Video | Canadian High Arctic and Greenland

Top of the World: Beechey Island

One of the most intriguing places in the Arctic, Beechey Island is now uninhabited, but it holds a rich history. Learn more about the doomed Franklin expedition and the final resting place of three of his men in this thought-provoking video.

Video Transcript

Deep in the north of the Canadian Arctic, lies an uninhabited and uninviting island. Its main attractions are the remnants of a 164-year-old shed and four simple graves dug into frozen gravel.

It may not look like much, but this mass of rock and ice is one of the most intriguing places in the Arctic. This is Beechey Island.

Beechey Island was first visited by Europeans in 1819, when it was named by Captain William Edward Perry and his men. But Beechey Island really started to get interesting in 1845.

That was the year Sir John Franklin left England hoping to sail through the legendary Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, through the islands of what is now the Canadian Arctic.

Primed for success with two top notch ships, HMS Erebus and Terror, little did Franklin suspect neither he nor his crew would ever see England again.

Franklin and his men sailed without incident to Disko Bay, Greenland. Five men were discharged there, leaving a total of 129 men aboard Terror and Erebus.

After some time in Disko Bay, where the crew rested and sent letters to their families, the ships made the crossing of ice-choked Baffin Bay. During this crossing, they were seen by whalers on July 26th. This would be the last verified encounter anyone had with Franklin and his crew.

Despite high hopes for their success, Franklin and his crew never turned up in Alaska, or back in England. So in 1850, a search party was sent out, led by Scottish whaling master William Penny.

Penny found Beechey Island after noticing a cairn of rocks left by Franklin's crew. On Beechey, they found some remnants left behind by Franklin's men: hundreds of tin cans, an attempt at a garden, and the graves of three men.

Penny and his men couldn't make out what had happened to Franklin, but more expeditions visited Beechey to try to find out.

In 1852, men sailing with Captain Belcher dug through frozen gravel to expose the coffin of John Hartnell, whose body was discovered nearly perfectly preserved. He had died of consumption—what we now call tuberculosis.

Since then, the bodies of all three men have been autopsied, leading to speculation that lead poisoning might have been a factor in their early deaths. But the fate of Franklin and his men remains a mystery.

We know now that upon leaving Beechey in 1846, Franklin circumnavigated Cornwallis Island, hoping for a route to the west. Finding no passage, Franklin sailed south through Peel Sound.

Franklin's ships were apparently locked up in ice in Victoria Strait. A note found at Victory Point on King William Island mentions Franklin's death, but details are sketchy.

After his death, at least some of Franklin's men seem to have made a last ditch effort in an attempt to travel overland up the Back River to a faraway Hudson Bay Company outpost. The effort failed.

Boats, artefacts, and bodies were later found scattered on King William Island, and not a man survived to tell the tale. Grizzly relics suggested some of the men had resorted to cannibalism.

Scottish explorer John Rae, who collected these artefacts and stories from Inuit informants, earned a reward for determining the outcome of the expedition. But he and his Inuit collaborators were scorned by Victorian society for being bearers of bad news.

Attempts to solve the mystery of the Franklin Expedition continue to the present day. With the help of Inuit historians and guides, researchers found both the Franklin ships: Erebus in 2014, and Terror in 2016.

That brings us to Franklin's greatest downfall. He travelled into the Inuit homeland without benefit of Inuit knowledge or guidance. Local knowledge is invaluable for any explorer, regardless of experience.

Whatever else may have befallen Franklin and his men, without Inuit guides aboard, they were strangers in a strange land.

Beechey Island, a place little frequented by Inuit, had been a haven of sorts for Franklin and his men. Today, it remains as a testimonial to their fate and a lesson for all who would follow.