Part two: Humble headstones, painted black

Detail of letter written by Robert Anstruther Goodsir to his family.
Detail of letter written by Robert Anstruther Goodsir to his sister Jane Ross Goodsir in May 1850, from the Lady Franklin. He writes: “I trust I will find you all well & happy when I return & as I trust to bring Harry with me I hope the day is not far off.”  Image reproduced by kind permission of the Trustees of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

In 1850, Robert Anstruther Goodsir is on his second Arctic expedition in search of his beloved older brother Harry and the rest of the Franklin Expedition. Thirty years on, writing in The Australasian newspaper, he gives a cinematic eye-witness account of what happened when a team from the Lady Franklin and Sophia search ships landed on Beechey Island on 27th August 1850…

We returned on board that night in a hopeful mood, for, although we found nothing of importance, yet we knew that we had struck the trail, that the scent was strong, and that we were in a fair way of soon gaining more explicit tidings of the lost voyagers.

I was the first to start early next morning for the shore, accompanied by John Stuart (the late Dr. John Stuart, of Sandhurst), Petersen, the Esquimaux interpreter, and Alexander Thompson, a seaman¹.

Portrait of Carl Petersen

Proceeding across the land ice, we could see on our right front to the eastward the precipitous lime stone cliffs and the flat table-top of Beechey Island; to the left, and stretching westward, the long, gradually sloping and descending gravel spit nearly reaching the opposite cliffs, which there trending northwards, rounded into Wellington Channel.

Our little party made for the lowest or western end of the spit.

Where we struck it it rose rather abruptly from the ice, about 10ft, but before we had put foot upon the shingle the quick eye of Petersen had seen something, and his shrill cry in broken English of “Caneesterres! Caneesterres!” made our hearts beat faster with the knowledge that the scent was again breast high.

I can hear Petersen’s cry, and his next more stirring exclamation ringing in my ear at this moment.


Quickly breasting the loose and shifting shingle, we saw before us a neatly-built pyramidal cairn of canisters or meat tins, about 9ft high, a little broken at the corners by the bears or from other causes, but still evidently carefully constructed.

I will have more to say of these meat tins and their contents before I conclude, for I cannot here interrupt the action of my narrative, and for the same reason can only afford to take a quick glance at the land-locked bay before us, ice-covered, and cliff-surrounded on all sides save where the spit ran down to where we stood. 


Our excitement was at fever beat, for scarce a second elapsed between Petersen’s first exclamation and his next more startling cry of “Mans! Mans!”, his Scandinavian features all aglow, and his blue eyes almost starting from their sockets.

Almost at the instant of his utterance I had descried three dark objects about a mile off, where the spit merged into the talus at the foot of the cliffs of the northern side of Beechey Island.

God! Can I ever forget the strange feelings of that half-hour of half hope – the deep excitement with which I started off at headlong speed towards these dark objects, all too willing to be cheated by the thought that the Dane’s vision was quicker than mine, and that they were, indeed, men?

I recollect dashing down my gun ere I had gone many yards; I recollect tearing madly at the strap of my telescope (a rare Dollond, the gift of ever good and kind Lady Franklin)², and of recklessly casting it on the stones.

Ammunition belts and pouches were cast aside. I recollect slackening pace for a second or two to get rid of my heavy pea coat and sealskin cap until I could speed more freely along, with the panting Petersen well behind, whose wind had not been improved by years of semi-Esquimaux habits³.


I recollect noting as I sped along the thousand articles with which the beach was bestrewn, pieces of rope, fragments of timber, scraps of iron, but I did not pause, though I remember me well of gasping out to myself the word – wrecked.

I recollect that soon after starting I became satisfied that the objects towards which we were so anxiously pressing could not be men, I recollect that my next idea was that they were huts, and deluding myself into the fond fancy that a filmy smoke rose from one or all of them.

I recollect how soon this idea also proved a mockery, and that as I quickly, stride by stride, drew closer and still closer to the dark objects, the ghastly truth dawned upon me that it was three graves that I at last stood beside. 

Three heavy slabs of wood shaped like humble headstones, painted black, their backs to me, and on the other side the low, oblong-rounded mounds, underneath which three at least of those we were in search of were peacefully lying.


How well do I remember the pause I made, when the still, quiet desolation of all around me was unbroken, save by the quickly-advancing steps of Petersen crunching over the gravel, the loud beating of my heart and quick-drawn breathing, ere I could gather courage to advance and read the inscriptions that I rightly guessed would appear on the other side of the headboards.

I dreaded seeing the name of one near and dear to me who had sailed in the Erebus.

After the names, my next glance was at the dates: from these I could judge that in this bay the Erebus and Terror had lain during the winter of 1845-6.

Part one: Australia 1880 – Part two: Humble headstones, painted black – Part three: Silent for four long winters – Part four: “Cabined, cribbed, confined – Part five: Unreliable memories


General notes: No first-hand account of the discovery of the Beechey graves was available until I found this article in 2018. Lots of people have written about the Franklin sites on Beechey – including Peter Cormack Sutherland (surgeon of the Sophia) and Sherard Osborn (Royal Navy lieutenant in charge of HMS Pioneer). But they didn’t make the discovery themselves.

Personnel: the people mentioned in this section of the report are possibly the most interesting men on the expedition: John Stuart, third mate/assistant surgeon of the Lady Franklin; Johan Carl Christian Petersen, a Danish explorer acting as dog handler and interpreter for the Penny expedition, and attached to the Lady Franklin brig; and Alexander Thompson, able seaman of the Lady Franklin, who loved Petersen’s sled dogs and helped to train and care for them. Stuart deserves his own post: one’s in the works and will be published soon. Thompson also searched for Franklin as part of the Belcher expedition 1852-54, where he was Francis Leopold McClintock’s sled dog driver of choice. Petersen went on to work with Elisha Kent Kane during the Second Grinnell Expedition of 1853-55, and he was reunited with Alex Thompson in 1857 when both men joined McClintock’s Fox expedition.

Portrait of Alexander Stewart by Stephen Pearce.
Alexander Stewart by Stephen Pearce. Oil on canvas, exhibited 1854. NPG 1220 © National Portrait Gallery, London

¹ Robert is remembering this incorrectly: Peter C. Sutherland’s narrative states that the land party consisted of all the officers of the Lady Franklin and Sophia brigs – with the exception of the chief mates – and was under the command of Sophia‘s dashing young captain Alexander Stewart.

Having praised Thompson above, I must say that I doubt that he – a young able seaman – was part of this group. Robert might be mixing him up with John Leiper, a veteran whaler and the second mate of the Lady Franklin, who was known to be part of the group.

² Lady Franklin‘s relationship with Robert had many ups and downs, but she seemed to be genuinely fond of him. She had entrusted him with scientific as well as medical duties on this expedition.

³ Petersen had lived among the Greenland Inuit for many years. He would have been entirely buff, and as hard as nails. I’m certain that he could have picked Robert up and snapped him like a glowstick if he’d wanted to.

⁴ This small detail helped to corroborate the account by Johann Miertsching, a Moravian missionary serving as an interpreter on Franklin search ship HMS Investigator. His eye-witness account, clearly stating that the grave markers were black with white lettering, was somehow set aside in a general belief that the markers had always been white. Definitive proof that Miertsching and Robert were right only emerged in 2019, when a 1850s-era photograph of the site was found by Derbyshire Record Office.