Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Stephen Samuel Stanley

Due in large part to his icily brilliant portrayal by Alistair Petrie in AMC's current series "The Terror," Stephen Samuel Stanley has moved into sudden prominence among Franklin's officers and men. Petrie seems to have picked up on a certain hint of haughtiness, which seems to me evident in his Daguerreotype: he is posed at his ease, face at a perfect 3/4 angle, with just the slightest hint of a smile -- doubtless one of self-satisfaction. In the series, Petrie expands this into a consistently arch, aloof, private man, who repeatedly emphasizes that Mr. Goodsir is not a doctor, while he is "Doctor Stanley."

But who was he in real life? Was he in fact a doctor of medicine? And who is the mysterious "daughter" alluded to in one episode (she appears in a drawing in his journal), the one who may (or may not) love birds?

HMS Cornwallis in service as a jetty
Stephen Samuel Stanley qualified and entered the Navy as an assistant surgeon on June 5th, 1838. There were a number of ways he could have qualified for this post -- a degree in medicine was not required, -- although there is a record indicating he studied for a time under Sir William Fergusson, at the time Britain's leading anatomist and later sergeant-surgeon to HM the Queen. As with many of the other younger officers, Stanley first saw active duty in the China War of 1842, aboard HMS Cornwallis. The Cornwallis, a 74-gun third rater, saw considerable action, and was selected as the site for the Treaty of Nanking to be signed. Remarkably, although built in 1813 (the same year as HMS Terror), the Cornwallis was converted to a jetty and survived until 1957, when she was broken up at Sheerness.

As to Stanley himself, the record is less clear. Although it's not often mentioned -- and wasn't apparently known to some of his brother officers -- he was married, and had at least one (step) child, a son, Samuel Leopold Stanley, who died in 1861 at the age of 27 in Hastings. This would have made him a lad of eleven when the Franklin expedition sailed. Curiously, the record shows that our Stephen married Mary Ann Windus on May 10th, 1845 -- this would have been scarcely ten days before the ships sailed! This raises the possibility that the son was Mary's from a previous marriage -- and yet, for whatever reason, Stanley did not alter his will of 1839, which made no mention of, or provisions for, any family. Mary Ann died in 1873 at the age of 67, and was mentioned in her notices as Stanley's widow; although the AMC series makes reference to a daughter, there is no record of any other children. A genealogist of the Windus family, who has done a good deal of digging into the matter, believes that the son was in fact Mary Ann's, born as Samuel Leopold Speight -- Speight beings the name of her first husband, Samuel Speight, from who she'd separated after he was declared a bankrupt in 1835. It's a tangled web, indeed.

Regarding his character and habits, we have only a few fragmentary scraps of evidence. James Fitzjames, who served with him in China and was likely responsible for his appointment, seems to have thought highly of him:
"He was in the Cornwallis a short time, where he worked very hard in his vocation. Is rather inclined to be good-looking, but fat, with jet-black hair, very white hands (which are always abominably clean), and the shirt sleeves tucked up; giving one unpleasant ideas that he would not mind cutting one's leg off immediately -- 'if not sooner.' He is thoroughly good-natured and obliging, and very attentive to our mess."
Harry Goodsir, the expedition's assistant surgeon and naturalist, who served directly under Stanley, was somewhat less charitable in his letters home:
"Stanley  is a  would-be great man who as I first supposed would not make  any effort  at work after a time. He is at present however altho  he knows nothing whatever about his subject & is ignorant enough of  all other  subjects showing it more than any other person I  ever  met with in consequence of his speaking so much."
There is only one other, enigmatic clue as to the fate of Stanley. On Montreal Island, a search expedition led by James Anderson found two small pieces of wood; on one was scratched "Erebus" and on the other "Mr Stanley." Thinking back to his character as played by Petrie, one may well wince at this final demotion to "Mr." -- and wonder if, just perhaps, the wood was a little singed around the edges.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The "Last Resource"

In next week's episode five of AMC's "The Terror," Captain Crozier, seeing Edward Couch approach with a party from "Erebus," quips "Ah, Edward! How fares the Raft of the Medusa?" Given the ships' already hellish names, the reference might slip by some -- or perhaps seem simply an allusion to the crowded conditions aboard ship -- but in 1847, a far darker meaning would have been obvious to anyone, as Théodore Géricault's infamous painting of that name had become a byword for cannibalism.

The painting was based on the wreck of the French frigate Méduse, which sank in July of 1816; what followed was one of the most harrowing shipwreck stories of all time. A raft, made of parts of timber from the ship, was crowded with nearly a hundred and fifty people; over the next two weeks, all would perish but fifteen of them. Dehyrdration (some drank sea-water and died even more painfully), starvation, and drowning took many, and in their final desperation, cannibalism was resorted to by the survivors. The painting itself stirred its own controversy; Géricault consigned it to a somewhat unscrupulous art-dealer, who took it on a one-painting tour of Europe that was condemned for making money off an image of disaster. At one of its appearances, in Dublin Ireland, it was upstaged by a moving panorama of the same subject, which had the added attraction of being personally narrated by one of the survivors!

It's a fairly well-known story today how Dr. John Rae, along with the almost-sacred relics of Franklin and his men, brought back Inuit testimony that some of them has resorted to what he called "the last resource." The Inuit told of boots containing cooked flesh, bones broken open for the marrow, and piles of skulls. On arrival in England, Rae's testimony proved explosive; he had intended it only for his private report to the Admiralty, but it ended up on the pages of The Times. He received the £10,000 reward for ascertaining the fate of Franklin, but was shunned by Lady Franklin and many other Arctic hands. His toughest opponent turned out to be Charles Dickens, who -- after the seeming-kindness of offering to print Rae's full report in his magazine Household Words -- launched into a two-part tirade, "The Lost Arctic Voyagers," in which he argued that no good Christian navy man would resort to such behavior, and that hostile Inuit were to blame. Thanks to the careful  forensic work of Anne Keenleyside, we now have clear evidence that Dickens was wrong, and that the Inuit testimony was, as it has again and again proven to be, truthful.

Dickens, as it happens, had been obsessed with the subject of cannibalism since he was a boy. Working in a boot blacking factory, he managed to set aside a penny a week for a subscription to a lurid magazine calling itself The Terrific Register. To his friend John Foster, Dickens quipped that for a mere penny, the magazine frighened the wits out of his head, "which, considering that there was an illustration to every number in which there was always a pool of blood, and at least one body, was cheap." Among these was the case of a miser, Mr. Foscue, who was so fond of his money that he had himself locked in his own bank vault; some time later, he was found dead, having endeavored to sustain himself by eating his own flesh, fork in hand. Some Dickens scholars feel this story planted the seeds of the character of Ebenezer Scrooge!

Dickens's obsession with the subject continued into adulthood; on hearing of Dr. Rae's report, he immediately wrote to his friend W.H. Wills (the managing editor of Household Words): "It has occurred to me that I am rather strong on voyages and cannibalism and might do an interesting little paper for next number on that part of Dr. Rae's report, taking the arguments against its probabilities. Can you get me a newspaper cutting containing his report?" He did, and Dickens was as good as his word. In his paper, he not only cast doubt on the Inuit testimony brought home by Rae, but embarked on a lengthy catalog of every single well-known instance of cannibalism at sea. The "Raft of the Medusa" was therefore part of his subject; as with the other instances, Dickens used it to advance his view that cannibalism was impossible among well-disciplined, Christian English men -- but of course, as to ill-disciplined Frenchmen:
No discipline worthy of the name had been observed aboard the Medusa from the minute of her weighing anchor. The captain had inexplicably delegated his authority "to a man who did not belong to the staff. He was an ex-officer of the marines, who had just left an English prison, where he had been for ten years." This man held the ship's course against the protest of the officers, who warned him what would come of it. The work of the ship had been so ill done, that even the common manoeuvres necessary to the saving of a boy who fell overboard, had been bungled, and the boy had been needlessly lost. Important signals had been received from one of the ships in company, and neither answered nor reported to the captain. The Medusa had been set afire through negligence. When she struck, desertion of duty, mean evasion, and fierce recrimination, wasted the precious moments. "It is probable that if one of the first officers set the example, order would have been restored; but every one was left to himself."
All this, of course, was brought home by Dickens's intense admiration for Franklin and his officers and crew. Franklin's presence alone, he reasoned, rendered such a thing impossible (he apparently forgot that cannibalism also occurred on Franklin's first land expedition -- and did not know that Franklin had died the year before the ships were abandoned, as this was only learned in 1859). Naval discipline, the good character and cheer of the men, and their essential Englishness formed the rest of the guarantee.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The (other) books behind "The Terror"

In browsing my Twitter feed about AMC's new series "The Terror," I was a little surprised to see a --possibly mock -- complaint hurling an obscenity at any show that starts by "making me read." Fair enough, mate; no one's really going to make you read -- but for those who might want to read more about the story behind the show, I thought it might possibly be helpful to offer a few recommendations. After all, the Franklin story has been the principal or partial subject of well over a hundred books, including not only historical studies, but more than two dozen novels, many written long before Dan Simmons's, on which the series is based. When you consider that Jules Verne wrote one of the first, The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, back in 1864, you have some idea of the length of this interest; between fiction and nonfiction the list of possible readings seems almost too much for even the most voracious reader to tackle. So where to begin? Herewith, some suggestions.

Until 2014, neither of Franklin's ships had been found, a circumstance which limited the scope of history but served as a spur to fiction. Those who love Tobias Menzies' portrayal of James Fitzjames have two excellent choices on either side: John Wilson's novel North With Franklin: The Lost Journals of James Fitzjames, and the late William Battersby's biography James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition. For viewers who want to learn more about Ciarán Hinds's Franklin, there's Andrew Lambert's biography (thorough but tedious, in my view), or the more wide-ranging and lively The Man Who Ate His Boots by Anthony Brandt. And those -- and there are many -- who've been especially drawn in by Jared Harris's darkly brilliant portrayal of Francis Crozier can turn to Michael Smith's Captain Francis Crozier: Last Man Standing.

The Franklin mystery has been with us so long that the history of the search itself has been a recurring topic. My own book, Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a 165-Year Search, is perhaps the widest overview, but there are other books that focus on specific searchers or aspects of the search, such as David C. Woodman's Unravelling the Franklin Mystery looks at what the long tradition of Inuit testimony, which led to the discovery of HMS "Erebus" in 2014. That discovery itself is the subject of John Geiger and Alanna Mitchell's Franklin's Lost Ship. Geiger was also the co-author, along with anthropologist Owen Beattie, of the 1987 classic Frozen in Time, detailed what was -- until the AMC series -- the most graphic and grisly of discoveries, the three bodies of Franklin sailors exhumed on Beechey Island. Last, and far from least, many viewers have been curious about the Inuit legends and beliefs that the series incorporates. Unfortunately, there's not yet a readily-accessible (i.e., non-specialist) introduction to the topic; the best way to learn about it remains the stories themselves. Here, I'd recommend two collections of tales: Lawrence Millman's A Kayak Full of Ghosts, which collects stories from Greenland to the central Canadian Arctic, along with Dorothy Eber's Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers. Millman gives a wide range of traditional tales, while Eber collects modern versions of Inuit stories that relate to their encounters with Franklin and other explorers. Perhaps not surprisingly, Franklin's men, wandering about suffering from scurvy, exposure, and starvation, have been transformed in some traditions into hollow-faced bogeymen with which to frighten children.

There are many other books -- a true "Franklinlite" can never have enough! -- but these offer a good start. 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

AMC's The Terror

It's a scene that, though made slightly fanciful, brings together all the elements of the essential mystery of the search for Sir John Franklin and his lost ships: a white explorer, working through an interpreter, asks a "Netsilik man" if he has seen any white men, especially the one they know as "Aglooka." Only here, there's a twist: out of a fur pouch onto a caribou skin come three of the infamous Dageurreotypes of Franklin and his officers (here showing, of course, the actors who portray them in the series: Ciarán Hinds as Franklin, Tobias Menzies as Fitzjames, and Jared Harris as Crozier). With no hesitation, the Inuk informant points to the third and last portrait: that, that one, that's Aglooka.

It's hard to imagine a better way to set the stage for a series that, like the novel by Dan Simmons on which it's based, builds a tissue of horrific fiction around the armature of historical fact. For those of us who already find the factual story endlessly fascinating, a certain additional suspension of disbelief will be required. We'll have to let go of our idealized version, for instance, of Franklin, and let Hinds's masterful performance of Sir John as an ambitious commander who throws caution to the winds, take its place; our Fitzjames will, as Menzies portrays him, be less whimsical than the lively young fellow evident in his letters home; our Crozier, above all, will be darker: feeling that his sense of the perils of the ice is not being taken seriously, he turns to drink and grim warnings: "Our situation is more dire than you may understand." Jared Harris's performance is, so far, the highlight of the series for me; no other actor I know so perfectly combines -- and balances -- darkness and light. All these new characters, though drawn differently from the way we've seen them before, serve this show's narrative as faithfully as the original officers served their nation's Navy.

I won't be giving any spoilers here -- though I will be doing an episode-by-episode recap and commentary on Canadian Geographic's website -- but I will say that, despite the fact that its horror is of a different and more fantastical kind, the show captures the bleak realism of Franklin's ill-fortune with remarkable clarity. Part of this is thanks to an excellent production crew and visual effects team, who worked magic with the look and feel of the ice, as well as having the expert advice of ship-modeler extraordinaire Matthew Betts which has made the structure and shape of both ships remarkably accurate, far more so than your usual "Master and Commander" fare. And these three actors, along with a brilliant supporting cast, well portray the essential human drama at the core of it all -- it's not "man vs. ice" but "man vs. man vs. himself vs. ice" -- a far more psychologically vexed formula, even before we meet the horror.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Louie Kamookak, 1959-2018

Louie at Victory Point at the 150th anniversary of Crozier's Landing in 1998
In all the recent history of the revival of interest in the fate of the Franklin expedition -- a period which could well be said to encompass the past forty years or more -- there's really only one man whose presence links it all together: Louie Kamookak. He guided numerous parties to sites vital to the history of Franklin, Rae, and other key figures, from the days of the Franklin Probe, through to Dave Woodman's searches, the first Parks Canada search with Robert Grenier, the St Roch II expedition with Ken Burton, Ken McGoogan's re-tracing of Rae's surveys, and beyond. He was there for the recent rediscovery of both of Franklin's ships, and was personally brought to the site of HMS "Erebus" by Parks Canada to perform a traditional ceremony of remembrance. His work preserving Inuit oral traditions extended far beyond the Franklin story; he was the central contact for the Inuit Heritage Trust's work on traditional Inuit place names in the region around King William Island (Qikiqtaq), and helped to collect numerous oral histories of all kinds from the Gjoa Haven elders. He was just as much at home with younger Inuit, guiding them on expeditions on the land that retraced traditional routes and knowledge. And, when news of the Franklin ships' finding raced round the world, Louie was there too. At the school, where he worked, the phone started ringing off the hook, leading him to the wry observation that he'd be harder to find if he had a more common name, but "I'm the only Louie Kamookak in the world."

And now the world has lost him. Not many knew of it, and Louie himself kept fairly quiet, but his cancer diagnosis had everyone around him worried. His Facebook posts, as always, were mostly about family, and every morning all of us who knew him answered to his ready Ublaakut! On March 14th, scarcely a week ago, he posted a rare comment on his illness, which was only to mention that he'd had a good night's sleep after chemo, "another blessing from the Lord." Throughout his illness, as with his earlier bouts with heart disease, Louie's Christian faith was his comfort and his foundation, and placing his trust in God, he weathered more storms than most. The strength of his belief never wavered, even when things became dire, and so the news of his passing came as a shock to his friends, who somehow had hoped that he would always be among us.  His work, his legacy, lives on, and always will -- for even those who never met him will not forget his generous, curious, friendly spirit, which was shared throughout the world via today's technologies. His like will not be seen again.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Ranford Relics in the Nunavut Collection

(Photo courtesy Logan Zachary)
In a sad side-note to the story of Franklin searches in the twentieth century, a significant number of artifacts collected from the Erebus Bay area were found in Barry Ranford's basement after his death in September of 1996 and that of his son in 2012. Ranford, who in many ways was responsible for re-invigorating public interest in Franklin in the early 1990's, had first walked the shores of King William in 1992; a year later, an archaelogical team led by Anne Keenleyside and Margaret Bertulli did a proper study of the site, and the bones which gave confirmation of Inuit accounts of cannibalism. Ranford, ever a maverick, didn't worry too much about archaelogical protocols, and had been known to pick up, and sometimes pocket, small items. These, along with some human remains he also collected, weren't known about until after his death, and until last week I'd had no idea what had become of them. Thankfully, his family did the right thing and brought them to the Canadian Museum of History, which then transferred them to the Nunavut collection, established when the territory came into being in 1999.

As those following the story in the Nunatsiaq News and other sources will know, Nunavut has yet to secure full funding and make a final site selection for its own archival facility; in the interim, its collections are stored in two places: in Winnipeg (art) and at the Canadian Museum of Nature (archaeological materials). And it was at the latter's storage and conservation facility that, in the company of a fine fellowship of Franklinites, I was finally able to see these materials in person. They have been carefully preserved and tagged, but the location is given simply as NgLj-2, even though that's far from certain. Without a clearer sense of where precisely they were found, the story that these artifacts have to tell is incomplete, and subject to wide conjecture. Archaeology, in a deep sense, is about reconstucting a story -- so imagine if, say, instead of James Joyce's "The Dead," we had only a few scraps of manuscripts, a bit of typescript, and notes, none with page numbers or dates to show how the story evolved. It would be at best a ghost of a story.

It's my understanding that Doug Stenton has been working on these materials in an effort to sort out what specific sites they are most likely from; I certainly wish him luck. But for now, simply seeing these relics was a powerful experience, a reminder of the fragility of human life and endeavor.

(With thanks to Scott Rufolo of the Museum of Nature for our behind-the-scenes tour, and to Alex Stubbing of GN Heritage for permission to share these images, and this story).

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The grave of Heinrich Klutschak

It often seems to be part of the story, and the saddest by far, when a famed explorer suffers an ignominious end: James Weddell (he of the Sea) freezing in his London flat because he couldn't afford a scuttle's worth of coal; Parker Snow, reduced to paying his rent by selling his books and papers; and Frederick Schwatka, a victim of his addition to laudanum, dead in an alleyway in Portland, Oregon with a bottle beside him. Yet few perhaps have suffered such an ignominious end as Heinrich Klutschak, the gifted artist and draughtsman whose service in Schwatka's expedition of 1878-1880 earned him accolades in America and the Cross of Honor from Emperor Franz Joseph. Following that honor, and the success of his book, Als Eskimo unter den Eskimos, he returned to the United States, but apparently found little success in any of the many lines of work in which he was skilled; he'd hoped to head north again, but ended up working as an errand boy at the firm of Morrison & Brown (known for having supported many such ventures with its ships and resources). Suffering from the effects of tuberculosis in a tiny flat at 330 Broome Street in New York's Bowery, he had been offered, through the kindness of his few friends, a rent-free room at Sailors' Snug Harbor in Staten Island, but was too ill to travel there. Finally, in early March of 1890, he decided to make the journey, but his choice of date was an unlucky one; a huge late-winter snowstorm swallowed the city in drifts, and he was forced to turn back, sicker than before. Finally on March 26th, he succumbed to his illness -- he was only 41 years old.

Photo courtesy Doug Wamsley
The same few friends who had arranged for his new home now arranged for his burial: J.C. Morrison (of Morrison & Brown), a certain "Dr. Franklin," who may have been his physician, and his landlady. The funeral home was Diehl's on Essex Street; in an irony that Klutschak -- who also served as the Schwatka expedition's cook -- might have appreciated, its premises are now a restaurant, the "Sons of Essex." The horse-drawn carriage then conveyed his coffin to the "Lutheran Cemerery," now known as the All Faiths Cemetery, in Flushing, Queens. Thanks to the kindness of the staff there, we now have located his burial plot, and thanks to my good friend and fellow Arctic historian Doug Wamsley, we now have a photo!  If you look very closely, or save the image and increase the contrast, you can make out HEINRICH in the first line, and the first few letters of KLUTSCHAK in the second. It’s my hope that, at some point, we might hold a fresh ceremony of remembrance there.

For now, his account of the Schwatka expedition, translated and edited by the ever-capable William Barr, remains as a testament; the original artwork and map for the German edition are preserved in Ottawa at Library and Archives Canada. And he who served an expedition that collected much valuable Inuit testimony is now fittingly the subject of that testimony; in oral histories preserved in David F. Pelly's Ukkusiksalk: The People's Story, the elders remembered him as Henry the cook, a man who always "spoke very loudly." And yet today from his grave, for those who know how to listen, he speaks louder still.

[With thanks to Russ Taichman, who first asked where Klutschak was buried, Gina Koellner, who joined in the search, and Doug Wamsley, who made it to the grave site!]

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

"Death in the Ice" comes to Gatineau!

Courtesy Canadian Museum of History
Next Thursday evening, March 1st, the exhibition "Death in the Ice" will finally open in Canada. I say "finally" without any sense of undue delay -- other than my own impatience! -- but only to answer the  question asked by so many Canadians as to when this remarkable, material embodiment of the Franklin mystery, combining relics from archives with those newly discovered aboard HMS "Erebus," would come home to a nation for whom this story has become so central, so generative. As Margaret Atwood has observed, the Franklin story has been 'adopted' by Canadians, for whom, as she says, blood and ice are part of the national mythos -- "You thought the national flag was about a leaf, didn't you?" as she puts it, "Look harder. It's where someone got axed in the snow."

And, while it's the second iteration of an exhibition that originally opened in the UK last summer at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, it's by no means a re-run -- the narrative here is uniquely and specifically Canadian, and includes a number of key items that were not part of the Greenwich exhibit. For one, the segment of the ship's wheel of Franklin flagship (shown above) is perhaps even more iconic than that same ship's bell. Here rested the hands that steered, here stood the eyes that scanned the horizon, here one fateful turn of those hands spun both ships into the pack ice, from which they were to be released only when all hope was gone, or nearly so. The charts, alas, showed (erroneously) that the eastern passage around King William Island dead-ended in a bay, and so the western one was chosen, in all likelihood before the ships encountered the heavy multi-year ice that streams down what's now known as the McClintock channel. And here, too, a table leg, from Franklin's own great cabin, upon which those fateful charts lay. For a true Franklinite, there can be very few items as richly significant as these.

And there are other surprises, too -- I won't give them all away! -- but let it be known that not all the forks and spoons and medals associated with Franklin's men are stored away in the UK! And, from the Greenwich archives, comes one item that has never before been publicly viewed in Canada -- Sir John Franklin's Guelphic Order of Hanover, the very one which shone upon his breast in the Daguerreotype by Richard Beard that was to be his first -- and his last -- photographic portrait.

I hope that many thousands of Canadians -- as well as those visiting Canada from abroad -- will find their way to the Canadian Museum of History to see this remarkable exhibition. There's a public opening reception at 6 p.m. with a cash bar (which, for the especially thirsty, opens at 5:30). I'll be there, as will many others -- curators, Inuit representatives, underwater archaeologists, descendants of Franklin's men, historians both amateur and professional, and modelers of ships. It will be a rare and wondrous occasion to take in, at one place and in person, the full sweep of this remarkable story.


Saturday, February 3, 2018

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Stephen J. Trafton

Image courtesy Stephen J. Trafton
Long before Owen Beattie's taking up the Franklin cause, before David C. Woodman's searches of King William Island and the coast of the Adelaide Peninsula, and decades before the involvement of Parks Canada, the search for evidence of the fate of the Franklin expedition was in the hands of a few persistent trekkers who made the journey north on their own dimes. We've hailed a few of these, such as Dick Finnie and Paul Fenimore Cooper in previous columns, but I'm especially glad this month to recognize Stephen J. Trafton as our Franklin searcher of the month. He led many expeditions to the shores of King William Island, tracing some familar areas as well as mapping out new discoveries. He also had an experience which -- I think it's fair to say -- is the kind of thing that happens only once in a lifetime, and would be the envy of any searcher: he found a note in a cairn. True, it wasn't one left by Franklin's men, but it was nearly as fantastic: a note left by Frederick Swchatka on his Franklin search expedition in 1879!

Happily, Mr. Trafton is still alive and well, and has in fact just published a book recounting his treks, both in search of Franklin and for other great geographical challenges. Its apt title is At The Edge, and in its pages one gets quite the curriculum vitae of Trafton's achievements, including decades working for mountain rescue in the North Cascades, his crossing of the Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland, treks in remote corners of Baffin and Ellesmere,  and a series of ascents of mountains in the British Empire range whose names will instantly resonate with readers here: Hecla, Fury, Griper, Resolute, North Star, Victory, and Investigator. And yet, though these journeys involved at times no little risk from cold, exposure, or treacherous ice, Trafton's tone is mostly light-hearted, evidence of a sense of humor which seems to have been as regular a part of his equipment as his snow-mitts and Sorels.

Of course, for those of us who have come down with incurable cases of the bug known as "Franklinitis," the chapters on King William Island will be of greatest interest. Two of his journeys there -- one a long retracing on foot of the greater part of the southern coast of King William Island, the other, an extensive search of the northwest corner of that same island -- were groundbreaking in every sense of the word, and it was on the second that Trafton was rewarded with a find that the rest of us only idly dream of, that of Schwatka's note. Using that commander's own account, as well as that of his comrade William Gilder, Trafton re-located that cairn they'd taken down and rebuilt to mark their furthest north. As Gilder described it:
Lieutenant Schwatka found a well-built cairn or pillar seven feet high, on a high hill about two miles back from the coast, and took it down very carefully without meeting with any record or mark whatever. It was on a very prominent hill, from which could plainly be seen the trend of the coast on both the eastern and western shores, and would most certainly have attracted the attention of any vessels following in the route of the Erebus and Terror, though hidden by intervening hills from those walking along the coast. It seemed unfortunate that probably the only cairn left standing on King William Land, built by the hands of white men, should have had no record left in it, as there it might have been well preserved. When satisfied that no document had been left there, the inference was that it had been erected in the pursuit of the scientific work of the expedition, or that it had been used in alignment with some other object to watch the drift of the ships. Before leaving we rebuilt the cairn, and deposited in it a record of the work of the Franklin search party to date.
And there, nestled in the rocks of that cairn, he spotted a green bottle with the stopper still in it, and a paper inside. He dared peep no further than the top edge, where he could make out the date: July 5th, 1879.

And then, of course, on his return, he faced the dilemma that everyone who joins in the Franklin search and finds an item of value faces: what to do? By regulations, the note ought to be turned over to the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, but in Trafton's view, an American note left by an American explorer would be more at home in the United States. On the advice of his mentor, George Hobson, Trafton agreed to send them the note for conservation and study, though he found a clever way (which one will have to read his book to discover) to hold on to the bottle which contained it. The note, which passed into the Nunavut collection upon the creation of that territory in 1999, is currently in storage, but Trafton is hopeful that someday it will be shown to the public, and he'll be able to lay eyes on it again.

The book is supplied with a goodly number of color photographic illustrations, as well as clear, readable maps. In it, we get a glimpse of what it was like to take up the long search for traces of Franklin in the days before it became a more celebrated cause. When Trafton, stumbling into a D.E.W. Line station in search of shelter, was asked what he was doing there, he first told the officer he and his friends were selling magazines -- would he be interested in any? The joke unappreciated, he explained his real mission was to retrace Franklin's footsteps. Back then might have been the last time when either explanation might have seemed equally implausible!

Mr. Trafton has very graciously agreed to answer any questions here that readers may have about his Franklin searches, or his other many adventures -- please post them as comments, and I'll work to ensure that his responses are posted here in a timely manner.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

A Letter from Ebierbing

As historian Kenn Harper has noted on many occasions, the strong bonds of friendship that tied Charles Francis Hall’s Inuit guides and translators, Ebierbing (“Joe”) and Tookoolito (“Hannah”) together were extraordinary. As Joe himself put it, several years after Hall’s death, "never be such a good man as Hall again - never so good to me."

And yet, as with any friendship, there were a few rough patches. One of the rougher of these was doubtless the time when, though King William Island lay in reach, Joe and other Inuit refused to take Hall there, as they were worried about persistent accounts of a hostile Inuit band, the "See-neem-e-utes," whose territory lay between them and their goal. Up until recently, we’ve had only Hall’s account of the affair, but a few years ago in the Hall papers at the Smithsonian, I stumbled upon a document that turned out to be a letter — the only one known — written (or rather dictated) by Joe to Henry L. Brevoort, the son of one of Hall’s key supporters. It’s a fascinating document, and touches on many subjects, including Joe and Hannah’s daughter (“Punny go to school every day”), daily life in the home established for them by Sidney O. Budington (“the old man is good friend”), and Joe’s request for some New York cigars, which he declares are the best.

But in the midst of this, Joe recounts, from his own perspective, what happened when Hall's party was forced to turn around, knowing that a return to King William Island would have to be delayed by about nine months:
2 years I stay Houdsons Bay try go King William Land then I give it up, meet 3 men from their tell me give it up make me afraid. Mr. Hall tease me all time make me go their never give it up. Next time I go like a soldier every body go so every body carry gun. 
It's easy to imagine Hall, whose bursts of anger when the Inuit on whom he relied were reluctant to follow his dictates were well-known, being furious at this delay. It seems, though, that whatever rift this may have caused must have eventually healed.

Joe's letter closes with a poignant and somewhat puzzling series of phrases: "Ebierbing. Joe. Esquimaux. Elonder. Pleas call haff wite man no Esquimaux Joe." Clearly, he did not like the sobriquet "Eskimo Joe," a name that has persisted in popular culture (and as the name of a popular restaurant in Oklahoma), but "Elonder" is a puzzle. His request to "pleas call haff wite man" may similarly reflect a desire to not to be seen as some cultural outsider, rather than as any actual comment on his ancestry.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Repost: Christmas in the Frozen Regions

At this time of year, many of us are seeking a bit of Christmas past by revisiting Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol." There are innumerable local productions, dozens of film versions (I'm most fond of the one starring Alistair Sim, or else the Muppet Christmas Carol, which I actually feel is the best recent adaptation), and of course the book itself is always available. But most today are less acquainted with Dickens's other Christmas tales -- at one point he was writing a new one every year -- or with the many special Christmas numbers of his magazines Household Words and All the Year 'Round, which Dickens personally selected and edited with great care. It was, in fact, in 1850 -- the very first year of his first magazine, Household Words -- that Dickens, hoping to revive the fading hopes that Franklin and his men might yet live, selected a piece describing an Antarctic Christmas aboard the "Erebus" and "Terror" -- the very ships that Franklin had taken on his expedition a few years later. Making this connection was important enough that Dickens wrote a fresh introduction to the article, as well as a brief coda, himself, and his words are animated with all his usual spirit:

"THINK of Christmas in the tremendous wastes of ice and snow, that lie in the remotest regions of the earth ! Christmas, in the interminable white desert of the Polar sea ! Yet it has been kept in those awful solitudes, cheerfully, by Englishmen. Where crashing mountains of ice, heaped up together, have made a chaos round their ships, which in a moment might have ground them to dust; where hair has frozen on the face; where blankets have stiffened upon the bodies of men lying asleep, closely housed by huge fires, and plasters have turned to ice upon the wounds of others accidentally hurt; where the ships have been undistinguishable from the environing ice, and have resembled themselves far less than the surrounding masses have resembled monstrous piles of architecture which could not possibly be there, or anywhere; where the winter animals and birds are white, as if they too were born of the desolate snow and frost; there Englishmen have read the prayers of Christmas Day, and have drunk to friends at home, and sung home songs."
The account that follows is by Robert McCormick, who had recently served under James Clark Ross as surgeon and naturalist aboard HMS "Terror," and describes the first Christmas of their Antarctic voyage. McCormick seems to have been an excellent writer, and this account is all the more notable as it's his earliest publication; he found himself unable to write up the expected naturalist's report for the Ross expedition, and his own account of his career, Voyages of Discovery in the Antarctic and Arctic Seas, was not published until 1884. As Dickens hands the narrative off to McCormick, the mystery and anxiety then surrounding Franklin's name is directly evoked:
"In 1819, Captain Parry and his brave companions did so ; and the officers having dined off a piece of fresh beef, nine months old, preserved by the intense climate, joined the men in acting plays, with the thermometer below zero, on the stage. In 1825, Captain Franklin's party kept Christmas Day in their hut with snap-dragon and a dance, among a merry party of Englishmen, Highlanders, Canadians, Esquimaux, Chipewyans, Dog- Ribs, Hare Indians, and Cree women and children.
In 1850, some commemoration of Christmas may perhaps take place in the Frozen Regions. Heaven grant it! It is not beyond hope ! and be held by the later crews of those same ships ; for they are the very same that have so long been missing, and that are painfully connected in the public mind with FRANKLIN’S name."
You can read McCormick’s account in full here. Of course, much of the resonance of his story is how it shows the explorers keeping the traditions of home, evoking an elaborate Victorian Christmas even in the most desolate regions of the world. On this occasion, the ship was redecorated as a "hotel," and the drinks were kept cold by being served atop an enormous block of solid ice. McCormack, oddly, says very little about the food, but other explorers were far more voluble; you can follow the links here to read of a feast of "Banks Land Reindeer" in "Christmas-Keeping in the Arctic Regions, 1850-51," relish Elisha Kent Kane's Christmas on the Second Grinnell expedition, at which mere "pork and beans" were disguised as all manner of delicacies by the men's scurvy-fed imaginations, or devour A.W. Greely's luxurious first Christmas with the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition at Fort Conger, which featured mock-turtle soup, salmon, tenderloin of musk-ox, plum pudding with wine sauce, dates, figs, cherries, egg-nog, and an extra ration of rum -- a sad contrast with the meals of the last few survivors three years later, who endeavored to support life by fishing for brine-shrimp through a sieve.

Wherever readers of this blog may find themselves this Christmas, I hope that your evening meal is enriched by all the warmth and spirit of domestic tranquility that these men's meals -- whether in reality, or in their imaginations, or both -- sought to evoke so far away from home.