Saturday 25 August 2012

The disappearing dead.

In June and July 1931, Chief Trader Paddy Gibson, manager of the Hudson's Bay Company's outpost at Gjoia Haven, made an overland journey along the south coast of King William Island in search of remains of members of the Franklin Expedition.

On an islet in Douglas bay he discovered seven skulls and a large collection of human bones together with small fragments of wood identified as oak and Norwegian pine. His conclusion was:

"It would appear that this island marked a halt in the march of the retreating crews, and was the site of one of the camps: a camp from which many never rose to pursue the terrible march."

Gibson interred the remains on the highest point of the island and built a large cairn over them.

Owen Beattie and James Savelle investigated this cairn in 1981 and reported:

"The remains of the cairn were easily located, but unfortunately all skeletal material had been removed, very likely within the last decade, and most likely by non-archaeologists."

There seems to have never been any detailed archaeological survey of these islets nor any investigation into the whereabouts of the remains. The fate of these bones is just another of the myriad minor mysteries of the Franklin saga.

I sincerely hope that some time in the future the relevant authorities sponsor a more comprehensive search of the locality and that a renewed effort is made to discover the ultimate fate of these remains.


  1. I´ve read in the book "The man who ate his boots" about an Inuit testimony told to Francis Hall which said that in KWI was found a tent with thirty bodies inside (it seems to me too much bodies for a single tent) and that this encampment has never been found. A theory says that the camp could have been swept it away by the sea. Perhaps the place you mention is this. To help to increase the fog I haven´t found neither any trace of this possible encampment in the Thomas Gould map of the KWI published now in the CBC news site.

  2. Hi Andrés, the tent place which I think you are referring to is usually though to be near the top of Terror Bay, about 50 miles to the West although it is always possible that the stories have confused two different places. The islet is not highlighted on Gould's map as that was published a few years before Gibson's expedition.

  3. I just read about the remains at Douglas Bay in "Unravelling the Franklin Mystery". How strange and upsetting that they "disappeared" in recent decades. Do you know if Dr. Beattie & team have ever tried to locate the remains on the Todd Islets, or if anyone has recently tried to investigate those foggy, mysterious islets north of Cape Felix? Thanks for a very thought-provoking post!

  4. Hi Jaeschylus, The location of the grave sites and remains on the Todd Islets is well known to archaeologists but I've seen nothing to suggest that Beattie or anyone else has examinied them closely in recent years. As far as I know the same is true for those foggy islets. Here's to hoping.

  5. Who other than archaeologists would have an interest in these bones, one wonders? Just as Gibson displaced these bones with the belief that he was respecting the dead (in the process probably severely limiting what could be learned from them by archaeologists), someone else may have done the same, feeling that to *remove* them from a known location would most likely prevent their being further disturbed ... it's hard to guess people's motives, but from an archaeologist's view, the first removal did most of the damage; later ones added no further insult to injury, and may have been made out of a desire to show respect.

  6. I wonder if someone have ever counted or have calculated the number of people through the remains found there. I mean many people have been found in total? Sixty? Seventy?
    I know that it is not easy. The distinct and easy way to do it would be counting skulls, but not all the skeletons or scattered bones have its corresponding one.
    Through the reading of ´Frozen in time´ I learned that the archeologists can distinguish from the bones if they belongs to the same individual or to several ones. Have ever anyone made the whole count?

  7. Without proper forensic analysis of the bones, it's impossible to know how many individuals they represented. What is clear, though, is that fewer than half of Franklin's men are accounted for by known deposits of skeletal remains.

  8. Agreed on all points. The varying lead content of the bones has actually been of great help in determining how many individuals are represented by a collection of bone fragments.

  9. Do you know if Gibson took any more photos to document his search of KWI?

  10. Good question! - I don't know of any but I'll try to find out.

  11. For anyone interested, here is William Gibson's 1937 article, from The Beaver, about his search of the southern coast of King William Island.

    1. Thanks, Chris! I just downloaded the article & can't wait to read it!

  12. Approximately 40 of Franklin’s men can be accounted for by looking at the remains found on King William Island. If estimates based on Inuit testimony are included the total raises to about 75. The inclusion of Inuit testimony adds 20 or 30 from the Terror Bay camp and about 6-to-10 from Starvation Cove.

    The largest concentration of remains is found in Erebus Bay. There are at least three major sites there. NgLj-2, NgLj-3 and the remains found by Beattie. A minimum of 11 individuals are accounted for at NgLj-2, three skulls were found at NgLj-3 what is now believed to be McClintock’s Boat Place. (I’m including these because the three skulls were found at a suspected boat place in Erebus Bay. These remains are interred in a small cairn with a plaque about 1km from NgLj-2). Then there is the site found by Beattie which had 6-to-14 individuals. These sites together, account for 20-to-28 of Franklin’s crew or 20-to-25% of the 105 survivors. There is no reason to believe any of these remains are pre-April 1848.

    (Note that the remains at Terror Bay were erased by the sea sometime between Hall and Schwatka’s expeditions. Two possible graves were found there by Gibson and a copper water tank, thought to be from a boat was found there).


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