M'Clintock: 1857-1859

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M’Clintock, Francis Leopold, Sir, 1819-1907.
The Voyage of the 'Fox' in the Arctic Seas: A Narrative of the Discovery of the Fate of Sir John Franklin and His Companions. London, 1859. [Rare Books Division]

The Crimean War required the services of many British naval officers previously engaged on Arctic expeditions. At its end, Lady Jane Franklin renewed her efforts to push the British government to continue searching to learn the fate of her husband. When its refusal came in April 1857, she quickly turned to her own devices. The Fox (177 tons), a three-masted schooner with auxiliary steam power, was purchased, and Francis Leopold M'Clintock, who had been promoted to captain after sailing with Sir Edward Belcher, accepted Lady Franklin's offer to command the expedition. M'Clintock's main goals, as prioritized by Lady Franklin, were to recover any survivors, retrieve relics, and to confirm that her husband's expedition had discovered the Northwest Passage. Money was raised by subscription; the British Admiralty generously contributed many of the supplies. Refitted and strengthened, carrying twenty-eight months of provisions, the Fox left Aberdeen, Scotland, at the end of June 1857.

Following the traditional route of whalers to Lancaster Sound, M'Clintock sailed up the western coast of Greenland, hoping to cross through ice-free water at the head of Baffin Bay. However, winter came early, and the ship was beset by ice by August 17. For 250 days, the Fox was trapped, and she drifted with the ice pack down Baffin's Bay and Davis Strait a total of 1385 miles. Finally freed toward the end of April 1858, the Fox retraced its path of the previous year, eventually, after several attempts, due to more difficulties with ice, entering Lancaster Sound and reaching Beechey Island, off North Devon Island, on August 11. Here, M'Clintock set up the memorial, inscribed to “To the memory of Franklin, Crozier, Fitzjames, and all their gallant brother officers and faithful companions,” that Lady Franklin had commissioned in New York. Unobstructed water in Barrow Strait encouraged M'Clintock to proceed west and south, but an unbroken sheet of ice across Peel Sound forced him to attempt an entrance into that "western sea" by way of Prince Regent Inlet and Bellot Strait.

In September 1858, after reaching as far as he could in the steam-powered Fox on the western side of Bellot Strait , M'Clintock planned his spring explorations:

17th.—Of late we have been preparing provisions and equipments for our travelling parties. My scheme of sledge search comprehends three separate routes and parties of four men; to each party a dog sledge and driver will be attached; Hobson, Young, and I will lead them. My journey will be to the Great Fish River, examining the shores of King William's Land in going and returning; Petersen will be with me. Hobson will explore the western coast of Boothia as far as the magnetic pole . . . Young will trace the shore of Prince of Wales' Land . . . In this way I trust we shall complete the Franklin search and the geographical discovery of Arctic America, both left unfinished by the former expeditions; and in so doing we can hardly fail to obtain some trace, some relic, or, it may be, important records of those whose mysterious fate it is the great object of our labours to discover. [M'Clintock, pp. 199-200.]

Esentially, all went according to that plan. February and March depot-laying trips were carried out in 30 below zero (Fahrenheit) conditions. During his trip, near the supposed Magnetic Pole on Boothia Felix, M'Clintock encountered some Inuit who traded him numerous Franklin relics; they told of a ship being crushed by the ice off the west coast of King William Island and of survivors landing on the island. At the start of April, the sledging parties began their explorations in earnest. On the island, beginning with Cape Felix, William Hobson, M'Clintock's second-in-command, began to find traces of the Franklin expedition. In cairns near Point Victory he discovered the only written records: two annotated official forms, noting the activities of Franklin and his men through April 1848.

The information was brief [see an enlarged image of the record with M'Clintock's text]:

dated 28 May 1847
• They had wintered on Beechey Island in 1845-1846, after having explored Wellington Channel to a latitude of 77° N and returned by the west side of Cornwallis Island.
• The had become trapped in the ice on 12 September 1846 somewhere in what is now called Franklin Strait, apparently having sailed down Peel Sound.
• All were well. A small party (two officers and six men) had left the ships on 24 May 1847, presumably to explore possibilities on the ice and the island.
dated 25 April 1848 (in a lengthy inscription added to the second form)
• Franklin had died on 11 June 1847.
• Drifting slowly southward but still beset by the ice, the ships were deserted on 22 April 1848; officers and crews (a total of 105 men) under the command of Captain Francis Crozier landed “here” at latitude 69° 37'42'', longitude 98° 41' (today's Point Victory on King William Island) [2003 photo taken near Point Victory].
• The survivors (nine officers and fifteen men had died) intended to start for Back's Fish River the next day, 26 April. [The Fish River, “discovered” by Sir George Back (1796-1878), was about 250 miles away.]

This second document was signed by both captains, but the handwriting was that of Captain James Fitzjames.

In the meantime, M'Clintock's party had reached the estuary of Back's Great Fish River, then had crossed to the southern shore of King William Island, following its western coast north—along the route that survivors from the Terror and Erebus presumably had taken south. They encountered skeletons and cast-off clothing and supplies. “It was a melancholy truth that the old woman [Inuit woman he had interviewed] spoke when she said, ‘they fell down and died as they walked along’” [M'Clintock, p. 276.]. It seemed pretty clear that all the men had perished. For its part, Young's sledging party had been to Prince of Wales Island and had surveyed almost 400 miles of shore on both sides of Franklin Strait, but had found no other traces of Franklin. The Fox returned to London on 23 September 1859 to national acclaim: the world now knew the fate of Franklin and his men. In addition, M'Clintock's expedition had filled in many cartographic blanks.

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