Against All Odds: John Franklin and the Search for the Northwest Passage

Ah, for just one time
I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin
Reaching for the Beaufort Sea
Tracing one warm line
Through a land so wild and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea
-Stan Rogers

For centuries, the mythical Northwest Passage has been a symbol of the promise, isolation, and harsh reality of the Arctic. Since the earliest maps were drawn, philosophers and explorers speculated on the existence of an open-water passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Even after expedition after failed expedition returned with evidence pointing otherwise, many clung to the fantasy of a navigable Northwest Passage.

Although countless expeditions attempted the Northwest Passage, none may be as memorable as the failed expedition, led by Sir John Franklin, that set out in 1845 and never returned. From the beginning, the story of Franklin, his crew, and the HMS Terror and Erebus captured the public imagination. Franklin likely would not be considered a hero today if it weren’t for the devoted efforts of his widow, Lady Jane Franklin. This indefatigable woman wrote letters to U.S. President Taylor, funded her own search expeditions, and erected monuments in honor of her husband. She worked diligently to make sure that Franklin would be remembered for a discovery he failed to make.

The Northwest Passage remains central to our current understanding of the Arctic, and the search for Franklin continues to this day. Canadian archaeologists recently discovered the HMS Terror preserved on the ocean floor. At the same time, 2016 marked the first voyage of a commercial cruise ship through the Passage. As the sea ice continues to thin and fantasy becomes reality, the Northwest Passage will undoubtedly play a major role in the Arctic’s future.

This virtual exhibit is a learning collaboration between the Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College and “Pole to Pole,” an environmental studies course taught by Professor Ross Virginia. The course examines environmental issues in the polar regions – including climate change, natural resource extraction, and indigenous rights – through the complementary lenses of science, policy, and history. Fifty-one Dartmouth undergraduates contributed to this exhibit, with each student selecting an item to research. The resulting exhibit traces the search for the Northwest Passage from before John Franklin’s fated expedition to the present.