The English explorer Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) is perhaps the most important figure in the search for the Northwest Passage.
In the 40-year period after the Napoleonic Wars, the British Admiralty took up the challenge of finding the elusive Northwest Passage, along the northern coast of North America between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Royal Navy could afford to undertake the search at this time because of British predominance in naval power. Moreover, Arctic expeditions were seen as a good training ground for officers and men. The voyages themselves, the Admiralty believed, would yield important scientific information and strengthen the British imperial position in northern North America. Sir John Franklin was of major importance in these undertakings.
John Franklin was born on April 16, 1786, at Spilsby in Lincolnshire. His parents had intended that he enter the Church, but a holiday at the seashore aroused in him an inextinguishable desire to go to sea. His career in the Royal Navy began when he joined H.M.S. Polyphemus, which was about to play a significant part in the Battle of Copenhagen. Subsequent employment included a voyage in the Investigator, commanded by his cousin Capt. Matthew Flinders, to explore and map parts of the Australian coast, and service in H.M.S. Bellerophon and Bedford at the battles of Trafalgar and New Orleans, respectively. Franklin was promoted from midshipman to lieutenant on Feb. 11, 1808, and by the end of the Napoleonic Wars he had experienced much time at sea.
Franklin's Arctic travels began in January 1818 with his appointment in command of the brig Trent. It was to accompany the Dorothea, commanded by Capt. David Buchan, on a voyage to the North Pole and Bering Strait, passing en route between Greenland and Spitsbergen. This expedition was unsuccessful.
In early 1819 Franklin was instructed to lead an expedition "to determine the latitudes and longitudes of the northern coast of North America, and the trendings of that coast from the mouth of the Coppermine River to the eastern extremity of the continent." The findings of this hazardous 5,550-mile expedition were published in 1823 in Franklin's Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea in the Years 1819-20, a classic in the annals of exploration. By the time of his return to England in October 1822, he had been promoted to commander, and on Nov. 20, 1822, he was advanced to captain. His excellent service also brought him fellowship in the Royal Society.
Franklin's second journey to the Polar Sea was made via the Mackenzie River and Great Bear Lake in the years from 1825 to 1827. The object, Kotzebue Sound near Be-ring Strait, proved unattainable because of the lateness of the season; yet much of the northern coast of the continent was discovered by this expedition. Franklin was knighted in 1829 and thereafter achieved academic distinction.
In 1830-1833 Franklin commanded the frigate Rainbow in the Mediterranean Sea. In January 1837 he arrived at Hobart, Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), to assume the position of lieutenant governor, which he held until 1843. His humanitarian sentiments toward the condition of the convicts restrained there resulted in judicious measures of social improvement.
At the time of his return to England in June 1844 Arctic exploration was of special interest, for the Erebus and Terror had just returned from a remarkable expedition to the Antarctic. The British Admiralty decided to use the Erebus and Terror to determine whether the Northwest Passage could be navigated by ship. Franklin, as senior naval officer with Arctic experience, obtained the command in spite of some protests that others were younger and perhaps more capable, and on March 3, 1845, Franklin, now 59, commissioned the Erebus. Both the Erebus and the Terror had been fitted with auxiliary screws (a new development in Arctic exploration) and supposedly provisioned for a 3-year voyage. The two ships sailed from England in May amid optimism that the mission's object would be met. They were last seen July 26, 1845, in Lancaster Sound.
It took many years to reconstruct the fate of Sir John Franklin. Some 50 expeditions were sent over 20 years to find him or his remains. They revealed that from Lancaster Sound the Erebus and Terror had passed through to the maze of islands known today as the District of Franklin. In May 1847 Franklin's party discovered the remaining gap in the Northwest Passage—between Victoria and Simpson straits. On June 11 Franklin died. There followed a third winter in the ice, at the end of which Capt. F. R. M. Crozier, now in command, and his men (105 in all) set out for the nearest Hudson's Bay Company post, Ft. Resolution. All perished miserably in this attempt.
Franklin's second wife (formerly, Jane Griffin) was responsible for sending a number of relief and search expeditions. That of the Fox in 1857, under Capt. Francis L. McClintock, discovered the main traces of the expedition, including important documents that tell the tragic tale.
Further Reading on Sir John Franklin
Two biographies of Franklin are H. D. Traill, Life of Sir John Franklin (1896), and Geoffrey F. Lamb, Franklin, Happy Voyageur: Being the Life and Death of Sir John Franklin (1956). Details of the last expedition are in Capt. Francis L. McClintock, The Voyage of the "Fox" in the Arctic Seas (1859), and Richard J. Cyriax, Sir John Franklin's Last Arctic Expedition: A Chapter in the History of the Royal Navy (1939). A work on Lady Franklin, showing her importance in the search missions, is Francis J. Woodward, Portrait of Jane (1951). Recommended for general historical background is Laurence P. Kirwan, A History of Polar Exploration (1959).