By now the Admiralty had washed its hands of the Franklin expedition, and in any case the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853 kept the Royal Navy fully occupied. Nevertheless, Lady Franklin was determined to discover the fate of her husband, and between 1850 and 1857 she organised several private expeditions to the Arctic.
In 1857, at personal expense, she acquired the steam yacht Fox and persuaded Captain Francis Leopold McClintock to command one last expedition in search of Sir John, even though there could be very little chance of finding any of the expedition alive. With Alan Young as Master of the Fox, the expedition left Aberdeen in July 1857 and reached Melville Bay in August.
It wasn’t until spring 1859, that McClintock led a sledge party overland to King William Island. Here he met two Inuit families who provided him with a number of relics from the expedition and later he was able to obtain some silver-plated items from another group of Inuit. In May 1859, Lieutenant Hobson, leading another sledge party, reached Cape Victory on King William Island and found a stone cairn containing a sealed copper tube. Inside the tube was a report which recorded that Sir John Franklin died on 11 June 1847, that the ships had been abandoned and that the remaining crew set off to walk to the Great Fish River. The mystery was conclusively solved.
Roald Amundsen, 1872-1928 (S0014464)
The many searches for the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin led to the discovery of almost all of the previously uncharted Arctic waterways. The tremendous amount of knowledge gained was to be of great help to the man who eventually made the first complete navigation of a Northwest Passage. That man was no other than Roald Amundsen, the man made famous some years later when he beat Captain Scott in the race to the South Pole.
Reading the accounts of the British Arctic explorers and witnessing the exploits of his fellow Norwegian, Fridtjof Nansen, filled Amundsen with a thirst for polar glory. After a sealing expedition in the Arctic, Amundsen joined the Belgica Antarctic Expedition of 1897-99, gaining valuable polar experience. During his time in the Antarctic he began planning an expedition to find a Northwest Passage.
‘The Gjoa in summer, Gjoahaven, King William Island’. Photograph by Roald Amundsen (S0019271)
Back home he purchased a small fishing boat, the Gjøa, recruited a small party of like-minded men and in order to avoid his creditors, slipped out of Christiania (Oslo) harbour in the dead of night. After collecting sledge dogs in West Greenland he headed into Lancaster Sound, reaching Beechey Island in August 1903. After taking magnetic observations they headed into Peel Sound and it was here that Amundsen made the decision that was to lead to his ultimate success; instead of sailing west round King William Island and becoming stuck in the ice of Victoria Strait (as had Franklin), Amundsen sailed east round the island through the Ross and Rae straits. The waters of the Ross Strait were shallow and the Gjøa ran aground several times but eventually they got through and south of the island found a very good little harbour which they named Gjøa Haven.