From the archives: No clue had been obtained

From the archives: No clue had been obtained
From the archives: No clue had been obtained

Sir John Franklin and Lady Jane Franklin. Composite image / New York Public Library Digital Collections

This story was first published on Sept. 12, 2014, in the Montreal Gazette.


In the summer of 1827, Sir John Franklin was in Montreal. The circumstances were vastly more benign than what he faced two decades later, in June 1847, as he lay dying in the Canadian Arctic.

The fate of Franklin’s last expedition, which was searching for a new sea route linking Europe and Asia, promises to become clearer following the announcement this week that the remains of one of his ships have been discovered [note: this is a 2014 story].

When he passed through Montreal, Franklin was returning from an overland expedition that had charted much of the coastline east and west of the Mackenzie River delta. Soon to be knighted, he was already a respected veteran of Arctic exploration. In 1818, he had commanded a ship that had tried, unsuccessfully, to sail to Asia over the North Pole, and a year later he had led another overland party mapping the shore of Coronation Gulf, east from the Coppermine River.

During his visit to Montreal in August 1827, Franklin was received by Lord Dalhousie, the governor-in-chief, probably at the Château Ramezay, his Montreal residence. The 41-year-old explorer, Dalhousie wrote, was “a square, strong man of 5’6, dark complexion hair, his head very round, bald, with thick curled short hair.”

Franklin could sometimes seem uncomfortable in his own skin and, sure enough, Dalhousie found him “shy and unobtrusive.” But, the governor continued, he was “full of general science” and spoke “with slow, clear perception, with a dignified impressive good sense, sound judgment presence of mind.”

While in Montreal, Franklin was introduced to another navy officer, Basil Hall, whom he took on a pleasant day’s excursion along the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers. Their canoe was paddled by 14 Canadian voyageurs and, as they passed the church at Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Franklin told his guest that the church owed its support entirely to donations from voyageurs leaving to face the hazards of the northwest.

“Captain Franklin,” Hall later wrote, “pointed out to us one of the Canadians of his own party, who had accompanied him during the whole of his adventurous journey, and who was so deeply impressed with the importance of this sacred duty that, when on the most northern coast of America, not less than 2,000 miles from the spot, he requested an advance of wages, that an additional offering might be transmitted, by the hands of a friend, to the shrine.”

Franklin’s 1827 visit was his only one to Montreal. Indeed, he would not return to Canada until 1845.

That May he left England with 134 men aboard two well equipped ships, the Erebus and the Terror (one of which has now been found). Their hope was to discover the elusive Northwest Passage by sailing north of Baffin Island, then south toward the Canadian mainland before bearing west toward Alaska and the Pacific.

But as is now known, the ships became icebound off King William Island in September 1846. Over the next two years, disease, starvation and exposure gradually killed everyone, including Franklin himself on June 11, 1847.

Their failure to return sparked an immense search effort to discover what had happened, though hopes that anyone might have survived – say, living among the Inuit – quickly faded.

In August 1849, for example, Sir George Simpson returned from his annual tour of distant company outposts. The Montreal-based Simpson, North American governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, had contacts second to none in the Northwest, so any news of Franklin would surely have reached him. Alas, The Gazette reported, “no clue had been obtained.”

Our story added that “although it would be almost criminal to abandon hope … it is impossible to conceal from oneself the unwelcome truth that the chances of a successful issue become fearfully diminished by the lapse of time.”

The various searches, as many as a dozen serious ones, were relentlessly urged on by Franklin’s wife, but by 1860 even she was exhausted. But she remained widely admired, her devotion soon to parallel the very public grief of Queen Victoria following the death of her consort, Prince Albert.

In the summer of 1860, a round-the-world tour brought Lady Franklin to Montreal where she was feted with an enthusiasm scarcely less intense than what Victoria’s son the Prince of Wales had received a few weeks before. She was described here as “a noble example of an earnest, faithful, Christian woman.”

A Franklin connection to Montreal, though a highly indirect one, exists to this day. The Church of Saint John the Evangelist on Ontario Street, today’s President Kennedy Avenue, has been a centre for Anglo-Catholic worship, stressing the Anglican Church’s Catholic heritage, since 1878. It was preceded in that mission by a nearby chapel of the same name whose cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1860. Among the notables contributing to the chapel’s construction was Lady Franklin.

Read more about Montreal’s history here.

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