The Canadian Arctic gave rise to the legends surrounding many famous men, and helped colour the legend of a famous woman: Lady Jane Franklin, the wife of explorer Sir John Franklin. His ill-fated 1845 expedition in search of the Northwest Passage is one of the most written-about sagas in our country’s history, and the discovery in 2014 of one of the two ships involved in the expedition—HMS Erebus—may hold evidence that will shed light on the fate of Franklin and his men.
Lady Jane (1791–1875) is a woman who is invariably described as “indomitable”, so much so that the adjective might be mistaken for one of her given names. Born at a time when women had few options apart from marriage, she used her intelligence, skill, and astuteness to advance the career of her husband, John Franklin, whom she married in 1828. He had already made three Arctic expeditions by that time, with the first (1819–22) earning him the nickname “the man who ate his boots”, after several members of his expedition died of starvation and others, including Franklin, attempted to eat their leather boots for sustenance. In a foreshadowing of the 1845 expedition, there were also charges of cannibalism laid against members of the party, although not against Franklin himself.
Franklin was knighted in 1829, and in 1836 was appointed the Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). He served there until 1843, with his wife throwing herself behind various projects, working to set up a university and museum. A keen traveller, she explored much of the island, “roughing it” in a way that most men of her age—let alone women—would never have attempted.
Franklin was removed from his position in 1843, for reasons that remain unclear to this day. Back in England, there were rumours that the British Admiralty was going to mount another major push to find the famed Northwest Passage through the Arctic, and Lady Jane lobbied hard for her husband—by that time nearly 60, and with his exploring days well behind him—to lead the expedition. The man who commanded the ships that found the Northwest Passage would live on forever in history, something that was doubtless in Lady Jane’s mind after her husband’s dismissal as Lieutenant-Governor.
Erebus and her sister ship, HMS Terror, set sail on May 19, 1845. The ships, and their complement of 129 men, were last seen by Europeans on July 26, 1845. After that they sailed into the sea of legend, disappearing into the vast Arctic waste.
In England, Lady Jane waited for news of her husband. In 1847, with no news having been received from the ships, she petitioned the British government to send a search party, but one was not dispatched until 1848. In 1850 she sponsored the first of seven search expeditions she would personally fund between then and her death in 1875, and was responsible—through her connections in British society and the government—for the sending of several others. She worked tirelessly to keep her husband’s name at the forefront of the public’s mind, even after it became clear that there was little or no hope of finding him or other members of his party alive.
In 1854 Scottish explorer Dr. John Rae—remember that name—was surveying the Boothia Peninsula in what is now Nunavut, and his talks with Inuit hunters revealed the fate of the Franklin expedition: the ships had been frozen in ice over two winters, and the entire party had perished, with some of the men resorting to cannibalism. Even though the evidence seemed conclusive, Lady Jane held out hope that written records of the expedition might be found, which would prove her husband had discovered the Northwest Passage.
By early 1858 it would have been entirely reasonable for Lady Jane—then 66 years old—to retire to a life of quiet, but she was an inveterate traveller who longed to see more of the world than the confines of an English country garden. She set out with her niece, Sophy Cracroft, on a series of voyages that would have taxed the hardiest of men, travelling around the world at a time when passage across oceans was achieved in sailing ships, and travel on land was often even more arduous. Thus it was that in February 1861, aged 69, she found herself in the young colony of British Columbia.
She and Sophy disembarked in Victoria, making their way to the town in a wooden wagon drawn by two horses. For seven weeks they lived in a lodging-house kept by a barber and his wife, which Cracroft described in her diary as “the very best in the place—really very tolerable”. In March they travelled across Georgia Strait to the mainland, then up the Fraser River, past Indian villages and groups of men panning for gold, marvelling at the scenery: “a succession of mountains on which rose snowy cones and lofty shoulders connecting the snow line.”
Lady Jane climbed into a canoe for part of the voyage, travelling to the waterfall above Yale that marked the first portage on the Fraser. During the trip she beheld “a long pole stretching over the stream, on which was hung a white banner with the words ‘Lady Franklin Pass’ printed in large letters. The Indians stopped their paddling and we were told that this name was bestowed by the inhabitants of Yale in honour of [Lady Jane’s] visit.”
“Lady Franklin Pass” did not last as a place name, but the indomitable Lady Jane is commemorated to this day by Lady Franklin Rock, which splits the Fraser River just above Yale; a local connection to an Arctic legend.