Ron Carlson Arctic Expeditions

Ron Carlson Arctic Expeditions
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Monday, November 28, 2011

The Location of the Ships? Maybe.

A clue.

A clue that forms a theory.

After flying high and low over King William Island this last summer, there is, among the intriguing sights and discoveries - one particular location, one most likely previously discovered, which I have been ruminating over.  Perhaps it has been previously written elsewhere, but I haven't seen or heard it.  It is of no matter.  

This is what I thought about the site that I had viewed up close and/or may be the same "Boat Place" spoken of so frequently.  It has been said that it is most likely to have been the place of the pinnace from HMS Erebus.  A large boat 28 foot long and 7 foot 3 inches wide, abandoned by the men of the Franklin expedition during their attempt to escape overland in 1848.  These areas (or this area if there is more than one abandoned lifeboat), lie at the crux of Erebus Bay.  After I was there, I called it "Hell's Corner".  There is not a spot on Earth that I have yet seen where I can think of a more miserable place to die.  Certainly a slow death in despair. 

It was documented that the boat was pointing back to the ships when found.  And - it was thought to be only a year later.  During the year before, they must have passed this specific area heading south.  The question that I kept thinking was: "When retreating back to the ships, why did they stop there?  Why that particular spot?"  

Several skeletons cannibalized around this boat, one mangled inside -- and -- ONE LAST SKELETON DRESSED WARMLY LEANING BACK IN THE END SEAT.  Surely our last survivor could have hiked back to the shelter of the ships in sight (if not the last few men too).  It was but a 3 or 4 day hike with a pack on the back at most.  But no, the skeleton says that he had to be hanging around there alive for weeks, if not months.  So many men as this would not have been cannibalized inside of a week or two.  Maybe a man dying a week to feed the remaining.  The bones were all concentrated there in that spot, not on a marching trail.

Yes, I was there.  And from that specific vantage point this last spring/summer I could see most of the distance clearly all the way up the coast, that flat horizon of sea ice.  This boat location to Victory Point is inside of 50 miles (I can see the western side of the state of Michigan's shores across Lake Michigan as I am looking to the east here on the Chicago lake front on a clear day - and that's 60 miles with bad eyes).  Back then it must have been also the same flat sea ice.  One could surely look up the coast from this position and plainly see the ships to the naked eye at least as two small specks on the horizon, on the crisp cold clear days.  And maybe they had a telescope, although I didn't see one among the artifacts that are documented on this site as collected from there.

Then what is so special about this spot, given all these clues?

It is this:

Despair.  This is the key word. 

Despair, because as they rounded the corner (yes, after being there myself, it's a definite corner) to finally be able to have the clear angle to see up the coast to the north, THERE WERE NO SHIPS.  HM Ships Erebus and Terror were quickly gone. Not languishing to the south where everyone has been looking.  If those ships were south with the masts sticking up, those specific men would have seen them on the way and would have been on them, dead or alive, not rotting away there as they did in the sand and rock.

So if turning the corner as they did and not seeing the ships, then why continue any farther?  No reason to.  There was no place to go, no ships, no salvation.  That's why "there".  That spit, where I took those pictures of those wood pieces of boat or sledge, was a long skinny projection out to the west, probably the best point for the first good clear "look see" to the north/northwest, where the ships were when they had abandoned them the previous year.  That's when it hit me.  I believed that this is why they stopped there at that specific location.  It must have been a shock and then a crushing blow to their moral, and their spirit, what little they may have had left.  To them it must have seemed that either the ships had sunk, or a few of their comrades had made it back safely on board and had then sailed on without them.

So working the puzzle backwards, that leads to those two obvious initial starting thoughts (and surely more):

1) If the men had stopped there to die because the ships were gone, then the ships could not have drifted too far in that one year since abandoned.  If they had sunk, then they must have sunk up there, due WNW or W --- or at most WSW of Victory Point (approximately one year's pack ice drift south of the "5 leagues NNW of" position of VP, as written in the famous note).

Or (2), if the men had stopped there to die because the ships were gone, then if it was a warm summer in 1848.  While "the mice were away, the two cats sailed away".  The ships became beset in the ice again and sunk somewhere else.  Not likely as I believe the ice coring "tree ring" samples from that decade proved out that it was all cold summers in those years.  This from a previous scientific expedition executed several years ago.  Maybe someone might have a look closer at those findings and see.

Is that it?  No.

Or (3) remotely - Did some men indeed make it back to the ship(s), only to sail somewhere else to die?!  Hmmm.  And is it too remote to  speculate?  

I leave you with that!

Of course I have some other ending thoughts and locations.  Time may tell.


  1. Ron,

    Excellent post. This reminds me of horizon-line maps I've seen of sites such as the Gettysburg battlefield, showing (for instance) what could be seen from Little Round Top.

    And you are right, surely, that the sight lines on KWI, assuming clear weather, would have been large, as large as if one were at sea on a calm day. But see here for a good explanation of the mathematics of the horizon -- unless you are well above ground level, your horizon isn't going to be more than 4 miles away. Of course, at high latitudes, refraction at the horizon can at times exert a kind of magnification of its own, but that phenomenon is variable and can't be counted on.

    So I would say that, if the men stopped dragging their boat out of despair, they must have expected the ship or ships to be right there.

    By drift alone -- if we assume the ships were still stuck in pack ice -- they'd never have made it that far south. So we can make a conditional statement: IF the men abandoned their boat because the ships had been there but now were not, THEN a) the ships must have been piloted part of the way there; and b) they were not there now, and therefore had either sunk or been piloted further.

    The real question, though, is WHEN did this occur. If we assume 1848, then our paradigm won't work, since if the ships were re-piloted as far as the coast near the "Boat Place" this would be known to the men on land, and they would not have arrived on the scene expecting the boats to be where they were not. I think it makes much more sense to assume that the boats had been re-piloted to that location, then once again frozen in (think of Ross's efforts with the Victory). Sledge travel would not be ideal until the following April. At that point, a party leaves the ship or ships to seek escape, or to meet up with other survivors, or to get food or find Inuit. While they are away, the ships are unexpectedly freed, and the commanders decide it would be too risky to delay; they set sail for some point further south. When, later in the season, the land party returns, they are shocked to see the ships missing. They lie down in despair, perhaps, or decided to wait for a presumed party from the ships' new location, which never arrives.

    The one dressed skeleton seems to have been on watch -- this would make sense here. Both these bodies, by the by, were mangled not by cannibalistic sailors but by animals.

    Question now: how does the above conjecture fit with the other aspects of the reconstructed retreat? If one of the ships sank within sight of the Boat Place, that would be consistent with Inuit accounts of having seen one ship sink, despite the efforts of the crew to get supplies off her. The remaining ship would have been the one to which these men in the boat had planned to return ...

    Makes sense to me. What do others think?

  2. Great comments Russell. Some quick thoughts.

    On the horizon issue:

    1) I was there on the ground "hiking" on the coast a couple of miles from there. I did see a wide hummock very far out - appearing as a faint fuzzy grey line on the horizon of ice. When I took back to the air, 500' above MSL or so, and judged it at 20 or 25 miles out to the NW from where I stood. I think it was 10' or 20' high, 100' or 200' wide. It was an light overcast day. I think 4 miles is the horizon, but one must account for things rising above the horizon that are being viewed by the observer too. Refraction may have helped or hurt.

    if the ships did come farther south soon after abandoned ships, then it is all inconsequential. Then it was easy for them to conclude that they were gone, and despair set in, to sit and wait to die.

    But if the ships were near where they were abandoned, I had also thought on the men there at Boat Place. Not only why they were stopped there for what must have been their final weeks, but why did they turnaround and make back for the ships in the first place, and with that heavy life boat? Others have said back to the ships for food and shelter, etc. Then why drag this boat?

    I think not. It is entirely plausible, if not more likely, that they were initially the "marching laggards" behind those who made it all the way to Starvation Cove. If, just if, in 1848 or 1849 the summer was a little warmer, or the multi year ice drifting down from the north did not push that year like when they were initially beset - then they turned around near Simpson Stait, maybe near Washington Bay, and saw they ice breaking, not like the non melt during the 2 summers before. They were maybe rushing back to the ships' location to make it aboard praying to set sail. They would absolutely need to drag that boat back to Boat Place to row out to the ship(s) in such a condition. Or catch the passing ship(s). If the ship(s) were manned, those men would be making sail and a rush run for it, not being as honorable as everyone would hope by stopping along the shoreline every corner looking for mates. Why otherwise would they drag that heavy boat back north? - it otherwise makes no sense. They could pack hike there north quickly if they thought the ships were still locked in ice like before.

    Myself, I do not sure about this old story about the ship masts and that they were south. If so, these men would plainly be watching that, seeing that. This is where they were, where they died. They could have easily gotten to the ships then, whether upright on top of the ice, or partially sunk.

    The last man at Boat Place probably didn't sit there for all those final weeks all cuddled up like they found him. They had to be there for many weeks and the strongest man or men must have scouted north to look for the ships, using the life boat as a base. One day hikes, even a two day hike. There is 10 to 20 miles more sight line north right there. And if he had a telescope. And the ship(s) wood exteriors, the tent coverings, the masts all together would have painted darker, higher and larger image than the example hummock I saw.

    I think that they saw the ships were gone when they got back to the "Corner" and then they gave up in despair.

    And it may be that the ships were indeed gone, and not to the south.

  3. Russel,

    The NOVA documentary I viewed in which you had a predominate role - there was a chapter on the group doing the ice cores, dating back the weather by the vertical sections in the core, counting them back. What did 1848, 1849 look like i wonder? Or was it in total a cold decade?

  4. The KEY:

    My thought had been and is, why drag the heavy life boat back to the north? Not to drag it clear back to the ships. It all stopped at the Corner, when they determined, however they determined, that the ships were GONE.

  5. Final thought for tonight. I do not stand here and say it is that way, that there is no other explanation. It was my belief when I stood there, it is my theory now.

    But I don't think that it is any final answer. I hope all of you who follow this and Russell's blog, or anyone familiar with this history, think and comment. Only that test, and the test of time, will lead to the what may be the real answers.

    This is the exciting part of this all - we are now in this place in time. The future is very exciting.

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  7. Ron,

    Number of issues -- will tackle 1 at a time.

    The ice cores shown in the NOVA doc were taken by Fritz Koerner, one of the greatest field glaciologists of his time, and also one of the members of Wally Herbert's team that first traversed the North polar ice cap. He'd written a study of what the cores said about the period 1845-50 and apparently this was a colder than usual period. However, the types of cores he used in this study didn't offer annual detail, and the study thus had a range of error of +/- 5 years. Different sorts of cores, he told me, would be needed, to get a more precise sense of climate.

    Unfortunately, Fritz died a few years ago, and I don't know that anyone has carried this query forward.

  8. Second issue: masts. Yes, a ship's mast would, by its own height, be visible farther away. Yet at the same time, although seeing a mast would definitely be a sign that the ship was near, not seeing one would not necessarily be a negative sign; you'd have to go further to be sure -- so I'm sure some further recon would have been done (perhaps leaving the sledge in place) before conclusions were reached.

    Third issue: Why drag? The weight and type of the materials on the ship suggest that it might possibly not have been intended for dragging some great distance -- perhaps it was shuttling men and material between the ship or ships and an onshore camp. The cause of despair in this case might not have been that the ship was missing, but that it had been crushed and destroyed ....

  9. Fascinating dialogue. Thanks so much. Hope it continues....

  10. Hello Ron and Russell!

    I have been very much interested in the history of Victorian arctic exploration for many years. I’d like to pose a question here that as far as I am aware has never been asked nor answered. But as “as far as I am aware” is not very far, it may be that my question is trivial or stupid or ill-informed. I apologize for that!

    It is this: When McClintock’s men discovered the boat place, they noted that the bow of the boat was pointed north — towards where the ships had been asumed to be, from which was inferred that the men were trying to get back to the ships. I understand the boat was mounted on a sledge for overland hauling. My point is: Is it entirely clear that the SLEDGE was pointed north as well? Or might it be that the boat was mounted on it stern-first and the sledge itself was pointed south?

    1. McClintock's account states: "It appears that this boat had been intended for the ascent of the Fish River, but was abandoned apparently upon a return journey to the ships, the sledge upon which she was mounted being pointed in that direction." So the boat was pointing roughly north, as was the sledge.

      Though, without having personally been to the boat-place, it is difficult to visualize the importance of that fact. Maybe the boat was found in a different position from when it arrived at the spot. Obviously the men wouldn't have wanted to pull it further than they had to, but perhaps that was the best way to keep it steady on the snow; perhaps the boat was turned after arrival, to best handle some peculiarity of the weather; maybe the water that brought up the driftwood also moved the boat.

      Perhaps they really were heading north, pulling the boat, hoping to return to the ships. However they were pointing when they got there, they apparently stayed a while. McClintock also states that there were 30-40 lbs of chocolate and tea, and mentions the driftwood as a potential source of fuel. If that is true, with all the equipment in the boat, did the men have the ability to start a fire? What would stop men desperate enough to eat human flesh from trying to do something useful with the chocolate and tea?

  11. Florian,

    Good input.

    I would yield to Dr. Potter on that one. Also an opinion from David Woodman would be of great value I'm sure. Both are very astute on the overall related history, particularly David on the local Inuit oral ancestral traditions, which may have referenced something on it. In addition, author William Battersby may be able to shed some light related specifically to his particular knowledge about McClintock and what if anything may exist in some more detail to be gleaned from journal notes not found in the book "Voyage of the Fox" or other books.

    Btw, I have had offline discussions with all three in the past few days and all have provided some very enlightening thoughts, among them David Woodman on sight lines at the boat place, and previous sight line thoughts he had written down; analysis from boat place location on 360 degree radius of view from there and from higher points near there. All in all, not counting refraction which can increase viewing distances, it seems like 15 or 20 miles would be the maximum one could see the ships from standing around there.

    I still do believe that if, allowing that the ships had drifted to 20 miles north of the boat place in 1848 or 1849 (it was end of April 1848 when they deserted the ships, at least 2 months before normal pack ice break up, up there by today's warm standards), it is conceivable that the men could have last observed the ships "over the shoulder" on their march south at the boat place. I may be wrong, but I had thought I remember seeing that some or many of the men did cut across KWI to the S SE overland, instead of following the shoreline all the way around the Graham Gore Peninsula (Cape Crozier). Again, I would yield to the historians on these particulars.

    Anyway, whether the ships were 3 miles offshore or 20 miles off shore, whether the men followed the coast or not, I had thought it possible that the summer pack ice may have abruptly broken and that had been the reason the men were heading back north, perhaps scurrying back to try to intercept the ships, then stopped there in despair as I had outlined. Dr. Potter reported back that there were no real conclusions from the ice boring study featured on the NOVA program. No way to know.

    It just does not make sense that the men would hike back so many miles in retreat, with so much of a load, in such a poor state of physical condition in which they must have been in, for the reason only to either seek better shelter or security from the ships or get more supply's, or reasons like that.

    And then to stop and all die there, over a period of what must have been several weeks, if not longer. Why stop there? And no small group it was. They were definitely not dying as they marched, like some of the others found (Peglar). It seems that they must have stopped there for a good reason and not an arbitrary one.

  12. Just a brief comment: I would beg to differ with Prof Potter on the question of cannibalism. McClintock and Hobson found two skeletons in the boat - one articulated and clothed and the other disarticulated. They were at opposite ends of the 28' boat. McClintock was employed by Lady Franklin at the time he found them, and after how she reacted to Rae's evidence of cannibalism it would have been very difficult for him had he even suggested. But I think it is implicit at the very least in his account.

  13. Hello all,

    As always a very interesting discussion. I would contribute only two things.

    1. To answer the question above there is no information on the direction of the sledge as opposed to the boat, since McC did not mention it as being backwards I would assume that the whole assemblage pointed to the north. Even he wasn't absolutely convinced that the boat hadn't been positioned by the "occasional tides" however, and there was a large 12' piece of driftwood nearby.
    2. The unspoken assumption here is that the boat was returning from a shore excursion. I don't believe it was, rather I offer the possibility (no more than that) that it was brought ashore over the ice from the wrecked ship only 15 miles or so offshore and left on the beach. There is no mention of sledge drag marks on KWI that I am aware of (as there are on Beechey). Boats were routinely launched on the ice when a ship was beset, and wouldn't be dragged ashore over the rough ice without a sledge (would wreck their keels). Of course such a supposition would render all the ink spilled on the excess weight and "useless stuff" found with this boat moot. I think Ron's conclusion that the men who died here were returning to the ship and died of despair when they arrived and found it missing is probably valid, but would say they arrived as lightly-loaded walkers, after they abandoned their weaker comrades at the "hospital camp" 40 miles to the south in Terror Bay, at the "shore cache" left from the wrecked ship and stopped.

  14. I have wondered if the ships could sail away, why drag the boat? Why not launch it and sail it? I thought I had read that the ship's boats were fitted out with sails. Seems easier than hauling it on the shore, and for the ships to sail away, open water must have been present.
    Also, if there was open water, didn't they know roughly where they were from previous expeditions? I know there were gaps in the maps but they should have known enough to sail west.