In 1845 Sir John Franklin set sail in the largest and best equipped expedition ever sent to the Arctic, determined to map the remaining gap among the islands and waterways of the Northwest Passage. We later learn from the only note he ever left, that he entered Lancaster Sound and proceeded west without trouble until he ran into ice. After spending the first winter on tiny Beechey Island (where three graves were later found) he turned south down Peel Sound between Somerset and Prince of Wales Islands and emerged into the southeast corner of McLintock Channel. So far so good. Beechey Island is now a National Historic Site and a popular stop for today's cruise ships.
The ships he took, the Erebus and Terror, were well suited to the trip. They were 'bomb ships', built extra strong to withstand the shock of firing cannons, and then strengthened further to withstand the ice. They had steam engines added for this trip. They had already been to the Antarctic on an earlier trip. These two ships become a big part of the Franklin story, which we will pick up on later.
We do not know exactly where Franklin got frozen in the ice, but he did, and spent two years there. Whether he sailed south and got trapped or got trapped and the ships moved south with the ice pack is unknown. Even though these sailing ships had auxillary steam engines, they were no match for the power of the ice. In any case, as we now know the ships remained frozen throughout the summer of 1847, bringing the risk of starvation ever closer. Sir John himself died in June of 1847.
As a point of interest we have lots of paintings and drawings of the Erebus and Terror, some totally fictitious, and some accurate because the artists painted the ships while seeing them in London. None of the artists were actually on the trip though.
By early spring of 1848 the 105 men remaining abandoned ship and moved to the shore of King William Island, hoping to trek south to the mainland. All of them starved to death, never asking the native Inuit for help.
The missing expedition set off the biggest burst of arctic exploration ever and Lady Jane Franklin became the biggest influence, cultivating a huge public following as she pushed England to find her husband or his fate. In the following two decades at least 30 expeditions set sail in search of the missing Franklin.
In 1848 the Admiralty sent out three searches, all of which proved unsuccessful. Richardson and Rae (more about Rae later) approached overland from the south but ended up far west of Franklin's location. John Ross sailed from the east but got frozen in ice far to the north. Henry Kellet sailed around South America, up past Alaska and approached from the west. None found any evidence of Franklin or got close to where we later learned the ships were lost.
Lady Jane Franklin
At this point Lady Jane Franklin upped her crusade to have her husband found, or his fate determined, even funding expeditions out of her own modest fortune. The result was all the Arctic expeditions of the following years. In 1850 alone 20 vessels set out to find Franklin, though none of them were successful. Numerous voyages occurred in succeeding years.
Notable was Robert McClure's expedition which entered the Arctic from the west. Although McClure and his crew spent four years locked in the ice in Misery Bay on the north shore of Banks Island, (he was heavily criticized for his management of the trip) he did discover the Prince of Wales Strait far to the northwest of Franklin, which became a key alternate route through the Arctic. At the time he was given credit for discovering the Northwest Passage, even though a key part of this route, below Melville Island, was ice-clogged and impassible.
McClure and crew were rescued by Henry Kellet, mentioned above, and he was knighted and rewarded for his discovery. But he had to abandon his ship the HMS Investigator, only found in 2010 during the recent Parks Canada search for Franklin's ships. The Prince of Wales Strait is a popular alternate route today as the Arctic climate warms and there's less summer ice cover.
In the meantime, a neighbour referred us to a series of videos on the Arctic under the title 'Canada Over the Edge'. We found them on the Smithsonian Channel on YouTube, and have really enjoyed them. I recommend the ones on the High Arctic and the Central Arctic. You'll have to search for them on YouTube.