Finding HMS Investigator at the 1891 Royal Naval Exhibition

Investigator

The story of HMS Investigator was very nearly a tragedy on the scale of the Franklin Expedition it had been sent to find.

Were it not for Lieutenant Bedford Pim of HMS Resolute, more than 60 officers and men would probably have died, and the ship herself may never have been found.

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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.

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The mystery of the missing Erebus clerk

The history of the Franklin Expedition is full of ghosts, but this particular story is a little different. HMS Erebus is being haunted by a man who never sailed on her. The ghost has a name: George Frederick Pinhorn.

You can only see him online, and in certain places, but he’s there: forever linked to a ship he never set foot on.

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Immortal beloved: the grave of Sophia Cracroft

Time and the equally relentless British weather had obliterated almost every letter on Sophia Cracroft’s gravestone, which stands in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery.

While the “IN MEMORY OF LADY FRANKLIN/DIED 18 JULY 1875” memorial stone* was still mostly legible,  all that was left of Miss Cracroft’s was a few partial letters clinging to a blackened base.

Such was Sophy’s monument, and perhaps it would not have displeased her. But it certainly didn’t please the Franklinites who have visited to pay their respects to this remarkable woman. So last year, Logan Zachary photographed the site and carefully reconstructed the inscription on illuminator.blog:

“SOPHIA CRACROFT
THE DEVOTED AND ATTACHED NIECE OF SIR JOHN FRANKLIN
AND CONSTANT AID IN ALL LADY FRANKLIN’S EFFORTS IN
THE FURTHERANCE OF ARCTIC SEARCH FOR TRACES
OF HER HUSBAND AND HIS BRAVE COMPANIONS
DIED 20th JUNE 1892 AGED 76″

 

Right at the end of this project, when Logan had already done all the hard work, I found a partial reference to the inscription online. I spoke to the museum, paid the fee, and they sent me a copy of the item. I nearly fell off my chair when I opened the file.

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The Beechey Island Memorial Board at the Science Museum

A wooden board with a piece of metal secured to it.
“Memorial board relic from Franklin’s Northwest Passage expedition.” Courtesy Science Museum Group Collection Online. © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

The moment I saw the Memorial Board, I said: “That’s a hunting trophy.”

Some hunter on the track of the Franklin Expedition – perhaps an officer from any one of the 1850-54 search expeditions – found a relic on Beechey Island, brought it home, secured it to a board, and hung it on a wall. Whoever he was, and wherever he displayed it, I’ll bet he told some capital stories about it.

We can only guess, because none of them have accompanied the relic. There’s very little information about it, and what little we have isn’t accessible right now. But now, for the first time, we have a photograph of it.

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Communication channels: how one little search note found its way home

A detail of a 1850 search note left by Captain Erasmus Ommanney of HMS Assistance. Copyright: The National Archives.
A detail of a 1850 search note left on Cape Warrender by Captain Erasmus Ommanney of HMS Assistance. © The National Archives. Editing: Logan Zachary.

They were cold, they were tired, and they had just torn down a large stone cairn on a freezing Arctic headland and found it empty. This is where Sir John Franklin’s men should have left a written record of where they had gone next. To find Erebus and Terror, the searchers had first to find a note.

But there was something even worse than finding nothing in the cairn.

It was finding a cylinder in the cairn, frantically opening it, unrolling the note with shaking hands and hammering heart, and finding it was a missive from another Franklin searcher – possibly even from someone on your own expedition.

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