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Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) was a British Royal Navy officer and explorer of Arctic North America who also served as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land (now called Tasmania) from 1837 to 1843.


Sir John Franklin, 1845, prior to the expedition's departure


Franklin was born in Spilsby, Lincolnshire, on 16 April 1786, the ninth of twelve children of a family with an obvious desire to better its social and economic position. One of his brothers later entered the legal profession and eventually became a judge in Madras, another joined the British East India Company, while a sister, Sarah, was the mother of Emily Tennyson, wife of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, author of "The Charge of the Light Brigade". His father intended him to enter the church or become a businessman, but was reluctantly convinced to allow him to go on a trial voyage on a merchant ship when he was aged 12. His experience of seafaring only confirmed his interest in a career at sea, so in March 1800, Franklin's father secured him a Royal Navy appointment.

Royal Navy[edit]

Initially serving as a first class volunteer, Franklin soon saw action in the Battle of Copenhagen on HMS Polyphemus, part of Horatio Nelson's squadron. As a midshipman, Franklin served on an expedition to the coast of Australia aboard HMS Investigator, commanded by Captain Matthew Flinders. He accompanied Captain Nathaniel Dance on Earl Camden, frightening off Admiral Charles de Durand-Linois at the Battle of Pulo Aura in the South China Sea on 14 February 1804, and was present at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 aboard HMS Bellerophon.

During the War of 1812 against the United States, Franklin, now a lieutenant, served aboard HMS Bedford and was wounded during the Battle of Lake Borgne in December 1814, just prior to the decisive American victory at the Battle of New Orleans one month later.


Franklin's camp at the mouth of the Coppermine River, 1821

Franklin's first command was aboard HMS Trent in the 1819 Svalbard expedition commanded by Captain David Buchan on HMS Dorothea. Believing in the "Open Sea" theory, and in a clean route through the Pole to Bering Strait, they left the Shetlands on their less-than-optimal ships, predictably encountered impassable ice beyond Svalbard, and turned back. Not much later after, Franklin was chosen to lead the Coppermine expedition overland from Hudson Bay to chart the north coast of Canada eastwards from the mouth of the Coppermine River. It was, by any objective standard, a disaster: Franklin completely failed in his goal of mapping a sufficient portion of the Arctic coast, only 800 km (500 mi) having been explored before the party was forced to turn back. Once he fell into the Hayes River at Robinson Falls, being rescued by a member of his expedition about 90 m (300 ft) downstream. Between 1819 and 1822, he lost 11 of the 20 men in his party. Most died of starvation, but there was also at least one murder and suggestions of cannibalism. The survivors were forced to eat lichen and even attempted to eat their own leather boots, which gained Franklin the nickname of "the man who ate his boots"

Franklin's map of the discoveries under his Mackenzie River expedition

In 1823, after returning to England, Franklin married the poet Eleanor Anne Porden. Their daughter, Eleanor Isabella, was born the following year. His wife died of tuberculosis in 1825, after he left for his second Canadian and third Arctic expedition, the Mackenzie River expedition. The goal this time was the mouth of the Mackenzie River, from which he would follow the coast westward, and possibly meet Frederick William Beechey, who would try to sail northeast from the Bering Strait. With him was John Richardson, who would follow the coast east from the Mackenzie to the mouth of the Coppermine River. After reaching Great Slave Lake using the standard HBC route, Franklin took a reconnaissance trip 1,600 km (990 mi) down the Mackenzie, and on 16 August 1825 became the second European to reach its mouth. He erected a flagpole with buried letters. The following summer, he went downriver again, and found the ocean frozen. Working his way west for several hundred miles, he gave up on 16 August 1826 at Return Reef, when he was about 240 km (150 mi) east of Beechey's Point Barrow (or seven days on foot; back home, having realized this, he lamented his decision). Returning to the safety of his main base Fort Franklin, now named Délı̨nę, at the mouth of the Great Bear River, on 21 September, he stayed until 20 February 1827, journeying to Fort Chipewyan (12 April), Cumberland House in Saskatchewan (18 June) and reaching New York City in August. On 1 September 1827, Franklin departed to Liverpool, arriving on 26 September.


On 5 November 1828, he married Jane Griffin, a friend of his first wife, and herself a seasoned traveller, who proved indomitable in the course of their life together. Jane Franklin became the greatest woman traveler of the age. She rode a donkey into Nazareth, sailed a rat-infested boat up the Nile, climbed mountains in Australia, Africa and the Holy Land, and beat her way through the Tasmanian bush, all at a time when few Victorian women ventured beyond the home security. On 29 April 1829, they were made "Sir" and "Lady" by George IV; the same year, Sir John was awarded the first Gold Medal of the Société de Géographie of France. On 25 January 1836, he was made Knight Commander of the Royal Guelphic Order and a Knight of the Greek Order of the Redeemer. In 1837, Franklin was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen's Land. His tenure was troublesome though, having quarrels with his subordinates, and he left office in 1843.


Supposed route of Franklin's expedition 1845-48

Back from Tasmania, once he heard rumors of the Admiralty's plans for a new attempt to chart and navigate the Northwest Passage, he became restless to secure its command, which was granted to him. It was to be his last voyage, Franklin's Lost Expedition, on HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, which had been recently upgraded with steam engines and heating, more than 1000 books in their libraries, and packed full of canned supplies. The expedition set sail from Greenhithe on the morning of 19 May 1845, with a crew of 24 officers and 110 men. The ships stopped briefly in Stromness Harbour in the Orkney Islands in northern Scotland, and from there they sailed to Greenland with HMS Rattler and a transport ship, Baretto Junior; the passage to Greenland took 30 days. The expedition was last seen by Europeans in late July 1845, when Captain Dannett of the whaler Prince of Wales and Captain Robert Martin of the whaler Enterprise encountered Terror and Erebus in Baffin Bay, waiting for good conditions to cross to Lancaster Sound. What happened next would be pieced together over the next 150 years by other expeditions, explorers, scientists and interviews from native Inuit peoples. Franklin's men wintered in 1845–46 on Beechey Island, where three crew members died and were buried. After traveling down Peel Sound through the summer of 1846, Terror and Erebus became trapped in ice off King William Island in September 1846 and are believed to have never sailed again. Having wintered off King William Island in 1846–47 and 1847–48, the remaining members of the expedition, now led by Terror 's captain Francis Crozier and Franklin's deputy James Fitzjames, set out for the Canadian mainland on 26 April 1848. By this point, nearly two dozen others had died; none of them were ever heard of again. According to the "Victory Point" note, dated 25 April 1848 and left on the island by Fitzjames and Crozier, Franklin had died on 11 June 1847; the exact location of his grave is unknown.

The "Victory Point" note, found by William Hobson during the McClintock Arctic expedition, May 1859


Pressed by Lady Franklin and others, the Admiralty launched a search for the missing expedition in 1848. Prompted in part by Franklin's fame and the Admiralty's offer of a finder's reward, many subsequent expeditions joined the hunt, which at one point in 1850 involved eleven British and two American ships. Several of these ships converged off the east coast of Beechey Island, where the first relics of the expedition were found, including the graves of three crewmen. These quests led to the precise mapping of North American waters, and merit study, but don't belong in a travel guide.

An independent rescue mission, led by Scottish Arctic explorer John Rae in 1854, brought the first Europeans to visit and map the strait between King William Island and the Boothia Peninsula (today named Rae Strait), while searching for Sir John and the Northwestern Passage itself (any of these prizes would surely be extra handy, financially, for him). Franklin's ships had actually sank on a correct passage route. Rae learned from his Inuit contacts about Franklin's death and cannibalism among the survivors, and came to map the whole passage, not completing the journey for a lack of resources. Back home, publishing reports about his discoveries, he earned the enmity of Lady Franklin, who was openly racist against Inuit and poured scorn on Rae, refusing to believe his stories, when he had in fact been the first person to return with definite news of her husband's fate. Tireless patriotic efforts to glorify Sir John and his crew meant effective damnatio memoriae of Rae and his legacy by the British system. Lady Franklin became somewhat of an Imperial celebrity, a kind of "patron saint of Arctic search", waiting for her husband until her dying day, 18 July 1875. Her burial vault has a vacant spot next to her, reserved for Sir John.

Edwin Henry Landseer's Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864) was inspired by the fate of Terror and Erebus on the Franklin expedition.

The wreck of HMS Erebus was discovered in 2014, and HMS Terror 's in 2016, reportedly in "pristine condition"; their archeology is ongoing as of 2020.

Dan Simmons' novel The Terror (2007) is a fictionalized account of Captain Sir John Franklin's 1845–1848 lost expedition. In the novel, while Franklin and his crew are plagued by starvation and illness, and forced to contend with mutiny and cannibalism, they are stalked across the bleak Arctic landscape by a monster. The novel has been adapted as an eponymous 2018 television series by cable TV channel AMC.



  • 1 Statue of John Franklin, Waterloo Place (outside the Athenaeum Club in London). It bears the front inscription: "Discoverer of the North West Passage", and plaques with the crews' names on either side.
  • 2 Statue of John Franklin, High Street, Spilsby, Lincolnshire. This statue commemorates the Spilsby native, also bearing the inscription "Discoverer of the North West Passage".
  • 3 National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Its collections hold many items related to Franklin. National Maritime Museum (Q1199924) on Wikidata National Maritime Museum on Wikipedia
  • 4 Scott Polar Research Institute Museum, Cambridge. Most of Lady Franklin's surviving papers are stored here. Scott Polar Research Institute (Q2747894) on Wikidata Scott Polar Research Institute on Wikipedia


  • 5 Franklin Square, Hobart. This oak-lined public space in Central Hobart is named after the Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land (as Tasmania was then known) from 1837 to 1843. The centrepiece of the park is a statue of him, with an epitaph by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, his niece's husband. Franklin Square (Q16891425) on Wikidata Franklin Square (Hobart) on Wikipedia
  • 6 The Art Society of Tasmania (Lady Franklin Gallery), 268 Lenah Valley Rd, Hobart, +61 490 910 229. In 1842, Lady Franklin commissioned a classical temple, and named it Ancanthe, "blooming valley". She intended the building to serve as a museum for Hobart, and left 400 acres (160 hectares) in trust to ensure the continuance of what she hoped would become the focus of the colony's cultural aspirations. A century of apathy followed, but in 1949 it was made the home of the Art Society of Tasmania, who rescued the building, now known as the Lady Franklin Gallery.
  • 7 Jane Franklin Hall, 6 Elboden Street, South Hobart, +61 3 6210 0100. Independent non-denominational residential college of the University of Tasmania, named in honour of Jane, Lady Franklin, wife of the famous but ill-fated Arctic explorer who from 1837 to 1843 was the sixth Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land. Jane Franklin Hall (Q6152232) on Wikidata Jane Franklin Hall on Wikipedia


Model of Erebus trapped in the ice, Nattilik Heritage Centre, Gjoa Haven, Nunavut
  • 8 Beechey Island (100 km east of Resolute, Nunavut). The expedition's first wintering location, and the burial place for their first casualties. The grave markers seen are replicas; the originals are on a Yellowknife museum. The site was not discovered until 1851, and in 1993, five archaeological sites on Beechey Island and nearby Devon Island (the Franklin wintering camp of 1845–46, Northumberland House, the Devon Island site at Cape Riley, two message cairns, and the HMS Breadalbane National Historic Site) were designated as the Beechey Island Sites National Historic Site of Canada. Beechey Island (Q741133) on Wikidata Beechey Island on Wikipedia
  • Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site (off King William Island, about 90 km by boat from Gjoa Haven, Nunavut). It protects the wrecks of HMS Erebus (discovered in 2014) and HMS Terror (2016), the two ships of Sir John Franklin's last expedition. The site is jointly managed by Parks Canada and the local Inuit people. On 5 September 2019, passengers of Adventure Canada on MS Ocean Endeavour were the first to visit the site of the wreck of HMS Erebus as part of a trial by Parks Canada in creating a visitor experience for the wreck site. Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site (Q75356330) on Wikidata Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site on Wikipedia
Ship's bell recovered from the wreck of HMS Erebus, Nattilik Heritage Centre, Gjoa Haven, September 2019
  • 9 Nattilik Heritage Centre, Gjoa Haven, King William Island, Nunavut. The first findings from the wreck of HMS Erebus are on display here, as of 2020. Nattilik Heritage Centre (Q75294326) on Wikidata Nattilik Heritage Centre on Wikipedia
  • 10 Northwest Passage Territorial Park, Gjoa Haven. The park consists of six areas that show in part the history of the exploration of the Northwest Passage and the first successful passage by Amundsen. One of them is a graveyard believed to be one of places where members of John Franklin's crew are buried. Northwest Passage Territorial Park (Q3478777) on Wikidata Northwest Passage Territorial Park on Wikipedia
  • 11 Délı̨nę (pronounced "day-li-neh", formerly Fort Franklin) (western shore of Great Bear Lake, Northwest Territories). In 1825, Peter Warren Dease of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) erected an outpost here as the staging area and winter quarters for Sir John Franklin's second Arctic expedition of 1825–1827. It became known as Fort Franklin. Sir John Franklin's diary, during the winter of 1825–1826, records that his men played ice sports very similar to what we now call hockey. As such, the modern-day town promotes itself as one of the birthplaces of the sport of ice hockey. The name Fort Franklin was changed on 1 June 1993 to Délı̨nę, which means "where the waters flow", a reference to the headwaters of the Great Bear River, Sahtúdé. In 1996, the site was designated a National Historic Site of Canada. Délı̨nę (Q1270505) on Wikidata Délı̨nę on Wikipedia
  • 12 Lady Franklin Bay (about 100 km south of Alert, Nunavut). Named after Lady Franklin, wife of famous British explorer Sir John Franklin, who became internationally well known by financing several different rescue expeditions to search for Sir John. Lady Franklin Bay reached press headlines in the United States in the period 1880–1884, after the US Army Signal Corps chose and specified that site for a base camp to make an attempt to reach the North Pole. A party of 25 military men, led by First Lieutenant Adolphus W. Greely as acting signal officer, was successfully landed by the USS Proteus in August 1881. A large frame structure was built on the northwest shore, and this home base camp, named Fort Conger, is still there. Lady Franklin Bay (Q2879471) on Wikidata Lady Franklin Bay on Wikipedia

See also[edit]

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