British Columbia

How Franklin expedition mystery could be solved by high school students

How could 129 men die on the fateful voyage to find the Northwest Passage, if they had plenty of food and an intact ship? The mystery deepens...

'These mysteries are too intriguing to be left to historians alone,' says UVic's John Lutz

A sea floor scan reveals HMS Erebus, one of the missing ships of the doomed Franklin Expedition. A new website is inviting students to help solve the mystery of what happened on the fateful voyage to the Northwest Passage. (Parks Canada/Canadian Press)

The Canadian school year may be almost over, but a new website is inviting students to solve one of oldest cold cases so far — Sir John Franklin's fateful voyage to find the Northwest Passage.

"History is too important to be boring, and these mysteries are too intriguing to be left to historians alone," said John Lutz, University of Victoria history professor and one of the founders of the project. 

The Franklin Mystery: Life and Death in the Arctic is part of an ongoing project called Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History, a collection of websites, each one focusing on a mystery from Canadian history.

"We literally put the magnifying glass into the hands of students, using these 13 websites to help make Canadian history exciting, real and totally engaging."

The websites allow high school and university students to analyze primary historical documents, crime scene reconstructions and historical interpretations by experts, to learn critical thinking — and solve mysteries. 

In the past, the project has picked mysteries that focus on issues such as slavery, terrorism, religious dissent and early settlement — but this time, it's all about the mysteries of the deep.

Franklin's doomed expedition

The two ships of the Franklin Expedition disappeared during an 1845 search for the Northwest Passage. (Archives)

Two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, were part of Sir John Franklin's doomed expedition in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic Ocean to Asia.

The ships disappeared after they became locked in ice in 1846 and were missing for more than a century and a half until the HMS Erebus was discovered by a team led by Parks Canada in September 2014. 

The goal now is to find out what happened to Franklin's crew and why they didn't survive, despite having three years' of provisions to sustain them.

"This was the most scientifically advanced expedition, the best equipped, it was like a moon shot from the 1840s... What happened is still a mystery," said Lutz. 

"129 men never came out and no one heard from them ever again."

Underwater mystery, Inuit history

The detached ship's bell of HMS Erebus as found on the deck next to the windlass (a kind of winch positioned near the bow). (Parks Canada)

Lutz says the recent discovery of HMS Erebus relatively intact opens up a new set of mysteries.

"We understood they all abandoned ship, but there was one Inuit account which said they saw smoke coming out of the ship furnaces long after we had expected it was abandoned," said Lutz. 

"That [account] had largely been discounted. But now that the ship has been found more or less intact, I think it's likely that account was true."

"So if they had food and had a ship that was intact...why couldn't they stay on the ship?"

The Franklin Mystery: Life and Death in the Arctic launches June 4 after an official announcement at the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa.

To hear the full interview with John Lutz, listen to the audio labelled Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canada.