Scotsman 200: The fate of Sir John Franklin

Dr John Rae gave a harrowing account of Sir John Franklin's demise. Picture: National Galleries Of Scotland/Getty Images
Dr John Rae gave a harrowing account of Sir John Franklin's demise. Picture: National Galleries Of Scotland/Getty Images
Share this article
Have your say

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of The Scotsman, we are dipping into our archives to bring you a selection of some of the greatest stories ever told over the last two centuries. The following edited extract is the story which delivered the bad news that arctic explorer Sir John Franklin had perished in harrowing circumstances.


How the story appeared in The Scotsman, in 1852.

How the story appeared in The Scotsman, in 1852.

The fate of Sir John Franklin

Intelligence which may be fairly considered decisive has at last reached this country of the sad fate of Sir John Franklin and his brave companions. Dr [John] Rae, whose previous exploits as an Arctic traveller have already so highly distinguished him, landed at Deal on Sunday, and immediately proceeded to the Admiralty, and laid before Sir James Graham the melancholy evidence on which his report is founded.

Dr Rae was not employed in searching for Sir John Franklin, but in completing his survey of the coast of Boothia. He justly thought, however, that the information he had obtained greatly outweighed the importance of his survey, and he has hurried home to satisfy the public’s anxiety as to the fate of the long-lost expedition, and to prevent the risk of any more lives in a fruitless search. It would seem from his description of the place in which the bodies were found that both Sir James Ross and Captain [Joseph] Bellot must have been within a few miles of the spot to which our unfortunate countrymen had struggled on in their desperate search. A few of the unfortunate men must, he thinks, have survived until the arrival of the wild-fowl about the end of May 1850, as shots were heard and fresh bones and feathers of geese were noticed near the scene of the sad event.

The following is Dr Rae’s report to the Secretary of the Admiralty:-

“Repulse Bay, July 29, 1854

“Sir, – I have the honour to mention, for the information of my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, that, during my journey over the ice and snows this spring, with the view of completing the survey of the west shore of Boothia, I met with Esquimaux in Pelly Bay, from one of whom I learned that a party of ‘white men’ (Kabloonans) has perished from want of food some distance to the westward, and not far beyond a large river containing many falls and rapids. Subsequently, further particulars were received, and a number of articles purchased, which place the fate of a portion, if not all, of the then survivors of Sir John Franklin’s long-lost party beyond a doubt – a fate as terrible as the imagination can conceive.

“The substance of the information obtained at various times and from various sources was as follows: -

“In the spring, four winters past (spring, 1850), a party of ‘white men,’ amounting to about forty, were seen travelling southward over the ice and dragging a boat with them by some Esquimaux, who were killing seals near the north shore of King William’s land, which is a large island. None of the party could speak the Esquimaux language intelligibly, but by signs the natives were made to understand that their ship, or ships, had been crushed by ice, and that they were now going to where they expected to find deer to shoot. From the appearance of the men, all of whom except one officer looked thin, they were then supposed to be getting short of provisions, and they purchased a small seal from the natives.

“At a later date the same season, but previously to the breaking up of the ice, the bodies of some thirty persons were discovered on the continent, and five on an island near it, about a long day’s journey to the NW of a large stream, which can be no other than Back’s Great Fish River (named by the Esquimaux Oot-ko-hi-ca-lik), as its description and that of the low shore in the neighbourhood of Point Ogle and Montreal Island agree exactly with that of Sir George Back. Some of the bodies had been buried (probably by those of the first victims of famine); some were in a tent or tents; others under the boat, which had been turned over to form a shelter, and several lay scattered about in different directions. Of those found on the island one was supposed to have been an officer, as he had a telescope strapped over his shoulders and his double-barrelled gun lay underneath him.

“ From the mutilated state of many of the corpses and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource – cannibalism – as a means of prolonging existence.

“There appeared to have been an abundant stock of ammunition, as the powder was emptied in a heap on the ground by the natives out of the kegs or cases containing it; and a quantity of ball and shot was found below high water mark, having probably been left on the ice close to the beach before the spring commenced. There must have been a number of telescopes, guns (several of them double-barrelled), &c., all of which appear to have been broken up, as I saw pieces of these different articles with the Esquimaux, and together with some silver spoons and forks, purchased as many as I could get.

“None of the Esquimaux with whom I had communication saw the ‘white’ men, either when living or after death; nor had they ever been at the place where the corpses were found, but had their information from those who had been there, and who had seen the party when travelling.

“I offer no apology for taking the liberty of addressing you, as I do so from a belief that their Lordships would be desirous of being put in possession at as early a date as possible of any tidings, however meagre and unexpectedly obtained, regarding this painfully interesting subject.”

Further reports of this story are available on the Scotsman Digital Archive