Exploring History: The Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror
When Northwest Passage explorer Sir John Franklin and his crew disappeared in 1848, the fate of the men and their ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, remained a mystery for more than a century. Then in 2014 and 2017, researchers from Parks Canada found both ships in the Qikiqtaq area. Since the discoveries, new adventurers have been seeking the truth about what might have happened during the ill-fated journey.
The last known encounter with the Franklin crew was in 1845 during chance meetings with local Inuit communities. Franklin’s widow Lady Jane Franklin continued to send explorers to the region with the hope of locating her husband. Sad news came in 1859 when Lt. William Hobson found a message Franklin had left in a cairn, stating that he and many of his crew had died after the ships got stuck in ice.
The Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit was a key component to finding the ships’ final resting places. Using traditional stories of the Inuit people, and armed with modern technology, searchers embarked on a recovery mission in 2008. After more than six years, Doug Stenton led a helicopter party from Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and they saw a piece of metal on a remote island. The next day, archaeologist Ryan Harris found the wreckage of the HMS Terror on his sonar screen.
The search for the HMS Erebus continued for two more years until local Sammy Kogvikabout spotted a piece of wood sticking out of ice in Terror Bays. That piece of information led to the final discovery. The search crew found the wreckage using a sonar scanner. A video camera lowered into the water revealed the crew quarters and a mess hall were intact.
The wealth of artifacts recovered from the structures included brass cannons and a cast-bronze bell. The finds also provided researchers missing pieces to the puzzle of what happened to the crews.
In September 2017, the ships were named national historic sites by Parks Canada with a ceremony at the Umiyaqtutt Festival in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut. Members of the Franklin Interim Advisory Committee attended the event.
Committee chairman Fred Pedersen said at the ceremony, “Inuit traditional knowledge played a huge part in locating the wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. I am pleased that the national historic significance of the wrecks is being commemorated and that Inuit have had a say in how Parks Canada has managed the national historic site to date …”
As historical sites, the landscape around the ships receives government protection. Inuit Guardians are posted to the locations to monitor the sites and report to Parks Canada if any unauthorized vessels are in the area. The Guardians also tell visitors the story of the Franklin expedition, and how the Inuit culture played a part in solving the generations-long mystery.
The remains of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror are among the most exciting Arctic discoveries in recent decades. By keeping the area protected, future adventurers will be able to explore these historical finds for years to come and gain a better understanding of what early explorers faced in the frozen Arctic.