Times & Places

John Franklin and the Franklin Expedition of 1845

In 1845, fifty-nine year-old, Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) convinced the Admiralty (the authority in command of the British Royal Navy) to allow him a third attempt to find the Northwest Passage. He enlisted two refitted ships, the Erebus and the Terror, and stowed supplies to last three years. He felt confident, and physically more vigorous than he had in years. But Franklin died on June 11, 1847, and all remaining 128 men of his party perished by the spring of 1848, most of them during a futile escape effort from ice-locked Victoria Strait in the Canadian Archipelago. The disappearance of the Franklin Expedition sparked popular interest in the region and underlined the arctic as an irresistibly beautiful, yet deadly frontier.

When the British Royal Navy reluctantly announced that Franklin and his two ships were still missing in 1847, the news spurred numerous search efforts. Largely through the entreaties of Franklin's widow, Lady Jane Franklin (1792-1875), the United States added its exertions to the search. Over the next few decades, some fifty ships sailed into Hudson Bay in an effort first to find Franklin, then to discover the remains of his expedition, and finally to reach the North Pole or attempt to navigate a Northwest Passage. The search for Franklin had all the earmarks of a valiant rescue and a romantic quest for personal and national acclaim in a region presenting a frontier of unknown proportions and chilling prospects, literally and psychologically. [1]

Nothing was known of the disaster for years, but many attempts to unravel the mystery of Franklin's disappearance were made beginning in 1848. For the next two decades, arctic activity was at fever pitch. Not until 1854 were the first relics of Franklin's command discovered by Dr. John Rae (1813-1893). But Rae's conclusion that the last of Franklin's men had resorted to cannibalism triggered a storm of indignant British counter-reaction, and as a result Rae's findings were clouded by disbelief. Finally in 1859 an expedition led by Captain Leopold McClintock (1819-1907) encountered additional evidence which seemed to disprove Rae's hypothesis. Even then, however, elements of the mystery lingered, and the Passage was yet to be certainly found. Arctic investigations continued from America and then from northern Europe. Lady Franklin, in the meantime, had championed efforts to find her husband and then to recover all available remnants of his last struggle; she personally had funded McClintock's expedition of 1859. In the United States, she was admired as a crusading heroine, and as the best-known "private woman of our day.'' [2]

American involvement in the Franklin search was led by Henry Grinnell (1799-1874) and immortalized by Elisha Kent Kane (1820-1857), who accompanied two Grinnell-sponsored expeditions. Kane died in 1857 at age thirty-seven, worn out by a frantically active life, but not before he had written two lengthy books about his explorations. The second, a 931-page, two-volume tome published in 1856, and augmented by numerous woodcuts and engravings by James Hamilton (1819-1878) after Kane's drawings, injected a lively combination of drama and fantasy into arctic visualizations, a combination which proved immediately popular in the United States. Romanticized descriptions of “Arctic Scenery,” as well as love-story poetry involving iceberg adversity, quickly appeared in periodicals. [3]

[1] Eleanor Jones Harvey, "The Artistic Conquest of the Far North," in Cosmos: From Romanticism to Avant-Garde, ed. Jean Clair et al. (Montreal: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; New York: Prestel Verlag, 1999), 108-113.

[2] Tribune (New York), 13 August 1860.

[3] Cosmopolitan Art Journal , September 1857, 147, 151-154. The poem, “The Lover at Sea” (p. 147), was reprinted from the United States Magazine (New York), July 1857.

Adapted from

  • Gerald Carr, Frederic Edwin Church: The Icebergs (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 1980), 38.

  • Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Voyage of the 'Icebergs': Frederic Edwin Church's Arctic Masterpiece (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2002).

Related Multimedia

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Nautical Archaeology event; First in Boshell Family Lecture series season; Speakers include: Dr. George F. Bass, founder of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University; Dr. James P. Delgado, co-host of the television series The Sea Hunters and Director of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology; Dr. Deborah Carlson, classical archaeologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas; Dr. Frederick Hocker, Senior Researcher and Research Coordinator for the National Museum of Denmark's Center for Maritime Archaeology; Dr. Roger Smith, Archaeology Supervisor of the Underwater Archaeology Program, State of Florida; Dr. Corey Malcom, Director of Archaeology at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society and Museum; Dr. John Broadwater, Program Manager at NOAA's Maritime Heritage Program
Nautical Archaeology event; First in Boshell Family Lecture series season; Speakers include: Dr. George F. Bass, founder of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University; Dr. James P. Delgado, co-host of the television series The Sea Hunters and Director of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology; Dr. Deborah Carlson, classical archaeologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas; Dr. Frederick Hocker, Senior Researcher and Research Coordinator for the National Museum of Denmark's Center for Maritime Archaeology; Dr. Roger Smith, Archaeology Supervisor of the Underwater Archaeology Program, State of Florida; Dr. Corey Malcom, Director of Archaeology at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society and Museum; Dr. John Broadwater, Program Manager at NOAA's Maritime Heritage Program

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