Canada

Explorers find remnants that may have belonged to Franklin's ships

Explorers found pieces of copper sheeting they think may have belonged to the ships of Sir John Franklin whose doomed 1845 journey to the Northwest Passage has captivated historians ever since, the expedition's leader said Friday.

Explorers found pieces of copper sheeting they think may have belonged to the ships of Sir John Franklin whose doomed 1845 journey to the Northwest Passage has captivated historians ever since, the expedition's leader said Friday.

Robert Grenier, the senior underwater archeologist at Parks Canada, who led a six-week expedition in August funded by the federal government, said that he had hoped to retrieve copper sheets discovered during an earlier 2002 expedition on one of the islands near O'Reilly Island in the Queen Maud Gulf.

But when he and his team got there they only found tiny remnants of copper sheets. In total, only a dozen or so pieces were found on three islands near O'Reilly Island in the latest expedition, he said. Grenier speculated the copper sheets were stolen but declined to say by whom.

Copper wasn't present naturally in the region and the copper sheets couldn't have been made by the Inuit, he said. The copper fragments indicated to him that the Inuit had used the sheets over the years to make traditional tools, he said.

Grenier, who led the mission aboard the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier, said he wasn't disappointed by the finding because it confirmed that he and his team were searching in the right area for Franklin's ships.

"It's not spectacular for the common public," he said in an interview. "But for an archeologist, it's a spectacular finding." 

The expedition, which began Aug. 18 after the federal government gave $75,000 to fund the mission, was hampered by bad weather and other icebreaker tasks, Grenier said.

He and others "worked in the worst conditions ever," he said, citing fog, snow and bad winds. The icebreaker also helped rescue two Inuit families who were about 120 kilometres from home and couldn't navigate the rough waters.

The expedition also lost days when the icebreaker had to replace one of its crew members, Grenier said.

Two more expeditions are scheduled to occur over the next two summers, Grenier said.

In 1845, Franklin had set out from England aboard the vessels, in hopes of exploring and mapping the Northwest Passage. Neither he nor any of his 128 crewmen ever returned.

Franklin's disappearance launched one of the greatest searches in history. By 1848, two ships and an overland party were searching for traces of the ships and the more than 100 men they contained.

A total of eight expeditions were launched in the 12 years following Franklin's disappearance, funded by a range of financial backers from the British Navy to the Hudson's Bay Company to Franklin's wife.

Only traces of the expedition have ever been found.

In the mid-1980s, University of Alberta researchers discovered the graves of three of Franklin's men on Beechey Island, where they had died in 1846 as the expedition wintered there.

But the whereabouts of the ships, and of Franklin, have eluded searchers for more than 160 years.

Experts now believe the expedition came to grief in 1847 when the ships were frozen in the ice near King William Island, in central Nunavut, near the Arctic archipelago.

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