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The U.S. Grinnell Expedition in search of Sir John Franklin

posted 15 Jun 2016, 05:30 by Historie van de Oceanografie Club   [ updated 15 Jun 2016, 05:32 ]
From: E.K. Kane, 1854. The U.S. Grinnell Expedition in search of Sir John Franklin. Harper & Brothers, New York. 552 pp.
by Gerhard C. Cadée, R. Neth. Inst. Sea Research (

John Franklin’s lost expedition with the Erebus and Terror in the Arctic became one of the most discussed. In search of the Northwest Passage’, Franklin departed England in 1845 and the entire expedition, Franklin and his 128 expedition members, was never heard of after. Wikipedia gives excellent information on Franklin’s expedition. It mentions all the search expeditions and what they found, up to the identification of the wreck of the Erebus in 2014. It also reviews all the suggestions why everyone was killed: cold, starvation, cannibalism, diseases including scurvy, pneumonia, tuberculosis, lead poisoning. Nevertheless John Franklin became a Victorian hero, not Kane and many others who survived in search of Franklin.

The First Grinnell expedition
In 1848 the British Admiralty launched an expedition in search of Franklin. But before the beginning of 1850 they had abounded the search without results. In parti­cular Franklin’s wife stimulated renewed efforts and claimed help from other countries. As a result also Henry Grinnell, a New York merchant, fitted out two of his own vessels the Advance and Rescue and offered them to the US government for a search expedition. Elisha Kent Kane, senior medical officer on this expedition, was asked to write the history of it. The 22nd of May 1850 the ships left New York. No less than 13 ships joined the search in 1850.
The brigs Advance and Rescue had a small crew of 33 in total. They were small vessels (together only 235 tons) as compared with the frigates and corvettes of the US naval Kane was used to. How­ever they proved to be strong enough to survive a voyage of almost 16 months most of the time kept in ice. Kane gives a detailed description of the voyage, based on the diary he kept.

Partly drifting in pack ice they reach their northernmost point 76o 25’ N in Baffins Bay in August, where they find open water and sail to Lancaster Sound and enter Barrow Straits as far west as Griffith Island 96o W. Here they meet in total 8 other search vessels and in a joint research on land they found an encampment of Franklin’s men as well as 3 graves of people from the Erebus and Terror. Probably they stayed here their first winter. The Rescue and Advance planned to travel North in the Wellington Channel but soon became hindered by ice and remained drifting with the ice, first to the North but soon all way back to Baffin Bay. Not before early June 1851 they became free and directed towards the Whale-fish Islands (Disko). They remained for some time on terra firma to recuperate and decided to go again north­ward but became closed-in by ice at 74o N and as soon as they became free again, the 10thof August, decided not to stay another winter. One of the main reasons was the scurvy. Most of the 33 members of the expedition suffered from scurvy. Although it was know that vegetables and fruit would have been the best remedy, their was not enough available for a second winter in the ice. The meat of birds, polar foxes and ice bears had not the effect they hoped it would give. Nor could Kane prove his statement that active exercises were the best safeguard against scurvy. Nevertheless all 33 members returned home alive. Both vessels reached New York early October 1851.

New search plan

The book ends with a the text of a lecture ‘Access to a Polar Sea’ read by the author for the American Geographical and Statistical Society on December 14 in 1852. Here he explains his plans for a follow up of the search. Based on a couple of arguments, including their discovery of open water in the Northern Baffin bay, he believes in an open Arctic Sea, North of where they stranded in pack ice in 1850. They should travel in winter with sledges over the ice to reach this open Polar Sea, and continue their travel in rubber boats. Here they might encounter the remains of Franklin’s expedition. In 1953 when the book went to the press, Kane was already on a second Polar expedition made possible by Grinnell.

What makes this book remarkable are the many text figures and the plates. These are engravings based on sketches by the author himself, redrawn by J. Hamilton and engraved by J. Sartain. These engravings are in the mezzotint style, which enables to give distinctive dramatic atmospheric effects. This was first used and made famous by John Martin (1789-1854) in engravings after his own paintings of for instance the Deluge (1828), but also used in pictures of the ‘deep past’ (see Rudwick, 1992). This example of Sartain’s engravings may show their dramatic beauty.

Martin J.S., 1992. Scenes from Deep Time. Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World. Univ. Chicago Press, pp.294