Video | Canadian High Arctic and Greenland

Top of the World: Beechey Island's Fourth Grave

Beechey Island is one of the most significant colonial historic sites in the Arctic. Famed as the final resting place of three men from Franklin’s doomed Northwest Passage expedition, it is also home to a fourth gravesite: Thomas Morgan. Who was he? Watch this video to hear his story.

Video Transcript

Deep in the North lies Beechey Island. This unassuming island is one of the most important historical locations in the Arctic.

In fact, Beechey Island, while practically uninhabitable, is somewhat of a popular tourist attraction. That's because Beechey was the camp of one of the most infamous Arctic expeditions of all time: Sir John Franklin's ill-fated attempt to sail the Northwest Passage.

What clues does this island hold? For one, the graves of three of Franklin's men: Torrington, Hartnell, and Braine. Their names are well known, but just next to them lies the grave of a fourth man that hardly anyone talks about. Why?

Franklin and his men made their way safely to Disko Bay, Greenland. After leaving Greenland on July 12, they set their sails for what is now northern Canada via the ice-choked waters of Baffin Bay. Whaling vessels spotted them in what would be the last known sighting of Franklin and his crew.

The rest largely remains a mystery. When Franklin failed to return, expeditions were sent to find him. The explorer William Penny landed at Beechey Island in 1850. There he found three graves. These three graves belonged to Franklin's men.

It was later discovered that these men had died of pneumonia, tuberculosis, and—according to one theory—perhaps lead poisoning. Penny was only one of dozens of expeditions sent in search of Franklin, and they were not all so lucky.

Take Commander Robert McClure, captain of the HMS Investigator, on what would become a spectacular endeavour. He set sail in January of 1850 from Woolwich, England, sailing southwest to round the tip of South America.

Nearly eight months later, the ship reached the Arctic Circle via Hawaii and Alaska. The Investigator made its way east past Point Barrow, searching for any clues they could find. On August 19, McClure and his crew hit a dense pack of ice.

After attempting to sail through it carefully, the crew eventually decided to winterize the ship and stay put. They were now surrounded by the ice with no way to continue sailing. The Investigator sat in place for nearly a year until the surrounding ice finally melted on July 14, 1851. They continued to sail until August 14, but didn't make it far.

They travelled south through large chunks of loose ice. To protect the ship, the crew decided to secure it to an iceberg for the time being. Eventually, they set sail once again and made their way to an open bay, where they winterized yet again on September 23. The men stayed there until April 1852.

When supplies were starting to run low, McClure and seven of his men set out on a journey to reach Melville Island in hopes they would find other British explorers in the area. McClure and his men returned on May 7, having made no contact.

Supplies, morale, and physical strength continued to run low as each day passed. Another year passed with the ship stuck in ice. On April 5, 1853, John Boyle became the first of McClure's men to die. On April 6, as the men were digging his grave, they saw a figure approaching from the sea.

They had been found by Lieutenant Bedford Pim of HMS Resolute, another ship sent to search for Franklin. Pim and McClure had last seen one another in Bering Strait off Alaska. The Resolute and the Intrepid were wintering relatively close by. McClure made the difficult trip to the ships and back over sea ice.

By June 3, the Investigator was abandoned. McClure and his crew journeyed to the Resolute, but they were still not free of the ice and were forced to overwinter again, along with the crews of Resolute and Intrepid.

In the spring of 1854, a crew was sent on foot to meet the ship North Star at Beechey Island. In making that journey, they became the first to formally complete the Northwest Passage.

On May 22, 1854, the able-bodied seaman Thomas Morgan of the HMS Investigator died aboard North Star. He was buried on Beechey Island, next to the graves of Franklin's men. McClure eventually returned to England, where he was court martialed, pardoned, and awarded the prize for completion of the Northwest Passage. He never made another voyage.

Today the names of Torrington, Hartnell, and Braine are known the world over and their graves are a place of Arctic pilgrimage. The mystery of the Franklin Expedition ensures the legacy even of these men who died in its early days.

But spare a thought for Thomas Morgan. His journey into history was a four year voyage of pain and hardship. And of the men who lie at rest at Beechey Island now, only Thomas Morgan actually completed the Northwest Passage.