One of the few British soldiers to come out of the Battle of New Orleans with an enhanced reputation was a 28-year-old signal officer named John Franklin. Young Mr. Franklin had already given the Royal Navy 13 years of heroic service that ranged from mapping the Australian coast to fighting at Trafalgar before he ran up against Andrew Jackson. Four years after the battle was over and the war done, he led an expedition from Hudson's Bay to the Arctic. He returned to England three years later, having traveled 5,550 miles searching for a Northwest Passage to the Pacific.
Captain Franklin later wrote a classic account of his adventures, married happily, grew wealthy, was knighted, served as an enlightened Colonial official and became one of those flawless, gallant, questing figures like Sir Galahad and Lawrence of Arabia, who periodically capture the British imagination.
In 1845, with two ships and 129 men, Sir John Franklin disappeared. Franklin had told friends that he believed there was a navigable passage along the Arctic Coast from Backs River to the Bering Strait, and the general area near the mouth of Backs River where he vanished was known, but some 20 years of searching for his remains and those of his crew yielded no solid evidence. A lot of Eskimo legends and finally a handwritten fragmentary note told of Franklin's death and the disaster to the party after he died. His widow used her own fortune and money raised by public subscription to keep up the search for other records he must have kept.
In 1871, some four years before Lady Franklin died, an American whaler named Thomas F. Barry spent a winter frozen in the ice not far from where Sir John was known to have been. Captain Barry said nothing about Sir John or his expedition when he first got back to civilization, but sometime later he remembered that some natives told him that a party of white men who had been there perished in the Arctic and that a local chief had collected their papers and valuables. Captain Barry, oddly, said nothing of this until five years later, when he returned from another freeze and said he had been visited again by the same mysterious Eskimos. This time one of them gave him a spoon with the word "Franklin" engraved on it.
April 3, 1967
Captain Barry turned out to be an unprincipled liar, but considerable good came from his fabrications. They inspired a remarkable book, Schwatka's Search (Abercrombie & Fitch, New York, $8.50), which has now been published in a facsimile edition after being out of print for nearly a century. It was written by William H. Gilder, a New York newspaperman who accompanied Frederick Schwatka on his search for Sir John's legacy.
Schwatka was as honest and unimaginative as Barry was devious and crooked. He was a good, practical Civil War cavalryman of Polish descent, and it never occurred to him that anyone would make up a story for the sensation it caused. Trusting Barry's tale completely, therefore, on June 19, 1878 he and a small party set sail for the far north on the whaler Eothen, commanded by, of all people, Captain Barry!
They were deposited by Barry, along with their stores, near the northernmost point of Hudson's Bay. They headed due north by land through previously unexplored country, leaving a rich cache of canned meat and other supplies for their return. Captain Barry, doubtless thinking he would never see them again, thriftily loaded the supplies back on his ship.
Gilder's narrative is a simple, almost laconic report of the first Arctic expedition to travel light and live off the land, like Eskimos. Its members wore Eskimo clothing, slept in igloos and—though it took some practice—ate walrus hide, when necessary, with their Eskimo companions. In 11 months and 20 days they killed 522 reindeer as well as innumerable ducks, geese, musk-oxen, walrus and seals. They endured the lowest temperatures (-71°) and made the longest recorded sledge journey (3,251 miles).
Traveling in three lines roughly a mile apart, searching for cairns and records, they even found some traces of Franklin's party, but most of these had been known about before, and Gilder's attempt to make the finds seem important provides the only dull passages in his book.
The account's greatest virtue is a fresh and unhackneyed prose that brings the whole adventure to life with effortless immediacy. The party realized almost at the start that they had been deceived, and wasted no anger over it. "We had come on a fool's errand," Gilder observed. His descriptions of pain and hardship are just as objective. "My hip joints," he wrote, "that had ached like a toothache the night before, now seemed to be made of rusty old iron, and grated and shrieked when I tried to move."
Against the sweep of their Arctic achievement, even Captain Barry's duplicity seemed hardly worth mentioning, and Gilder's attitude when he learned that Barry had stolen their vital supplies was tinged more with disappointment than rebuke. "It is usually considered," he wrote, "that those who encounter the perils of Arctic travel have enough to contend with, from the very nature of the undertaking."