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Europeans in the Arctic

As early as 1497, explorers dreamed of finding the Northwest Passage -- a way to sail through the maze of islands and pack ice of the Canadian Arctic, which would be a shortcut to the riches of the Far East. Hundreds of voyages would be launched until it became clear no easy passage existed, in 1859.

1508. Ships commanded by Sebastian Cabot sail north, in the wake of Cabot's father, lost ten years earlier; but encountering icebergs in midsummer terrifies the crew, and they turn back.

1611. After a winter locked in the ice, Henry Hudson announces his determination to keep exploring. His crew mutinies and sets the explorer, his son and companions adrift in a small boat, with a kettle and a musket as provisions. They are never seen again. Only 8 mutineers survive the voyage back to England.

1616. On his second voyage, William Baffin again is stopped by ice. He concludes (correctly) that there is no easy passage, but others demand proof.

1719. Governor James Knight sets sail with two ships, seeking gold and the Northwest Passage. Inuit traders see the last man die while digging a grave for his companion, in 1721.

1820. William Edward Parry and crew winter in the Arctic -- perhaps the first white men to do so successfully.

1832. Thought dead for years, John Ross, his nephew, John C. Ross, and a nearly intact crew are rescued by a whaling ship. By being inventive and willing to adopt native ways, the explorers survived four winters in the Arctic with the loss of only three men.

1845. The definitive expedition to explore the Canadian Arctic is launched: Sir John Franklin's well-founded third expedition, with the two ice ships Erebus and Terror and 129 men. Their supplies include tons of canned food. The ships are lost and none of the men survive.

1848-1854. Over forty ships, at a cost of $4 million, are sent to find Franklin and his men; all fail. Five more ships are lost.

1859. An expedition funded by Lady Jane Franklin finds the remains of the the Franklin expedition, scattered in a line marching south. Inside a cairn, a note is found telling that many had died, the ships were abandoned and that 105 survivors were heading south. Modern-day analysis of the expedition's remains and artifacts tell a horrific tale of death due to exposure, scurvy, and cannibalism. Acute lead poisoning from improperly soldered tins is found in hair and tissue samples; many speculate that confusion due to lead poisoning may have ultimately caused the expedition's failure.

1871. A divisive Greenland expedition ends when its leader, Charles Francis Hall, dies and is buried. When his frozen body was found again in 1968, it was discovered that he was deliberately killed with arsenic.


An Access Excellence Science Mystery sponsored by Genentech, Inc.
Copyright © 1997 Genentech, Inc.; all rights reserved.


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