Today we are discussing the bone-chilling fear that comes from knowing that all hope is gone, and your death – from the cold, or from a slow moving disease, or from starvation – is only a matter of time. We’re talking about the quest to explore the Arctic.

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Transcript for Haunted Slavery: Cannibalism, Frostbite, and The Quest for the Northwest Passage

Written and Researched by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Produced by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD and Marissa Rhodes, PhD Candidate

Marissa: There’s a Canadian folk song about men on a whaling ship in Frobisher Bay, in the far Northern reaches of eastern Canada, in the territory now known as Nunavat in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The man singing laments that the ship’s captain encouraged the men to pursue one more whale before giving up for the season – but the men know that winter is coming. Before long, the ice closes around the ship, leaving them frozen in Frobisher Bay.

Sarah: When I was a girl, my grandparents used to take me to see the Canadian folk band that wrote this song – Tamarack – and it was always my favorite song they performed. The history nerd in me loved it, but I also found it kind of terrifying – not in a ghosts and goblins sort of way, but in a very realistic way. We listened to them perform on an island in Southern Ontario, surrounded by the St. Lawrence River. As I looked around at the many pine trees, the imposing rock formations of the Thousand Islands, and the powerful, deep river, I imagined how very horrifying it would be to be trapped on a ship, frozen in the ice, hundreds and hundreds of miles from the nearest village. There was something panic-inducing about the idea of being stuck there, while the rations ran out and the frost gathered on the windows. What would become of you?

Today, we’re talking about a different kind of scary story: one that was real. It didn’t involve anything supernatural. No ghosts, no vampires, no haunted houses. Instead, just bone-chilling fear that comes from knowing that all hope is gone, and your death – from the cold, or from a slow moving disease, or from starvation – is only a matter of time. We’re talking about the quest to explore the Arctic.

I’m Sarah Handley-Cousins

And I’m Marissa Rhodes

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig

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Sarah: We were inspired to put together this episode partly because of the recent AMC series The Terror, which puts a horror spin on the doomed Franklin expedition, which we’re actually going to talk about a little later in the episode. Now, when I first saw the ads for that series – which I’ll admit, I haven’t seen yet, because I’m a cord-cutter – I was immediately intrigued and freaked out. I’m endlessly fascinated, and terrified, by stories that pit human beings against their natural environment, especially when it comes to cold weather. I’m a child of the North, and as I mentioned in our Great Lakes episode, I am always awed by moments when the earth demonstrates our smallness and powerlessness. So even before The Terror, I’ve been equally freaked out and fascinated by stories about Arctic exploration.

Marissa: But the fact is, Arctic exploration was perilous, and rarely had good results … as you’ll soon see in the many sad and scary stories we’ll tell today. Europeans long hoped that Arctic exploration would result in the discovery of a Northwest Passage – or essentially a short cut that might bring Europeans to Asia, with its many spices and trade goods, faster. There are some *very* old stories about the search for a Northwest Passage. For instance, there are records of a Greek astronomer, Pytheas, who sailed from the Mediterranean all the way to the British Isles in the 4th century BCE. Apparently, Pytheas was quite the explorer, and traveled all around the British isles. He is the first person to have described the midnight sun -or the places on earth where the sun does not set during certain months of the year. He’s also the first person recorded to have seen polar ice floes and the Artic region in general. Now, we don’t actually know anything from Pytheas himself. Although contemporary Greeks knew him and the story of his explorations quite well, apparently, all of his own writings have been lost. Instead, we have descriptions of his voyages recorded second-hand, so everything is a bit sketchy. For instance, one of Pytheas’s chroniclers recorded that “Pythease asserts that he explored in person the whole northern region of Europe as far as the ends of the world.”

A sepia toned, hand drawn ancient map depicting Europe, Greenland, and part of Northern Canada

A 15th century Norse Mappa Mundi, redrawn from a 13th c original – although many historians believe the map is a fake. | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Now, what exactly this means, he doesn’t say – after all, what seemed like the end of the world to the Greeks surely doesn’t seem so to us. But Pytheas appears to traveled further north than any other Mediterranean person, informing other Greek thinkers like Ptolemy, Eratosthenes, and others about the geography of Europe. He also described something that became called the Thule of Pytheas. Nobody knows what this actually was – but the best guesses are that he either landed on, saw, or otherwise learned about either Iceland, the Shetland islands, or Norway. Maybe. Either way, the term “thule” remained in use, and for centuries, the people of the eastern Canadian Arctic were referred to as “Thule Eskimos.”

Marissa: Many hundreds of years later are the stories of St. Brendan the Navigator, an Irish monastic saint, described in a manuscript called Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis – or the Voyages of St. Brendan the Abbott. It’s not totally clear whether these stories are factually accurate – probably not, since they’re clearly intended to be a kind of Christian pilgrimage narrative – but it is at least based on the real explorations of Irish monks, who often traveled about on little canoes and boats (coracles and curraghs) made of animal hides. Brendan, however, is supposed to have traveled as far as Iceland, where his chroniclers say that he saw icebergs. In the Navigatio, they describe what is generally assumed to be an iceberg: “When they drew near to it, St. Brendan looked towards its summit, but could not see it, because of its great height, which seemed to piece the skies. It was covered over with a rare canopy, the material of which they knew not; but it had the colour of silver, and was hard as marble, while the column itself was of the clearest crystal.” Brendan’s explorations of the Arctic are lovely, but they don’t actually tell us much about where he might have gone or what he might have discovered, since they’re mostly focused on the wonders of God’s creation rather than true exploration.

A color photograph of a statue of a Viking with a blue sky background

Seattle’s Leif Erikson memorial statue at Shilshole Bay Marina. | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: There are other Arctic voyages we actually know a little more about – the Norse, for instance, did a great deal of Arctic exploration. Bjarni Herjolffson is believed to be the first European to see North America in 986, while trying find Greenland from Iceland. He was blown off course, and saw some land with lots of trees on it that was not Greenland … yes, that’s literally the story. Not long after, Leif Erickson sailed down the same stretch of what is now Canada, which he named things like Helluland, Forest Land, and Wine Land – historians now guess this was likely Baffin Island, the Labrador coast – although we’re still not sure where Wine Land was. (I want to go there.) For a long time, Erickson’s exploration of the region was understood as most likely mere legend, but starting in the 1960s, archaeological research has uncovered no shortage of evidence of Norse settlements in this area of Canada.

Marissa: All these ancient voyages added evidence, over the course of centuries, to theories that there was a passage through this region to Asia. During the so-called age of discovery, pressure mounted for European nations to establish empires and be the first to blaze new trade routes. When Ferdinand Magellan found a route around the tip of South America to the Pacific Ocean for the Spanish, other European nations rushed to find their own short cuts. (Not that that route is actually all that short … ) France sent Giovanni Verazzano sailed along the coastline of what is now the eastern seaboard of the United States, from South Carolina to Maine, trying in vain to find a break in the shore that indicated a route through the continent. A few years later, Jacques Cartier managed to do a bit better by finding his way into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, then later the St. Lawrence River itself, following the river in all the way to what would now be Quebec, just north of the New York/Vermont border. Cartier was, comparatively, very successful: he claimed a new land for France – Canada – and established a French presence in a Haudenosaunee village that is now Quebec City. He was also completely convinced that the St. Lawrence continued on through the entire continent, even though he was thwarted in advancing any further inland by the rocks and rapids of the river near modern day Montreal. He was so convinced, in fact, that he named the encampment he established at this point, and the rapids that surrounded it, La Chine, for China. There’s still a town in that spot called Lachine, Quebec.

Oh, and he also probably named Canada, because he misinterpreted some Iroquois folks who were trying to tell him something about their village – the Iroquois work for ‘village’ is kanata. Good going, Jacques.

Sarah: What Cartier did not expect was the harsh nature of Canadian winters. Montreal is actually farther South in terms of latitude than Paris, but nonetheless, weather patterns make North America far colder than Europe. Cartier’s journal records that “from the middle of November until the fifteenth of April we lay frozen up in the ice, which was more than two fathoms [twelve feet] in thickness, while on shore there was more than four feet of snow, so that is was higher than the bulwarks of the ships … all our beverages froze in their casks … and the whole river was frozen where the water was fresh.” What Cartier described there was what each of the next voyages we’ll discuss encountered – but most of them dismissed the dangers of Canadian winters. Cartier fared relatively well, although his crew struggled against the ice, against their low rations, and against outbreaks of scurvy during the long winters. Cartier’s relative success inspired the English, who were feeling fairly left behind. Robert Thorne, an English merchant, suggested to Henry VIII that the English needed to get in on empire train – and that since the Portuguese and Spanish had found their new lands to the South, the English should seek out lands to the North. His suggestion might have had some logic, but it didn’t have any specific details, and wasn’t really based on any actual maps.

A black and white picture of a man wearing ballooned pants and a wide frilled collar

Sir Hugh Willoughby | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: It wasn’t until years later that the English took their first Northern venture, headed up by Sir Hugh Willoughby and Richard Chancellor. They left London and sailed west and north, up around Denmark, then over and around Norway. Somewhere north of Finland, the ships, the Edward Bonaventura sailed by Chancellor, and the Bona Esperanza and the Bona Confidentia, which were directed by Willoughby, were separated in a storm. Chancellor landed in Archangelsk, on the Northern Dvina River where it meets the White Sea in Russia. From there, Chancellor took his men and walked overland to Moscow, where he conducted some business with Ivan IV. Willoughby, on the other hand, did not fare so well. Willoughby’s ships were not sighted again until Russian fishermen found the two ships in the spring of 1555, almost a year after they were last sighted. All the men were on board – but dead. Willoughby’s journal was found on board. He had scribbled in the margins that in January 1554, they were “stranded in ‘The Haven of Death.’” Most assumed that the crew had simply frozen to death, but later reports made that seem less likely. A description of the corpses gives us an idea as to why: There were “strange things about the mode in which they were frozen, having found some o them seated in the act of writing, pen still in hand, and the paper before them; others at table, platters in hand and spoon in mouth; others opening a locker, and others in various postures, like statues, as if they had been adjusted and placed in these attitudes.” The Bona Esperanza and Bona Confidentia had become literal ghost ships, floating about with the frozen corpses of their crew.

Sarah: No one knows exactly what happened to the crews of Willoughby’s ships. It seems easy to say that they froze to death – but if that report is to be believed, the men all froze while in the midst of activity, which isn’t how freezing to death works. But there’s one theory that is really surprisingly, but seems likely: carbon monoxide poisoning. Willoughby made the wise decision, according to his journal, to stop and overwinter in Russian waters. It makes a lot of sense that the men sealed the chinks in the ships’ hulls, closed up the hatches and portholes. Then, they burned the fuel they had brought with them – which was, for the first time, sea coal rather than wood. The resulting fumes silently killed the entire crew while they went about their business, leaving eerie, life-like corpses.

Marissa: After the disaster that was the Willoughby expedition, the English debated whether it was worthwhile to continue their search for a faster passage to China or new Northern territories. Elizabeth I was petitioned by competing factions: some who wanted to abandon Arctic exploration and instead try to find a Southern route to Asia, and some who wanted to continue trying to find a Northern one – but by going in the opposite direction. Instead of going east, like Willoughby, through Scandinavia and into Russia, these men advocated going west, toward Canada, encouraged by the precedent set by Cartier. Although the advocates for the southern route argued – correctly – that the Arctic posed unique problems because it, y’know, freezes over for the better part of the year, Elizabeth was persuaded nonetheless by the northwest folks. After all, sailing to the north would avoid an even larger obstacle than ice: the Spanish, who dominated the southern seas. To lead this new mission, the Crown chose Martin Frobisher, who had been petitioning for permission to take such a trip and had done a great deal of fundraising to make it happen – he even married a wealthy widow and essentially took all her money to fund the voyage. (Then never saw her again and she died in a poorhouse – romantic.) Frobisher set off in 1576. Frobisher had great success – he successfully navigated around what he named the Frobisher’s straits, and Frobisher’s Bay, at the tip of Baffin’s island.

Sarah: In all, Frobisher took three voyages. The last, in 1578, was the largest and the most tortured. Then ships were constantly plagued by ice, meaning that the crew had to work around the clock to keep breaking up and pushing ice away to protect the hulls. “The poor mariners,” wrote one of the voyage’s captains, “having poles, pikes, pieces of timber and ores in their hands, stood almost day and night, without nay rest, bearing off the force, and breaking the sway of the ice, with such incredible pain and peril that it was wonderful to behold.” The men were tired and stressed. One of the ships, the Dennis, sank. Other ships became separated and stranded. Frobisher spent precious time trying to venture into the larger and more dangerous Hudson Strait, only to finally turn around and enter the safer, but ultimately dead-end Frobisher Strait. Even in the middle of the summer, one of the captains wrote that “There fell so much snow, with such bitter cold air, that we could scarce see one another for the same, nor open our eyes to handle our ropes and sails, the snow being above half a foot deep upon the hatches of our ship, which did so wet thorough our poor mariners clothes, that he had five or six shift of apparel, had scarce one dry thread on his back.” Sailors worked with frozen ropes, which cut into their hands, and their clothes froze solid on their backs. Things were not going well, which did not bode well for a quick and easy Northwest passage. Ultimately, the sailors failed to do much of anything new on the third voyage – except they found great quantities of what they believed to be ore, containing precious metals, mined from Baffin Island. Like many of the things associated with these voyages, this was also a bust: the ore was worthless, and was used to repair roads and build stone walls around farms in Dartford, England. Wooho. Definitely worth it.

Marissa: There are other voyages that take place during this period, but we’re going to skip ahead to another doomed venture: the voyage of Henry Hudson. Hudson was an experience seaman and explorer, who had already been on a couple of Arctic voyages in the early 1600s. In September 1608, for instance, Hudson sailed into New York Bay, and discovered a significant waterway that he hoped was a passage to the Pacific Ocean – he was wrong, but he had (unwittingly) been the first European to sail the Hudson River. That voyage had been funded by the Dutch, who were in the process of colonizing New Netherlands. But Hudson himself was English, and the Crown wanted him to do his discovering on their behalf. In April 1610, Hudson took another voyage, funded by English merchants, to seek a passage through the Canadian arctic in a ship called The Discovery. There were 22 men on board, mostly hired at the last minute and without a great deal of care, and from the beginning, discipline was a problem. Most of the men were experienced sailors, but weren’t necessarily aware of the perils of this particular voyage. Hudson did find a new possibility – the passage we now call the Hudson Strait – but by the time the explored the mouth of the strait, they were already hitting dangerous ice. After a lot of debate, Hudson decided to press on despite the risk, and the Discovery navigated the strait into another enormous, open body of water – what we now call Hudson Bay. This was extremely encouraging to Hudson, and gave him confidence that he had finally found the key to navigating around Canada to the north to reach the Pacific. Hudson was so confident, in fact, that he refused to listen to the advice of his navigator, Abacuk Pricket, who insisted that the ship find a place to make landfall for the winter.

Sarah: This proved to be a very, very bad decision. They were already fighting the ice in early summer, and by early November, the Discovery was frozen solid in the ice, unable to move. Thus far, no arctic expedition had ever attempted to overwinter on their voyage, almost always choosing to turn back before the ice trapped them. Hudson failed to make that choice. This was of course dangerous because of the bitter cold and fierce weather, but it was made moreso because Hudson had only accounted for 6 months. The situation on the Discovery was already tense, and the cold and short rations only made it worse. Because of the ice, the men were able to leave the ship to hunt when the weather allowed – but at other times, rations ran so short they resorted to eating moss and frogs. Soon, the crew had scurvy. According to Abacuk Pricket, whose diary is really our main source of the situation on the Discovery, the men suspected that Hudson was hoarding food, which bred bitterness and distrust. Hudson made things worse by arguing and fighting with his crew, even those who remained sympathetic to him. For example, Hudson attacked the ship’s carpenter, who had often defended Hudson against the other men. Pricket wrote that Hudson “Feretted him out of his cabin and struck him, calling him by many foul words, and threatened to hang him.”

Marissa: The ice finally broke up and allowed the Discovery to get underway in mid-June 1611, which meant that if they were to do any more exploring, they would only have a mere matter of months before being trapped again. Even when the ice broke, huge chunks made travel slow and arduous. It was soon clear that Hudson was not planning to return to England as the men hoped, but rather was committed to continuing onward in search of the Northwest passage. Within a week, they had only traveled about twelve miles. That was the last straw. On June 23, three of the crewmembers broke into Hudson’s cabin, seized the captain, and bound his arms behind him. They placed the captain on a small sailboat, and then forced – at knifepoint – all of the sick, disabled, or weakened men, and Hudson’s son. Pricket’s journal states that the mutineers provided the men on the sailboat with some supplies – clothes, powder and shot, pikes, a pot, and some food. Then they cut the boat loose, set their sails, and took off, abandoning Hudson to his fate. No one ever saw the men alive again. As they were forced into the tiny vessel, Hudson and his refugee crew must have known that they would die: it would be impossible to sail home, and there would be no rescue vessel in the far reaches of arctic Canada.

A painting depicting an older, bearded man holding a young boy while steering a small boat surrounded by mountains of ice

John Collier, The Last Voyage of Henry Hudson | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: The mutineers didn’t fare all that well either. Within a few weeks of jettisoning Hudson, the Discovery, several of the crew went ashore to hunt. As their dingy reached the shore, they were greeted by a group of Inuit. Abacuk Pricket was watching this landing from the rowboat. Suddenly, an Inuit man attacked Pricket just as he saw that the shore party were attacked by the greeting Inuit. According to Pricket’s journal: “Whilst I was thus assaulted in the boat, our men were set upon the shore, John Thomas and William Wilson had their bowels cut, and Michael Perse and Henry Greene, being mortally wounded, came tumbling into the boat together.” The wounded men frantically rowed back to the ship, but by the time they reached the Discovery, Greene, one of the mutineers, was already dead. By the next day, three more men had died. This left just one inexperienced hand to take over navigating the ship toward home. He actually did a pretty good job, but his proficiency didn’t help solve the same old problem: food. As they waited out the months of passage across the cold Atlantic, they resorted to chewing on chicken bones cooked in candle wax. Most of the crew, including all of the leaders of the mutiny, died before they ever saw England again. Finally, the ship managed to make it to Southern Ireland. Though mutiny is a serious crime, none of the survivors were charged – instead, they eventually were charged with murder, but these charges were eventually dropped.

Marissa: What’s so baffling and scary about the Hudson mutiny is that, comparatively speaking and based purely in terms of European discovery, Hudson was quite successful! It didn’t matter. The weather, the climate, and the realities of an arctic voyage, made any success irrelevant. Another later expedition also found this out the hard way. In the early 18th century, James Knight, an explorer who worked for the Hudson Bay Company, struck out on yet another attempt to explore the Canadian arctic. Knight also wanted to find a northwest passage, especially after preliminary maps from Hudson’s voyage left the western half of Hudson Bay open and full of possibilities. But he was also influenced by many rumors about gold, copper, and other treasures in the frozen expanses of Northern Canada, and by the possibility of establishing a fur trade with the indigenous people. Unsurprisingly, it was hard for Knight to convince anyone to fund a trip. Finally, Knight set sail in 1719 with two ships: the Albany and the Discovery. (Recall that that was the name of Hudson’s ill fated ship!) Knight’s navigation plan – based on his instructions to the navigator of the second ship – were to “endeavor to find out the Straits of Anian.” That might sound relatively straightforward – just go to that strait! – but the problem was the strait of Anian was sort of imaginary. It was used as another name for the northwest passage, one that had been used since the time of Pythaes. Basically Knight’s instructions were: find the northwest passage. Hey, helpful. The ships left the Thames in June 1719 laden with empty chests they confidently believed they would fill with the mineral riches of Canada. No one ever saw the ships, or their crews, again.

Sarah: For next several months, other English merchants heard reports of the Knight expedition’s movements, but in 1621, a merchant cryptically reported to England that he had traveled north “to where the Albany and sloop was lost we seeing things belonging to those vessels.” But for some reason, this merchant did nothing to investigate further or search for survivors. The next year, another ship noted the mast of a ship sticking out of the icy sea near a forbidding marble-white island, and later noted that they had found an Inuit camp full of what appeared to be pieces of a ship. Forty or so years later, two Hudson Bay Company ships happened upon that same marble-white island, and could tell that the shore showed evidence of an encampment. They went ashore, and discovered what was later identified as unmistakable evidence of Knight’s ships. A year or so later, another voyage spotted the massive remains of the ships, sunken in some 30 feet of water. While no one knows exactly what happened to the ships, or how they came to the shore of that island, but local Inuit were able to describe at least some of what had happened to the crew at the end : “Two survived many days after the rest, and frequently went to the top of an adjacent rock, and earnestly looked to the South and East, as if in expectation of some vessels coming to their relief. After continuing there a considerable time together, and nothing appearing in sight, they sat down close together, and wept bitterly ..At length one of the two died, and the other’s strength was so far exhausted, that he fell down and died also, in attempting to dig a gave for his companion.”

Marissa: Easily the most well-known arctic expedition was the one led in 1845 by John Franklin. In 1843, Capt. John Clark Ross had returned to England from a relatively successful scientific exploration of the region. He hadn’t located a northwest passage, and it certainly hadn’t been an easy voyage, but he had ventured further and identified more new lands than any previous expedition. What this meant was that Ross’s ships, the Erebus and the Terror, were available for us. Both ships were what were called bomb vessels – a nickname that came from the fact that the hulls were extremely thick, so thick they might withstand mortars in battle. This also meant that the hulls were better able to travel through icy waters. Ross’s relative success made the English Admiralty even more convinced to press on in its search for the passage. Sir John Barrow, Second Secretary of the Admiralty, assured Lord Haddington, First Lord of the Admiralty, that there would not be “any apprehension of the loss of ships or men,” and somehow argued with a straight face that the straits he wanted a new voyage to explore didn’t freeze over. Moreover, another voyage could conduct important scientific investigations, and protect British honor from the possibility that the Russians might discover a passage first. These arguments must have worked, because preparations for another expedition, under the direction of 59 year old Naval officer Captain John Franklin, began within a matter of months. The Terror and the Erebus were well outfitted, with large crews, the already strong hulls further reinforced, 3 years’ worth of rations, hundreds of books, and even the new technology of small engines. One historian says that it was the most ‘lavishly equipped Arctic expedition to date’ – it seemed certain that it would be a success.

Sarah: Franklin himself was a little less confident. He was under tremendous pressure from Sir Barrow, but did not feel that Barrow’s belief that the strait he was sent to explore would be easily passable. His uneasy feeling proved right. The ships were seen by another vessel sailing into Baffin Bay in July 1845, and never seen again. Initially, the Admiralty was not all that worried – after all, on an arctic voyage, it was not surprising that you wouldn’t hear from the expedition for long stretches of time. Starting in 1847, though Jane Franklin, the captain’s wife, began to agitate for a rescue expedition. Over the next few years, several missions tried (and failed) to find Franklin and his men. One reason the missions were so unsuccessful was actually a quirk of the weather. In 1846, when Franklin had traveled, the ice was unusually low, allowing Franklin to travel into and then beyond Baffin Bay, in the belief that they had found the long-sought passage. In 1848/9, when James Ross came to find him, the ice was heavier, so Ross’s men were convinced that Franklin could not have gone further because the waterway was frozen solid. Finding nothing, Ross gave up and returned to England. In 1850, Lady Franklin herself financed another expedition to go in search of her husband. In late August, 1850, an American expedition (who sailed on the urging of Lady Franklin) found the first evidence of the doomed ships: graves. On a snowy island, the Americans found several grave markers. One, for a man named John Torrington, stated that the man had died “1 January 1846 on board the HM Ship Terror.” But Franklin had taken over 100 men, so these few graves weren’t enough for the whole crew. Other ships found other clues, such as scaps of paper, soup cans, clothes, and sled tracks that indicated that Franklin’s crew had been present, but no trace of the men or where they had gone.

A black and white handwritten note written in the margins of a printed form

A note discovered after Franklin’s expedition was lost, detailing some of what happened to the crew. | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: Back in England, most people still assumed that Franklin was alive, and waiting out the weather somewhere in the great Northwest Passage. Franklin was even promoted to Rear-Admiral in 1852, seven years after he had last been seen. In 1854, Scottish explorer John Rae met a group of Inuit hunters while on a voyage funded by the Hudson Bay Company. While talking to the hunters, Rae learned that Franklin’s ships had frozen in the ice in the fall of 1846. Piecing together what Rae learned with what we’ve learned since, we now know that Franklin was trapped there. This was not initially a big deal. Franklin had expected to be frozen in (as he should; all of the previous voyages had!) so he had packed extra food, including canned goods. This surely would have gotten them through to the summer. But what he didn’t account for was the summer ice. The intense cold of those years meant that the ice never broke up in the summer. They were completely and hopelessly trapped. But the ships were well outfitted, and the heavy hulls must have kept the crew fairly warm and safe. Yet for some reason, we now know that the men of the Erebus and Terror left the safety of the ships and ventured across the expanses of ice in an attempt to reach a fur trading outpost some 1000 miles away. They took little food, and instead planned to eat fish and birds. It proved to be a very bad decision. Ice fishing would never have fed them adequately. Eventually, it seems they resorted to cannibalism: bones left along the trail they trekked show clear signs of tool marks, and what archaeologists call “pot polishing,” or a pattern of smoothing that happens when the ends of bones rub against a cooking vessel as they cook. It even appears that some bones were cracked and the marrow sucked out – a sign of what scientists call “end stage cannibalism.” When men are starving, and have eaten all the meat, they resort to sucking the marrow from human bones.

Sarah: We want to tell you about one, last ill-fated voyage, from a group that we haven’t actually mentioned yet – the Americans. Starting after the Civil War, the US Army Signal Corps began to consider its own arctic expedition – not, actually, to find a northwest passage, but to conduct scientific studies, specifically about the weather. I’m not sure if this episode still exists, but years ago, as History Buffs, we did an episode about winter storms, and in it, I talked about how in the 1880s, there was an effort to start better tracking and predicting the weather, so that Americans might be better prepared in the event of severe weather, especially from devastating blizzards. The mission was to be led by Lt. Adolphous Greely, a Civil War veteran and soldier through and through. Greely was tasked, in his own words, with taking “simultaneous observations of all physical phenomena.” Unlike previous expeditions, Greely’s expedition was not a naval one, but an army one. Instead of exploring waterways, the 25 men would be dropped off and left there to make their observations. They would then be picked up, after a couple of years, to return to the US. But let’s be real – it wasn’t just the scientific knowledge that the US Army was after. In addition to their weather observations, they were seeking to secure the achievement of ‘furthest North’ for the Americans, who really had not yet made a name for themselves in such exploration outside of the US.

Marissa: Many of the men were soldiers – not particularly trained in arctic exploration. Many of them were simply looking for a change of pace from their service in the West during the Indian Wars – to them, this seemed like a piece of cake. Go winter camping for a few years, observe the weather, make a few bucks, and come home. For other men, the expedition was a scientific adventure, a way to seek glory for themselves and for America. That’s not what they got. They built an encampment they named Fort Conger, which became their new home. Right away, the venture was significantly harder than the men expected. The weather the first winter, of 1881, was brutal. Their weather notes indicate that it was regularly between -44 – -54. As one historian notes, at those temperatures, your pee actually freezes before it hits the ground. The men were completely isolated – there was nothing but frozen expanse to every direction. Plus, it was dark 24 hours a day. The only thing to do was take the weather observations (upwards of 500 observations a day) regardless of how cold or windy or bitter it was outside. Naturally, the men started to get frustrated. There was a lot of squabbling, particularly over menial tasks like laundry and cooking. Greely reacted fiercely – showing that he was not a particularly skilled leader. He lectured the men, and warned them that if they continued to be insubordinate, he would have to start summarily executing them. In Greely’s mind, he probably thought that he was establishing his authority, but it ended up losing him the men’s respect.

A photograph with showing several men and sled dogs set in a white polar background

Members of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, 1881 | Library of Congress

Sarah: Despite all this, they were still committed to beating the British record for furthest north. In the spring of 1882, when the sun came back, two different groups of men set out to travel north. The first group, led by George Rice, traveled for four weeks, but then were forced to turn back without reaching their goal. The other group, led by David Brainard, took a different route, and in May 1882, this group were able to travel to 83’23”8s North – 4 miles further north than any one had ever traveled. Brainard was thrilled with this achievement – they placed an American flag, and even carved a rock with the logo of Brainard’s favorite beer. They were only 455 miles away from the North Pole. That’s pretty unbelievable for a group of men, in the 19th century, on foot! This achievement helped with morale, but that summer, things started to get tense again. They were supposed to get a relief ship that summer, with fresh supplies and letters from home, but the ship never appeared. The men were extremely demoralized. The men didn’t know this, but the ship, called the Proteus, had been crushed in the ice and sunk. Even if it had been successful, it wouldn’t have been able to get through ice that blocked the strait that would have brought it to Ft. Conger, making it impossible to get the men their supplies.

Marissa: Greely made the fateful decision to abandon Fort Conger. The contingency plans that Greely had in his orders said that if the ship didn’t arrive the first summer, the men were to leave the fort and travel South toward where the ship could meet them (the mouth of the strait, where it was blocked with ice). If it still didn’t come, they were to leave a group there to keep an eye out for the ships. This was intensely stupid. The fort was warm, well-supplied, and surrounded by game for hunting. The men thought that Greely had lost his mind, but to Greely, orders were orders. (Now, keep in mind, these orders were written long in advance of the mission, and without any boots-on-the-ground understanding of what life in the arctic is actually like.) Under orders from Greely, the men locked up Fort Conger, boarded their small ship, and started to sail out toward the neck of the strait to where they might be rescued. Making matters worse, Lt. Greely was not handling the stress well. When he wasn’t snapping at the men and threatening to kill them for insubordination, he was hiding in his sleeping bag. He came up with sort of irrational plans, including the idea that they abandon their boat and instead take their supplies and get on an ice floe, which would presumably follow the currents to their destination. None of this helped earn him the respect of the men. Things veered dangerously toward what had happened to Henry Hudson’s voyage: mutiny. A plot arose to have the group’s doctor declare the Lt insane, then declare David Brainard the leader of the mission. Brainard refused to participate, so the mutiny fell apart.

Sarah: But then the steamboat became trapped in the ice. With few other choices, they abandoned the boat and went out onto the ice. Unbelievably, they essentially followed Greely’s nutso plan to float around on an ice floe, which did bring them to a rocky island. Unfortunately for them, the winter was bearing down on them. Back on land, discipline actually improved as Greely pulled it together and became a better leader – partly because they had no other choice but to work together. Things quickly became dire. They lived together in a tiny hut. The sun disappeared. Temperatures plummeted. They started to run dangerously low on food. Even with careful and disciplined rationing, it was very clear that they were going to run out of food. There was no hunting – the only hope was the possibility of cached food left by previous explorers. George Rice led several trips out from their tiny hut trying desperately to find anything they could eat. On their last venture, in November 1882, incredibly, they found some meat left behind by a British expedition. But as they tried to make the five day’s walk back to their encampment, one of the men got frostbite and was unable to go any further. They could only save him if they left behind the meat. Rice made the decision to save their comrade – dragging the suffering man on a sled until they could not go any further. Rice himself walked the last 12 miles to the camp, gathered a rescue party, and walked back out to where they had left the sled. Their frost-bitten friend wasn’t joyous to see them – instead, in his intense pain, he cried and begged them to kill him.

Marissa: Later, in their hut, the man’s frostbitten extremities started to fall off. First a finger, then a foot. Men started to die. Others started to lose their minds. Everyone knew that the expedition was going to end very, very badly. George Rice wrote in his diary: “Ellis tells me of being intimidated of the other inhabitants of his sleeping bag, and talks of cannibalism. I much fear the horrors of our last days here.” Exhausted, cold, and starving to death, they tried again and again to venture back out to find food. On one such attempt, one of the men, named Sergeant Fredericks, watched as the brave George Rice died of hypothermia, slowly descending into dementia before dying in his comrade’s arms. Fredericks almost killed himself in the process of trying to ensure a decent burial for his friend.

Sarah: Unbeknownst to the men, Dolph Greely’s wife, Henrietta, was lobbying tirelessly to get the government to save her husband. When appealing to Congress didn’t work, she went to the press, and created a public outcry that pressured the government into sending another rescue mission. It was desperately needed. Things were getting worse. Men were dying at a rate of nearly one a week. The crew learned that once a man started to become delusional, it meant an inevitable decline into death. When a man started to rave, they sadly knew what was coming. Can you imagine the constant heart break this would cause? It’s just horrifying. They also were forced to execute one man for stealing rations. The men started to accept the fact that they would all die. They prepared their wills, left letters and diaries, hoping they would be found. Greely writes these devastatingly sad letters to his wife, remembering their happiest moments together and saying his goodbyes. In late June, a terrible storm collapsed their only remaining shelter. They had to huddle together, totally exposed, and on the ground. They were simply waiting to die.

A photograph showing a man laying down in a sleeping bag made from animal skin

A hide sleeping bag used by the Greeley expedition men | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: In an incredible stroke of luck, it was just at that time that they were approached by a group of men—they were being rescued. Seven men were found alive, but one more died on board the ship on the return trip. It was surreal: had they not been rescued, they all would have been dead within hours. Now, they were on a ship, wrapped in furs, with food so plentiful some of the men were moved almost to tears to see the ship’s garbage thrown over board – as Brainard noted, that garbage would undoubtedly kept the rest of their group alive long enough to be rescued.

Sarah: But the rescuers had noticed something when they came into Greely’s last camp: dead bodies stewn about, unburied, with strip of flesh very clearly sliced off. These reports made it into the newspapers, and quickly, it became the only thing anyone wanted to talk about – not their survival, not their scientific observations. It haunted the men for the rest of their lives, and it tainted their important observations. No one wanted to do anything with Greely’s hard won scientific data. But oddly enough, his observations are incredibly valuable today, because they give us insight into the effects of climate change – which, by the way, are super, super bad.

Final note: there is a northwest passage, but it’s not what anyone ever guessed. It’s actually a really complicated and arduous path in and around various islands in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. I think it was finally first navigated in 1906.


Barclay, George Lippard. The Greely Arctic Expedition as Fully Narrated by Lieut. Greely, U.S.A., and Other Survivors: Full Account of the Terrible Sufferings on the Ice, and Awful Experience of Cannibalism. Barclay & Company, 1887.

Todd, Alden. Abandoned: The Story of the Greely Expedition, 1881-1884. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1961.

Williams, Glyn. Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage. Berkley: University of California Press, 2009.

The American Experience, The Greely Expedition, 2011.

The Doomed Franklin Expedition

Franklin’s Doomed Expedition Ended in Gruesome Cannibalism

Cannabalism, Frostbite, and the quest for the Nortwest Passage


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