Saturday, November 9, 2013

Mysteries of Sir John Franklin & the Franklin's Grouse

-------------------------------------- September 2014 UPDATE !!! -----------------------------------

On September 9th, the Canadian government announced that they found one of Sir John Franklin's ill-fated ships, probably the HMS Erebus. Using a remote, underwater vehicle, Parks Canada researchers imaged the intact ship resting on the ocean floor in Victoria Strait, just off King William Island.

"The beauty of where they found it is it's proof positive of Inuit oral history," CBC chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge, who has covered the Franklin search for many years, said Tuesday. "The Inuit have said for generations that one of their hunters saw a ship in that part of the passage, abandoned and ended up wrecking…. It's exactly where this guy said it was."

John Franklin (1786-1847)

John Franklin was a hardy soul, and a highly-decorated and respected Rear Admiral in the British Royal Navy. He secured his first naval appointment at the age of 14, and success in war time lead to his command of significant expeditions during peace time.

In 1819, Franklin was chosen to lead an overland expedition to chart the northeastern coast of Canada and the Northwest Passage, a water route around North America. But during this three-year expedition Franklin lost 11 of his 20 men, mostly to starvation, and the desperate survivors ate tree lichens and leather from their own boots.

Unfazed, he tried again in 1825, sailing westward from the mouth of the Mackenzie River with the Scottish naturalist, John Richardson, as part of his crew. At the same time, the expedition's second ship sailed eastward from the North Atlantic. They did not quite meet in the middle, but their successful voyages left just 311 miles of unexplored coastline between them and the fabled Northwest Passage.

In 1845, at the age of 49, Franklin returned to the Arctic to finally finish charting the Northwest Passage. Franklin left England on May 19th, 1845, with a crew of 134 men and two well-stocked warships, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, which had been retrofitted with protective iron plating. The ships' names should have given him pause.

Three years passed without hearing from the expedition before England launched a search. More than a dozen ships would eventually join the effort and, in 1851, expedition relics and three crew member graves were discovered on Beechey Island in the far north. But the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus were still missing, as were Franklin and 131 more men.

Last report, written in the margins
In 1854, an Inuk hunter told a Hudson's Bay Company surveyor of a group of 30-40 white men who starved to death along a nearby coastline. In 1859, a search party found a note left in a rock cairn on King William Island.

Written in the margins of that paper, dated April 25th, 1848, was a report stating that both ships laid trapped in ice for a year and a half, and the crew spent the winter darkness on the island in 1846-47 and 1847-48. The note also stated that Franklin had died on June 11th of 1847, and that the 105 survivors planned to walk south towards the nearest outpost, hundreds of miles away. They apparently walked to Erebus instead, the mythical "place of darkness between earth and Hades."

It should be noted that the only weapons carried on these ships were shotguns - bird hunting guns that were mostly useless in the high Arctic.

Brittan officially declared the crew deceased, but Franklin's widow refused to accept the evidence of his demise, and 38 more searches were led over the next 40 years. During the past century and a half, tantalizing but vague bits of evidence have emerged. Oral reports from Inuit told of a large group of starving white men staggering through the snow. More Inuit hunters told of finding a ship floating in a cove at their summer hunting grounds - with thin smoke wisping from a stack and one tall, dead man inside. Inuit hunters also turned over tools that they made out of iron plating scavenged from an abandoned ship.

The various causes of death for most of the 135 men seem fairly certain to scholars now, though only five bodies have ever been found. But the fate of Franklin's two ships remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the 19th century. Less than two months ago, in September of 2013, winter weather halted the ongoing search for the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, 168 years after their final voyage.

For now. The search will continue, though no one knows when.

Franklin's Grouse (1829-1931)

The cold-hardy Spruce Grouse of northern Canada (and a small bit of northern U.S., including Montana) survives the winter by eating the frozen needles of pine and spruce trees - reminiscent of Franklin's second crew that survived by eating lichens. And, similar to the fate of Franklin's third crew, this grouse species' taxonomic location has been a "vexed matter" since 1750.

That was the year when George Edwards first described the "black and spotted heath cock" from northern Canada. Back in Europe, Edwards' description was used by Carl Linnaeus in 1758 to give this new bird a scientific name, Tetrao canadensis, or the "heath bird of Canada."

George Edward's Canadian Heath Hen
In 1829, John Franklin's naturalist on his second crew, John Richardson, honored his still-living captain by renaming the Spruce Grouse as Tetrao franklinii, or "Franklin's Grouse." But this name would become lost as well, as more naturalists and ornithologists searched for the hidden relationships between various grouse species, reclassifying this group of birds time and time again. Some European species remained in the Tetrao genus, but the scientific names for North American grouse would churn for the next century and a half.

A new genus, Canace (possibly from Greek mythology), was proposed for grouse in 1852, but that name was already in use (though briefly, as it turned out) for a group of insects. Elliot Coues proposed a new genus for the various North American grouse, Falcipennis, or "sickle-winged," in 1864. And in 1885 Leonhard Stejneger proposed Canachites (to distinguish it from the Canace insects) for the genus name of grouse.

But by 1895 the two Spruce Grouse-like species in North America had been reclassified as the Canada Grouse (Dendragapus canadensis, or "Canada tree-lover") and the Franklin's Grouse (Dendragapus franklinii, or "Franklin's tree-lover"). At the same time, other ornithologists were using the genus name, Canachites, for both species.

(Franklin's) Spruce Grouse
In 1931, Canada Grouse and Franklin's Grouse were lumped together as one species, and both were called Spruce Grouse, Canachites canadensis. And then this genus was returned to Dendragapus in 1982. Most recently, in 1988, the genus was returned to an earlier name, Falcipennis. The species remained canadensis, and six sub-species of Spruce Grouse were officially recognized.

John Franklin's Grouse was its own unique species for more than 100 years, but the scientific name got caught in the churning ice jam of taxonomy and never returned, landing just short as a sub-species of Spruce Grouse, Falcipennis canadensis franklinii.

For now. Genetic research continues.

A reveared soul: Sir John Franklin fared well among ornithologists. In addition to the Franklin's Grouse sub-species, the common names of three more bird species would come to bear his name. Franklin's Nightjar ("Caprimulgus monticolus"), Franklin's Gull ("Larus pipixcan") and Franklin's Prinia ("Prinia hodgsoni") were so named in 1821, 1832 and 1844, respectively. 

After the Expedition: Evidence and reports from the search for Franklin can be viewed here.

CBC Special Report: Searching for Franklin 

Update - Erubus discovered in September 2014!!!