Lost Franklin Expedition

History Uncovered Episode 3:
The Lost Franklin Expedition And The Ice Mummies Left Behind

Published September 29, 2023

More than a century after two British ships vanished during their quest to find the Northwest Passage, a series of icy corpses discovered on a remote Canadian island revealed the fate of the missing crews.

On May 19, 1845, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror set sail from England. The ships, commanded by Sir John Franklin, were on a mission to discover the elusive Northwest Passage.

But then the ships disappeared, launching a mystery that endured for over a century.

For 140 years, only a handful of grisly clues hinted at the crew’s fate. Search teams found a number of human remains in the Canadian Arctic, including skeletons with cracked bones which suggested the sailors had resorted to cannibalism. In 1859, search teams also found an 11-year-old note which grimly stated that the ships, ensnared in ice, had been abandoned.

The letter, written by a man named Francis Crozier, explained that 24 men had died, including Franklin. Crozier had taken command of the mission and wrote that he and the survivors planned to walk to a fur-trading outpost hundreds of miles away. Neither he nor the others ever made it there.

Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1980s that researchers found the Franklin expedition’s terrifying ice mummies, all that remained of the sailors who died. And it wasn’t until 2014 that search teams found the Erebus. Then, three years later, they also found the Terror.

Painting Of The HMS Terror

Wikimedia CommonsWilliam Smyth’s Perilous Position of the HMS Terror.

At that point, historians were able to start piecing together what had happened to the doomed ships. They largely agree that the two ships became hopelessly trapped in the ice off King William Island on September 12, 1846. At that point, the crews, with no other choice, scrambled onto the frozen tundra that surrounded them.

The sailors had more to contend with than the elements, however. Because of high levels of lead found in some of the frozen bodies, historians suspect that the crews’ food supplies had been poorly canned. Thus, the 129 survivors likely suffered from some form of lead poisoning.

They also likely resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. Local Inuit people later told explorers in the region that they’d found human bones scattered across the ice as well as skeletal remains cracked in half.

And that’s not the only mystery that researchers have had to contend with since the two ships were discovered. They also aren’t sure why the Terror sank, as it wasn’t crushed by ice and its hull wasn’t breached. Strangely, all the doors on the ship were left open — except the captain’s.

“I’d love to know what’s in [the captain’s room],” one archaeologist stated. “One way or another, I feel confident we’ll get to the bottom of the story.”

Discover the harrowing full story of the Franklin expedition.

Learn more about the music used in our podcast. History Uncovered is part of the Airwave Media network. Learn more about your ad choices by visiting megaphone.fm/adchoices.