Franklin’s lost expedition was a British voyage of Arctic exploration led by Captain Sir John Franklin that departed from England in 1845 aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, and was assigned to traverse the last unnavigated sections of the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic. The expedition met with disaster after both ships and their crews, a total of 129 officers and men, became icebound in Victoria Strait near King William Island, in what is today the Canadian territory of Nunavut. After being icebound for more than a year, Erebus and Terror were abandoned in April 1848, by which point Franklin and nearly two dozen others had died. The survivors, now led by Franklin’s deputy Francis Crozier and Erebus‘ captain James Fitzjames, set out for the Canadian mainland and disappeared.
Pressed by Franklin’s wife and others, the Admiralty launched a search for the missing expedition in 1848. In the many subsequent searches in the decades afterward, several relics from the expedition were uncovered, including the remains of two men that were returned to Britain. A series of scientific studies in modern times suggested that the men of the expedition did not all die quickly. Hypothermia, starvation, lead poisoning or zinc deficiency, and diseases including scurvy, along with general exposure to a hostile environment whilst lacking adequate clothing and nutrition, killed everyone on the expedition in the years following its last sighting by Europeans in 1845. Cut marks on some of the bones recovered during these studies also proved allegations of cannibalism reported by Franklin searcher John Rae in 1854.
Despite the expedition’s infamous status, it did explore the vicinity of what was ultimately one of many Northwest Passages to be discovered. Robert McClure led one of many expeditions to investigate the fate of Franklin’s voyage, and finally ascertained an ice-bound route that connected the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and made it out alive. This trip was similarly beset by immense challenges and controversies. The Northwest Passage would not be navigated by boat until 1906, when Roald Amundsen traversed the passage on the Gjøa.
In 2014, a Canadian search team led by Parks Canada located the wreck of Erebus in the eastern portion of Queen Maud Gulf. Two years later, the Arctic Research Foundation found the wreck of Terror south of King William Island. Research and dive expeditions at the wreck sites, now protected as a combined National Historic Site, are currently ongoing.