The Search for Sir John Franklin

The Search for Sir John Franklin:
from the journal of Allen Young on board HMS
Fox (1857-9)

The fate of Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to chart the Northwest Passage was still unknown when the auxiliary steamship HMS Fox set out from Aberdeen on 1st July 1857 to investigate. In command was Captain Francis McClintock. Allen Young (1827-1915, RYS 1861-1915) was sailing master. Young’s journal of the voyage was first published in The Cornhill Magazine (1860) and later in a booklet by Griffin & Sons of Portsmouth and London (1875). The Fox voyage, the first of three undertaken by Young in the search for Franklin, was successful in discovering written evidence that Franklin’e entire crew had perished. In this extract, Young describes a winter locked in the Arctic ice.

The winter now set in rapidly, new ice was fast increasing, and the weather very severe; all navigation was at an end, and the barrier outside of us had never moved. We had now no hopes of getting further, and as no harbour existed where we were, we had nothing for it but to seek our winter home in Bellot Straits, and finish our work in the following winter and spring. So, leaving Hobson to find his way to us, we ran back through Bellot Straits towards a harbour that we had discovered and named Port Kennedy. The Straits were already covered with scum, and almost unnavigable, but we reached the harbour at midnight on the 27th [of September], and ran the ship as far as possible into the new ice which now filled it. The Fox had done her work until the following summer. No opportunity was now lost of procuring fresh food. The deer were migrating southward and a few were shot as they passed. But the hunting was very precarious; the deer were travelling, and did not stop much to feed; there was no cover whatever, and stalking over the rugged hills and snow-filled valleys was most laborious. A few ptarmigan and hares were also shot, but we were altogether disappointed in the resources of the country. We had, however, a fair stock of bear and seal flesh for our dogs and ourselves to begin upon.

On the 6th October Hobson returned, having reached some fifty miles down the west coast of Boothia, but was there stepped by the yet broken-up state of the ice. Finding that we had left Cape Bird, and that Bellot Straits were impassable for the boat, he travelled back to the ship over the mountains. The people were now clearing out the ship, landing all superfluous stores, and building magnetic observatories of snow and ice, besides hunting for the pot. We once more buried the ship with snow.

On the 24th, Hobson again started for the south-westward, to follow up his last track, and to endeavour to push his depots further on. He returned to the ship on November 6, having experienced most severe weather, and great dangers from the unquiet state of the ice. When encamped near the shore, in latitude 70° 21′, the ice broke suddenly away from the land and drifted out to sea before the gale, carrying them off with it. They were perched upon a small floe piece, and a wide crack separated the two tents. Dense snow-drift heightened the darkness of the night, and they could not possibly tell in which direction they were driving. The next morning they found themselves fifteen miles from where they had pitched the previous evening. By the mercy of Providence a calm succeeded, and they escaped to the land over the ice which immediately formed. So thin was this new ice, that they momentarily expected to break through. By great exertion Hobson saved the depot, and finding it impossible to do any more, he landed the provisions and returned to the ship. Our autumn travelling was now brought to a close.

A depot of provisions was to have been carried by myself across Victoria Straits, but this was given up as evidently impracticable. We sat down for the winter, praying that we might be spared to finish our work in the spring. On November 10th the whole ship’s company marched in funeral procession to the shore, bearing upon a sledge the mortal remains of poor Mr. Bland (our chief engineer), who was found dead in his bed on the 7th. The burial service having been read, he was deposited in his frozen tomb, on which the wild flowers will never grow, and over which his relations can never mourn. We were all on board almost as one family, and any one taken from us was missed as one from the fireside at home. It was long before this sorrowful feeling throughout the ship could be shaken off.

On the 14th the sun disappeared, and we were left in darkness; our skylights had long been covered over with snow, and by the light of our solitary dip we tried to pass the weary hours by reading, sleeping, and smoking. We were frozen in, in a fine harbour, surrounded by lofty granite hills, and on these were occasionally found a few ptarmigan, hares, and wild foxes; whenever the weather permitted, or we could at all see our way, we wandered over these dreary hills in search of a fresh mess. We varied our exercise with excursions on the ice in search of bears. But although exercise was so necessary for our existence, yet from the winds drawing through the Straits and down our harbour as through a funnel, there were many days, and even weeks, when we could scarcely leave the ship. The men set fox-traps in all directions, and Mr. Petersen set seal-nets under the ice. The nets were not successful, but the traps gave an object for a walk. Magnetic observations were carried on throughout the winter;— the reading of one instrument, placed in a snow-house some 200 yards from the ship, being registered every hour night and day. On some of the wild winter nights, there was some risk in going even that distance from the ship. Christmas and New Year’s days were spent with such rejoicing as in our situation we could make, and we entered upon the year 1859 with good health and spirits. Our dogs, upon which so much depended, were also in first-rate condition, and not one of them had died.

The sun returned to us on January 26th; the daylight soon began to increase; and by February 10th, we were all ready to start upon our first winter journey. Bad weather detained us until the 17th, when Captain M’clintock and myself both left the ship; the Captain, with only two companions, Mr. Petersen (interpreter) and Thomson as dog-driver, to travel down the west coast of Boothia, to endeavour to obtain information, preparatory to the long spring journeys, from some natives supposed to live near the magnetic pole. I was to cross Victoria Straits with a depot of provisions, to enable me in the spring to search the coast of Prince of Wales Land, wherever it might trend. I returned on March 5.

The Captain’s party hove in sight on the 14th, and we all ran out to meet him. He had found a tribe of natives at Cape Victoria, near the magnetic pole, and from them he learnt that some years ago a large ship was crushed by the ice, off the north-west coast of King William Land; that the people had come to the land, and had travelled down that coast to the estuary of the Great Fish River where they had died upon an island (Montreal Island); the natives had spears, bows and arrows, and other implements made of wood, besides a quantity of silver spoons and forks, which they said they had procured on the island (more probably by barter from other tribes). It was now evident that we were on the right track, and with this important information Captain M‘clintock returned to the ship. Our winter travelling was thus ended, fortunately without any mishap.

Those only who know what it is to be exposed to a temperature of frozen mercury accompanied with wind, can form any idea of the discomforts of dragging a sledge over the ice, upon an unknown track, day after day, and for eight or ten consecutive hours, without a meal or drink, the hands and face constantly frostbitten, and your very boots full of ice; to be attacked with snow blindness; to encamp and start in the dark, and spend sixteen hours upon the snow, in a brown-holland tent, or the hastily erected snow-house, listening to the wind, the snow-drift, and the howling of the dogs outside, and trying to wrap the frozen blanket closer round the shivering frame. The exhaustion to the system is so great, and the thirst so intense, that the evening pannikin of tea and the allowanced pound of pemmican would not be given up were it possible to receive the whole world in exchange; and woe to the unlucky cook if he capsized the kettle!


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