Copyright: The National Archives / Image: Logan Zachary
“They may be portions of one of Sir John Franklin’s ships. God grant that the crews are safe.”
A rough note, and one written in haste by a tired man moving quickly across incredibly difficult land on a mission to save lives or to bear witness to a tragedy.
Dr John Rae of the Hudson’s Bay Company, an Orcadian traveller without equal, was on his third major journey of Arctic exploration. On this journey, he was crossing Victoria Land, and he was looking for traces of the lost Franklin Expedition.
A PIECE OF PINE-WOOD
In his report to the Royal Geographical Society the following April, Rae recalled how on the afternoon of 21 August 1851 the search party had “proceeded but a short distance when a piece of pine-wood was picked up which excited much interest.
“In appearance it resembled the butt end of a small flag-staff; was 5 feet 9 inches in length, and round except 12 inches at the lower end, which was a square of 2 ½ inches. It had a curious mark, resembling this (s c), apparently stamped on one side, and at 2 ½ feet distance from the step there was a bit of white line in the form of a loop nailed on it with two copper tacks. Both the line and the tacks bore the Government mark, the broad arrow being stamped on the latter.”
TWO MISSING SHIPS, 129 MISSING MEN
This far above the tree line, any searcher would rush to investigate any sighting of wood. And John Rae was looking for two missing ships and 129 missing men. This would have been an electrifying sight.
And it was only the beginning. He soon spotted something else close to the foreshore.
“I had not finished writing down the foregoing description, and we had not advanced more than half a mile, when another piece of wood was found lying in the water, but touching the beach.
“This was of oak, 3 feet 8 inches long. The lower part, to the height of 18 inches was a square of 3 ½ inches. Half of the square to the length of 6 inches at the end was cut off, apparently to fit into a clasp or band of iron, as there was a rust mark 3 inches broad across it.
“The remaining part of the stanchion (as I suppose it to have been) had been formed in a turning-lathe, and was 3 inches in diameter, with a hole about an inch wide in the upper end, or I should say part of a hole, as one side had been torn off. An iron chain had evidently been passed through this hole, as there were the marks both of the links and of rust.”
The stanchion did not bear the mark of the broad arrow on it. But Rae’s gut feeling was that both had come from a Royal Navy ship, possibly Erebus or Terror. And in this, their location was as critical as their appearance.
Rae writes: “The position where they were found is in Lat. 68 deg 52’ N., Long. 103 deg 20’W. As there may be a difference of opinion regarding the direction from which these pieces of wood came, it may not be out of place here to express what I think on the subject.
IMMENSE QUANTITIES OF ICE
“From the circumstances of the flood tide coming from the northward along the east shore of Victoria Land, there can be no doubt but there is a wide water channel dividing Victoria Land from North Somerset, and through this channel I believe these pieces of wood have been carried with the immense quantities of ice that a long continuance of Northerly and North-easterly wind and the flood tide had driven southward.
“The ebb-tide not having the power to carry it back again against the wind, the large bay on the main shore of America immediately south of Victoria Strait, became perfectly full of ice, even up to the south shores of Victoria Land.
“Both pieces of wood seem to have come to the shore about the same time, and they must have been carried in by the flood tide that was then rising, or during the previous ebb, for the simple reason that although they were touching the beach they did not rest upon it. Had they come in by a previous flood they would have been at high water mark instead of some distance below it.”
THE SEARCH GOES ON
Pragmatic Rae, veteran of countless treks across the Arctic landscape, would not have considered adding such unwieldy items to his already heavy load as he continued his search. So he made a detailed sketch of the stanchion, took small samples of the wood from both items, and continued on his journey.
When Rae’s 1851 search ended, the sketch and the samples of the flag-staff and stanchion were dutifully handed over to the Admiralty for investigation.
The mystery objects never left Victoria Land. But we have the sketch, which has been preserved among the Admiralty papers held in The National Archives.
There, Rae’s draughtsmanship allows us to picture the stanchion as it was when he first saw it lying in the freezing water with one end nudging the beach, having travelled far along an uncharted Strait from a ship as yet unknown.