The Pointing Hand of King William Island

An image of two envelopes.
Copyright: The National Archives.

“[Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka had] also found a piece of paper with a pointing finger. When we remember the ‘direction posts’ of Beechey Island, we can see that such a pointing finger is a trademark of sorts for the crews of the Erebus and Terror.” – David C. Woodman, Unravelling The Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony.

The paper is ragged, but there is a faint but clear outline of a hand, with the finger pointing at something that only dead men could see.

It is a relic of the Franklin Expedition that was found by US Navy Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka in 1879, long years after everyone on the Franklin Expedition had died.

It’s not painted on wood and perched at the top of a boarding pike, like the finger-posts of Beechey Island.

It was carefully drawn on paper, with a pencil, and it was placed between the stones of a cairn built between Cape Felix and Wall Bay, on King William Island.

FRANKLIN RELICS

There was speculation that it had never left the Arctic, or that it had disintegrated on the journey south. But Schwatka brought the Pointing Hand safely back with him to the United States. From there, he sent it to the Admiralty in London in March 1881 alongside more than a hundred other Franklin relics.

And it still survives, today, nearly 140 years later.

I’ve seen it.

It’s in The National Archives at Kew, tucked away in a box of unrelated material that the Admiralty received in 1881.

An image of a ragged piece of paper. A pointing finger is visible.
The Pointing Hand relic recovered by Lt. Schwatka on King William Island in 1879. Copyright: The National Archives.

Aside from the main fragment shown above, this precious relic is now mostly confetti in an unmarked envelope. It forms part of a set of documents from the American Geographical Society confirming the number and type of Franklin relics being transferred to London.

This was its status and its condition in July 2020:

Fragments of paper inside an envelope.
Relic confetti: there are numerous fragments of the Pointing Hand paper inside the smaller envelope. Copyright: The National Archives.

The Pointing Hand was collected by the Schwatka Expedition, which took place from 1878-1880. The American Geographical Society had sponsored the search, but it was turbo-powered by the skills of the Inuit. Team members included the renowned Franklin searcher “Joe” Ebierbing and a brilliant hunter called Tulugaq.

There are three main primary sources related to this expedition. These are the books written by team members William Henry Gilder and Heinrich Klutschak, and Schwatka himself. However, the leader’s narrative was not widely circulated, and a version of his journal was not published until 1965, 73 years after his death.

Gilder has left the most expansive account of the discovery. He writes that when on the march from Cape Felix, “Lieutenant Schwatka had kept about a mile east of Frank [Melms] and Henry [Heinrich Klutschak], who walked along the coast, and I about half a mile east of Lieutenant Schwatka.

Detail of a Royal Geographical Society map from 1880, showing the approximate location of the Pointing Hand cairn.
Detail of a Royal Geographical Society map from 1880, showing the approximate location of the Pointing Hand cairn – the third ‘Cairn (S)’ from the top, closest to Wall Bay.

“When about a mile and a half above our old camp at Wall Bay, he found a cairn very similar in construction to the one he found inland from Cape Felix.

CAREFULLY-DRAWN

“The top had been taken down, but in the first course of stones, covered and protected by those thrown from the top, he found a piece of paper with a carefully-drawn hand upon it, the index finger pointing at the time in a southerly direction.

“The bottom part of the paper, on which rested the stone that held it in place, had completely rotted off, so that if there ever had been any writing upon it, that, too, had disappeared.

“He called Frank to his assistance, and they spent several hours in carefully examining the vicinity, without discovering anything else. It would seem, however, that whatever memorandum or guide it was intended for was only temporary, and was probably put there by some surveying or hunting party from the ships.”

AN OLD PIECE OF PAPER

Klutschak, in his journal, described the recovery of “an old piece of paper which contained a drawing of a life-sized pointing hand. Unfortunately its lower end had rotted away under the influence of the elements.

“The southward-pointing hand certainly must have been pointing at something, but the explanation was no longer available and the only result of this find was an increased attentiveness on our part.”

The remains of a stone cairn.
The remains of the “Pointing Hand” cairn found and examined by Lt. Frederick Schwatka in 1879. Photograph courtesy of, and copyright, Tom Gross.

It’s interesting that Schwatka’s journal does not mention the Pointing Hand. But when he addressed the American Geographical Society of New York in October 1880, he told the audience:

“The snow had sufficiently disappeared by the 4th day of July [1879] to commence the search, and at this date we were at Cape Felix, King William’s Land, near which the Erebus and Terror had been beset in September, 1846.

ABANDONMENT

“From Cape Felix to Collinson Inlet, only from 15 to 25 miles of coastline, we were engaged in searching from June 27th to July 14th, traversing 278 miles, the search being thorough and extending a number of miles inland.

“This strip of coast was important, as being the nearest land to the imprisoned ships during the two years previous to their abandonment.

“Two cairns were here found, but their despoliation revealed nothing of importance.

“Under the base stones of one was a sheet of letter paper containing a drawing of a hand, the index finger extended, which pointed, as it was found, in a southerly direction.

“It was much decayed, and may have contained some written instructions underneath the hand, that portion having rotted away.”

A VITAL CLUE

This relic holds more than just historical or theoretical importance. Tom Gross, an explorer and researcher based in Hay River, in the Northwest Territories, has been searching for the Franklin Expedition on King William Island since 1994.

He sees the Pointing Hand as a vital clue in the search for not only the grave of Sir John Franklin, but for the expedition records that may be buried with him. 

The remains of a stone cairn.
The remains of the “Pointing Hand” cairn found and examined by Lt. Frederick Schwatka in 1879. Photograph courtesy of, and copyright, Tom Gross.

He has visited the site of the Pointing Hand cairn more than once, and explains: “The construction technique was similar to other Franklin cairns that used a large black erratic boulder for a base.

“The cairn’s location was approximately what Schwatka had guessed at being one mile inland and one mile north of Wall Bay and I would guess that when all 30 stones were piled up that it might have stood six feet or so.”

THE WAY TO THE BURIAL SITE?

“Klutschak, one of the members of Schwatka’s team, commented on how when the top stones were replaced the paper hand would have been pointing southward.

“I had always considered this to be one of the most valuable clues in the Franklin mystery and that it was intended to show us the way to the burial site.”

“I had always considered this to be one of the most valuable clues in the Franklin mystery and that it was intended to show us the way to the burial site.”

The Schwatka expedition found another paper relic during the search. Tulugaq’s wife – whose name is not recorded anywhere I can find – recovered a copy of the Victory Point Record that had been written by Francis Leopold McClintock in 1859, 20 years earlier.

EXCITEMENT

Klutschak noted the latter find with excitement. At the time, he said, “its rediscovery still provides proof, on the one hand, that if properly deposited and especially if they are written in pencil, documents will remain legible, and on the other hand that our search was not just a superficial one.”

“…it still provides proof … that if properly deposited and especially if they are written in pencil, documents will remain legible.”

The drawing is still perfectly legible in 2020.

I didn’t touch the confetti in the envelope, but one fragment fell out when I removed the largest piece of paper. This was before I realised that I was handling a Franklin relic.

A fragment of paper.
Copyright: The National Archives

Now, I’m no paper conservator, but this doesn’t look good to me.

Maybe the Pointing Hand came back from King William Island exactly like this.

Or maybe it disintegrated further because it has spent decades in the middle of a pile of loose papers in a box.

Every time a researcher went through this collection, that envelope would have been picked up and placed down again many times.

LOST RELICS

These researchers aren’t to blame. I’m sure they’d be horrified if they knew a treasure like this had been rattling around in an unmarked envelope.

This was the second time in a year that I’d stumbled over lost Franklin relics in The National Archives.

And I’m well aware that every item in TNA could be classed as a priceless artefact. But this particular one is literally in pieces. Perhaps a non-amateur researcher – a professional with clout, or an experienced paper conservator – could raise this pressing issue with them?

RESPONSIBILITY

There could be something written on this relic confetti. And even if there are no legible words remaining, we still have a responsibility to save it.

A member of the Franklin Expedition stood in the unimaginable cold on a blasted landscape and made this perfect drawing. He placed it carefully between the stones of a cairn. He was sending a message to his crewmates.

I don’t know what he was saying on that unknown day.

I only know that we must not allow his message to blow away in the wind in 2020.

 

Acknowledgments:

Huge thanks and appreciation are due to Tom Gross, who was so generous with his time and his personal knowledge of King William Island, and who graciously allowed me to use his photographs on this post. I am just a visitor to a part of the Franklin Expedition history – and a part of the world – that Tom has walked for more than a quarter of a century.

Russ Taichman was also a huge source of support and encouragement, and I am very grateful for his kindness and his advice – although I didn’t always follow it.

Finally, I thank Randall Osczevski, whose determination to locate one particular missing Schwatka relic was the first step on the path that led to the Pointing Hand. 

Sources:

ADM 1/6600 – The National Archives

ADM 203/3 – The National Archives

Arctic Meeting at Chickering Hall, October 28th, 1880, Reception of Lieut. Frederick Schwatka and his Associates of the Franklin Search Party of 1878, 1879 and 1880 – Journal of the American Geographical Society of New York, Vol. 12, pp. 237-296 
(1880)

Gilder, W.H. – Schwatka’s Search: Sledging in the Arctic in Quest of the Franklin Records (1881)

Gross, T – The Bayne project, Cape Felix, King William Island, NU, August 2006: archaeological permit no. 2006 – 011A. Iglooli: Government of Nunavut (2006)

Klutschak, Heinrich (trans. and ed. by Barr, William) – Overland to Starvation Cove: With the Inuit in Search of Franklin 1878-1880 (1987)

Markham, C.R. – Expedition of Lieutenant F. Schwatka to King William Land, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, Vol. 2, No. 11, pp. 657-662 (1880)

National Maritime Museum website

Potter, Russell – Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a 165-year Search (2016)

Savitt, Ronald – Frederick Schwatka and the search for the Franklin expedition records, 1878–1880, Polar Record, 44 (230), pp.193–210 (2008)

Schwatka, Frederick – Journal 1878-1880, Mystic Seaport Museum

Schwatka, Frederick – The Search for Franklin (1882)

Woodman, David C. – Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony (1991)

3 thoughts on “The Pointing Hand of King William Island

  1. This is so exciting! I think it was the right decision to leave the fragments in the envelope, untouched … but one wonders if there might be anything noticeable on there. I always default to the most mundane explanation for the hand; that it was a signpost pointing sailors between the ships and an observatory, or other establishment on shore, but even that would be a welcome insight into the experiences of the expedition men. I hope, as you have said, that someone with the correct technology comes along and is able to help!

  2. I wonder if the Pointing Hand was drawn during a period of very cold conditions. Ink freezes. Pencil does not .

  3. Solomon, Schwatka himself always used pencil for his notes — as he remarks, it lasts better. But yes, not having to thaw out the ink is a definite plus!

Leave a note in the cairn