsequent expeditions, including several from the United States, all hoping to find and rescue (or explain the disappearance of) the ships and their crews.

The artist who recorded the rescue ships’ gathering that moon-lit August night was a widely traveled adventurer named William Parker Snow (1817-1895). In January 1850, while working as a reporter in New York City, Snow had had a vivid dream in which he “saw” the missing Franklin expedition locked in the icy waters of the high Arctic. He wrote to Lady Jane Franklin to report his vision and successfully convinced her to pay to have a 90-ton ketch specially outfitted for Arctic waters to enable him to search for her husband.

Using the same naïve, self-taught painting style he had employed in his Melville Bay scene, Snow created a second watercolor in which he showed the Prince Albert, on which he served as purser, doctor and chief officer, weaving its way between massive icebergs in the Arctic. Both paintings were subsequently used to illustrate the book Snow published about his unsuccessful search for the missing expedition, Voyage of the Prince Albert in Search of Sir John Franklin (1851).

Taking part in a parallel search that summer was a Philadelphia doctor and Academy member named Elisha Kent Kane (1820-1857). As the lead physician on an expedition funded by the New York merchant Henry Grinnell and carried out by the U.S. Navy using the American brigs Advance and Rescue, Kane traveled to many of the same places as Snow, but achieved a much higher profile, particularly in the United States.

It was the Grinnell expedition that made the first discovery of one of Franklin’s winter camps on Beechy Island, and it was Kane who brought the whole subject to America’s attention with his best-selling account of the trip, The United States Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin: A Personal Narrative; (Philadelphia: Childs & Peterson, 1856). Kane’s Arctic experience and the lectures he gave after his return captured the imagination of the public and made Kane a celebrity as well known to his contemporaries at Charles Lindbergh or Neil Armstrong would be to later generations.

Kane was asked to lead a second Grinnell Expedition in 1853, replacing Lieutenant Edwin Jesse De Haven, who had been in charge of the first expedition. That proved to be a very challenging one, especially when one of the ships was frozen in the ice and had to be abandoned.

Elisha Kent Kane

On both of these trips, Kane made extensive collections for the Academy of Natural Sciences, bringing back to Philadelphia specimens of rarely seen plants, mammals, birds, and even a narwhale tusk for the Academy’s museum.

Sadly, Kane’s poor health, exacerbated by the frigid conditions he and his shipmates had endured during their Arctic searches, caused his early death in Cuba in 1857 at the age of 37. The funeral procession that brought his body north by train from Florida drew hundreds of thousands of people along the way.

His was a public funeral that is said to have been second only to that of Abraham Lincoln in size and spectacle. After lying in state in Independence Hall, Kane was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery overlooking what is now Kelly Drive.

The search for the lost Franklin Expedition continued long after William Parker Snow had moved on to other projects and after Elisha Kent Kane had joined the ranks of deceased Arctic explorers and beloved national heroes. While some artifacts from Franklin’s men and a few of their remains were found by subsequent explorers, it wasn’t until 2014, that a Canadian search team led by Parks Canada located the wreck of Erebus in the eastern portion of Queen Maud Gulf.

Two years later, the Arctic Research Foundation found the wreck of Terror south of King William Island. Research and dive expeditions at the wreck sites, now protected as a combined National Historic Site, are currently ongoing.

By Robert McCracken Peck, Academy Senior Fellow and Curator of Art and Artifacts


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