Sir John Franklin was one of England's great 19th century adventurers. Born in Lincolnshire in 1786, by 1843 he had surveyed the coast of Australia, fought at the battle of Copenhagen, the battle of Trafalgar and the battle of New Orleans, escorted the Portugese royal family to South America, mapped huge expanses of northern Canada, discovered the sticky tars of Prudhoe Bay, and served as governor of the penal colony of Van Diemen's Land (later known as Tasmania). He was recalled from the governor's post for excessive kindness to both the convicts and the aborigines, but was still highly regarded by both the English public and the Crown.

His last and most famous exploit, though, was an ill-fated expedition to find the elusive Northwest Passage.

It was homeward bound one night on the deep
Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep
I dreamed a dream and I thought it true
Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew

With a hundred seamen he sailed away
To the frozen ocean in the month of May
To seek the passage around the pole
Where we poor seamen do sometimes go

In May of 1845, Franklin's two ships, the Erebus and Terror, set sail from England. They were fitted with iron-bound hulls and steam engines, and provisioned with the latest technology in preserved food - three years worth of canned meat, sealed with lead. It was the beginning of one of the most famous tragedies of its time, and its mysteries still nag us to this day.

Through cruel hardships they mainly strove
Their ships on mountains of ice was drove
Only the Eskimo in his skin canoe
Was the only one who ever came through

In Baffin's Bay where the whale fishes blow
The fate of Franklin no man may know
The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell
Lord Franklin along with his sailors do dwell

In August of 1845, a whaling ship saw the ships entering Baffin Bay. When, in 1847, Franklin's party had still not been heard from, the search missions began. Dozens of them were mounted, but no trace of the crew was found until 1854, when Dr. John Rae of the Hudson's Bay Company met an Inuk hunter named In-nook-poo-zhe-jook, who told him of meeting up with forty or so white men dragging boats and sleds, looking for food.

Sir John's wife, Lady Jane Franklin, had already spent her fortune financing searches for her husband, but on the strength of this news, she was able to raise funding for one more.

And now my burden it gives me pain
For my long lost Franklin I'd cross the main
Ten thousand pounds would I freely give
To say on earth that my Franklin did live

In 1859, Captain James McClintock, with the help of Inuit locals, found a cairn with some items from the expedition, and some notes recording the deaths of Franklin and 24 of his crew in 1847. The remaining 105 had set out to the south from there.

Various searches for the survivors of Franklin's party continued to be mounted for years, and the contemporary Arctic explorers reported a number of stories recounted by locals that seemed to place members of the crew at various places at various times, but none of them ever made it back to civilization.

The mystery of their fate has held fascination for some ever since, and bits and pieces of the story are still cropping up. As recently as 2001, an expedition attempted to locate the Erebus and Terror. Their graves, however, are still unmarked.


The Lord Franklin lyric in italics above is "traditional", and I believe it to be in the Public Domain.
I transcribed it from Pentangle's Cruel Sister - a 1970 release on Reprise Records. It is an exquisite album, and it is still in print.

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