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John Franklin was born in Spilsby, England, on April 16, 1786, the ninth of the twelve children, and youngest son, of Willingham and Hannah (Weekes) Franklin. He was educated at a preparatory school in St Ives, Huntingdonshire, and, from the age of 12, at Louth Grammar School in Lincolnshire.
Attracted to a seafaring life from an early age, Franklin first went to sea aboard a merchant ship sailing between Kingston upon Hull, England, and Lisbon, Portugal. His father then secured his appointment in the Royal Navy, and he subsequently served under Admiral Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen (1801).
Franklin made his first voyage of exploration as part of Matthew Flinders' (his uncle) 1801-1803 exploratory voyage to Australia. In addition to sparking his zeal for exploration, this voyage gave Franklin much knowledge about navigation, thanks to personal instruction from Flinders.
Returning to "basic" naval duty upon his return to England, Franklin again served under Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). For the three of the years of peace which followed he was ashore on half-pay, and continued his studies of geography and navigation begun under Flinders. He returned to sea during the War of 1812, and was injured during the British offensive against New Orleans (1814).
Franklin's passion for Arctic exploration was sparked when he commanded the Trent on Captain David Buchans 1818 unsuccessful search for the Northwest Passage. From 1819 to 1822, Franklin commanded a 5,000-mile overland expedition across Canada from the western shore of Hudson Bay to the Arctic Ocean during which he surveyed the coast to east of the Coppermine River in northwestern Canada. He described this expedition in Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea, in the Years 1819, 20, 21 and 22 (published in 1823).
During his absence from England Franklin was promoted to Commander, and on his return to Captain. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1822 and in 1823 married Eleanor Anne Porden, by whom he had one child, Eleanor.
In 1824-1827, Franklin led a party that explored the North American coast westward from the mouth of the Mackenzie River in northwestern Canada to Point Beechey, now in Alaska, while a second party followed the coast eastward from the Mackenzie to the Coppermine. These explorations, which added new knowledge of about 1,200 miles of the northwest rim of the North American coastline, were described in Narrative of a Second Expedition to the Shores of the Polar Sea, in the Years 1825, 1826, and 1827 (1828). They also earned him a gold medal from the Geographical Society of Paris, an honorary D.C.L. of Oxford, and a knighthood. His wife had died during his absence, and in 1828 he married Jane Griffin.
Returning to naval duty, Franklin commanded the Rainbow off the coast of Greece during its war of independence (1830-1833), for which he was rewarded with the Greek Order of the Redeemer. Finding England at peace upon his return, Franklin reluctantly accepted the lieutenant-governorship of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), and he and his wife arrived there in January 1837. He did not endear himself with the local civil servants, who particularly disliked his humane ideals and his attempts to reform the Tasmanian penal colony, and he was removed from office in 1843.
Exploration of the Arctic coastal mainland after Franklin's second expedition had left less than 311 miles of unexplored Arctic coastline and the British decided to send a well-equipped expedition to complete the charting of the Northwest Passage. An invitation was extended to Franklin, who accepted despite being 59 years old at the time. On May 19, 1845, he sailed from England with two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, carrying 128 officers and men and enough provisions for three years, including tinned foods. The vessels were last sighted by British whalers north of Baffin Island at the entrance to Lancaster Sound on late July 26. In 1847, when no word had been received, search parties were sent out. Various expeditions sought the explorers, but their fate was unknown until 1859, when a search mission sent in 1857 by Lady Jane Franklin, and headed by Captain Francis Leopold McClintock, reached King William Island, south and west of Lancaster Sound, where it found skeletons of the vessels crews and a written account of the expedition through April 25, 1848. According to that account, the ships got frozen in thick ice off King William Island in late 1846. Franklin died of unknown causes aboard the Erebus on June 11, 1847. Other crewmembers had also perished. Based on written messages, historians now know that the survivors abandoned the ships on April 22, 1848, and attempted to reach safety overland. Some died along the way while others reached the Adelaide Peninsula. In 2014, the Erebus was found in the waters near King William Island, but the location of the Terror remains unknown.
Ironically, some scientists have suggested that the tinned foods intended to sustain the expedition may have actually caused its demise. The tins had been sealed with lead solder, and the scientists believe that ingestion of lead caused a form of dementia which in turn led the crewmen to make a series of disastrous decisions.
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This page was last updated on 06/11/2018.