A box unearthed near the Northwest Passage this week likely does not contain documents linked to Sir John Franklin's ill-fated expedition of the 1840s, according to two people who are familiar with the case.
The small wooden box was dug up last weekend in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, by a local family that has known about the box — and its purported contents — for decades but only went public with it now.
The exact contents of the unopened, sand-filled box will not be known until the Canadian Conservation Institute carefully examines it, which should take several weeks.
The box was buried years ago by George Washington Porter Jr. below a large stone cairn. Inside, he carefully placed some documents believed to be connected to the British Franklin Expedition — Sir John Franklin's attempt to navigate the Northwest Passage in the 1840s.
Porter's son, Chester Porter, has said he kept the secret to himself for 30 years but felt now was the time to go public about what he believes are Franklin's lost documents.
Box contains photograph
Kenn Harper, an Iqaluit businessman and Arctic historian, said Inuit oral history has confused Franklin with Norwegian Roald Amundsen, the first explorer to navigate the Northwest Passage.
"If miraculously they open this box and find some Franklin records in there, well, I'll be very, very surprised. I'll also be very, very happy. But I don't think it's going to happen," Harper told CBC News.
Harper said the box contains a document and a photograph Amundsen had left in Gjoa Haven in 1905, after he had spent two winters there in preparation for his voyage.
The photograph is of Dr. Georg von Neumayer, a German geophysicist who had taught Amundsen about magnetism and the North Magnetic Pole, he said.
Harper said the box has been excavated twice since 1905, most recently by the elder Porter in 1957.
Former manager reburied box
That claim is corroborated by Eric Mitchell, a former Hudson's Bay Co. manager in Gjoa Haven who claims to have helped Porter excavate and rebury the box.
"In 1957, George Porter and I unearthed Amundsen's record. It was in a tin canister and it was all rusty and whatnot. The photograph inside was in good condition," Mitchell, now 83, told CBC News in an interview that aired Thursday.
"The tin can, I took all the rust off it, wrapped the photograph in two pages of the nautical almanac, put it in an envelope, put it back in the tin that it came from, and then filled the tin with tallow."
On the back of the photograph, Amundsen had written instructions to leave the picture in the same spot, Mitchell said. If his claims are confirmed, Mitchell said he hopes the picture will be reburied in its original place
"Professor Neumayer was going to go with Amundsen, but by the time Amundsen left Neumayer he said he was too old to go with him," Mitchell explained.
"He gave him a photograph of himself and he said, 'Would you place this photograph as close to the North Magnetic Pole as you can?'…. Because he couldn't be there himself, at least his photograph would be there."
Given all the attention in recent years to the search for Franklin's lost ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, it's not surprising that people have confused the contents of the box, Harper said.